Technology's Role in Improving Hospitality Worker Productivity and Quality
By Adria Levtchenko CEO & Co-Founder, PurpleCloud Technologies | June 30, 2019
One of the most pressing issues in hospitality today is the full cost of labor, which can comprise as much as one-half of a hotel's total operating budget. Two factors are impacting budget watching for labor, even as the U.S. hospitality industry has experienced a sustained era of strong occupancies, growth in RevPAR and overall profitability.
The first is the tight labor market in many areas. As the hospitality industry competes with other service and managerial industries, for both entry-level and more experienced working staff and for front line managers, many operators are finding it increasingly difficult to find enough qualified candidates for open positions. The second factor is rising wage rates, driven by the just-noted competition for employees, as well as significant increases in the minimum wage in a number of states.
No one realistically wishes these issues to be solved by a softened labor market that would result from a less robust economy. That would imply reduced levels of business and leisure travel, fewer meetings and conventions held at or nearby hotels, and less family or group dining trips to a popular hotel restaurant, an industry profit center of growing importance.
On the other, the continuing implementation of advanced technologies into the hospitality space suggests a technology-related "solution" to the industry's labor concerns. Rather than "inventing" ways in which technology (and artificial intelligence) might replace workers, perhaps the best approach here is not to replace workers with technology, but employ technology to make workers more productive. This approach has many benefits, which include a relaxing of hiring pressures, improved worker productivity and newfound personal and organizational satisfaction and confidence.
In this article, we will explore some of these relationships and the practical ways in which today's best technologies can improve worker efficiencies, enhance the guest experience and make for a strong, confident organization.
The Eternal Challenge of Doing More with Less
Certainly, hotel operators have always been challenged in managing resource allocations. When the industry is strong and occupancies are soaring, with accompanying profitability, staffing levels are kept full and there is perhaps less sensitivity about labor costs. The reverse, of course, applies when demand and/or occupancy slacken.
Regardless, in all seasons, the hotel operator must pay close attention to the cost of labor and its productivity. Today's environment of strong demand but slowing gains in RevPAR puts the focus back on labor expense, especially in the context of factors mentioned earlier in this article - scarcity of candidates and wage rates.
In fact, the Deloitte 2019 Travel and Hospitality Industry Outlook notes "In 2009, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 353,000 job openings across the leisure and hospitality sector. As of 2018, with the travel industry surging, that number swelled to 1,139,000. "
The hospitality industry is taking note. The issue was discussed at the 2019 Americas Lodging Investment Summit. As reported by Travel Weekly, Brian Crawford, senior vice president of government affairs for the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), estimated at a panel discussion that "there are roughly 900,000 job openings within the hotel industry." Also, in January 2019, AHLA launched its "Hospitality is Working " campaign to help with recruiting and training of new workers in six key markets where the labor market is tight.
Enter technology, as a way of doing more - and better - with less. We must begin with fact-finding and analysis. What operational areas consistently run over-budget and why? Where are the bottlenecks in service delivery? Were these budget allocations realistic? Do we continually run behind in certain areas with our housekeeping or engineering departments? What guest "irritations" seem to be cropping up regularly? And so on.
How Technology Can Help
With a good understanding of where it needs to be more efficient and accurate in labor functions, a hospitality organization can consider technology platforms that will help identify issues, improve efficiencies and save costs. Practical examples of these types of technology implementations include:
For the efficient routing of tasks. Consider how much time and effort it can take on the part of a front desk, housekeeping or engineering supervisor to create a work schedule for each team's staff. How does one even go about allocating the time it should take for each assignment, and who works where or when? Much of this task falls into the realm of "how we did it in the past" or flat-out guesswork. Efficient scheduling is really beyond the capabilities of even the best of minds. The constant "coping" that the traditional manual approach takes is wasteful of time and resources and, often, a drag on staff morale. "You told me to be over there; now, you want me where?"
Today, hotel task optimization software platforms can automatically adjust the daily assignment board, especially useful for housekeeping or engineering departments responsible for hundreds of rooms at larger properties. Extended stays. Early checkouts. Delayed arrivals. A room needs minor repairs in addition to housekeeping. A hyperkinetic guest has left a room in a bit of a mess. It can all be calculated into the scheduling.
Similarly, for example with housekeeping, scheduling can be customized per the exact attendance schedule of individual workers, their expected workload or present skill level. Such systems can further adjust for the size or location of a room within a property or when rooms are taken out of service, and then achieve the most efficient routing of assignments.
Real-time adjustments during the day. Next, a task optimization platform will accommodate real-time input from staff on completions of assignments, which can be linked to the front desk room assignment system. No more wondering when a room will be completed, or, worse, checking someone into a room that isn't ready to welcome that guest.
The system will further adjust any individual housekeeper, engineer or service person schedule as a day's progress moves on and assign ad-hoc duties such as preparing for an unexpected or late-arriving guest. Should a housekeeper fall behind on an assignment, the system can direct an available staffer to help out to keep the assignment flow on track. These adjustments can be programmed to take place automatically or by direction from managers, as they are alerted to issues arising during the day. Someone reports on short notice that they will not be available for duty on the next day? The system can appropriately adjust the next day's schedules. How long would that take to do manually?
Thus, technology can help us make sure that we are aware of our goals on a daily basis and be used to teach or guide desired staff behaviors in manageable "bits."
These task optimization systems can be fully customized to enforce work policies and practices and integrated into most commonly in-use Property Management Systems (PMSs), as well as in-house Human Resources systems. The platform for these systems is typically a handheld smartphone or tablet, assigned to each staff person. Goodbye, yellow legal pads and two-way radios!
Monitoring individual staff performance and staff evaluation. One of the exciting developments in technology systems for hospitality organizations is the ability to integrate staff evaluation and motivation into these systems.
A system can track performance of an individual staff person throughout the day (and aggregate these performances, as well). Many factors go into staff evaluation and promotion, but the modern employee expects - and deserves - some objective measure of how they are doing, what they need to improve on and why or why not she or he is getting a pay raise or promotion. Task optimization platforms can help hospitality organizations do that.
When used carefully, these systems can also be used to motivate and reward employees. Who had the best average time for cleaning guest rooms for the week? That individual gets first choice for weekend off. Or different teams can be set off on friendly competitions, whether for meeting group sales goals or signing up guests to a brand's loyalty program.
Modern Times: Making Peace with Technology
"Robots to the left of us, chatbots to the right, here we are, facing the future of technology". (Stealers Wheel)
In our everyday life, we take advantage of many technologies that we hardly give a second thought to, but which were at their time of early adoption quite revolutionary. Just what are those mysterious broadband waves that let us communicate instantly across the globe and which impact so many areas of contemporary life. Or think of the all the previous, often burdensome or time-consuming procedures that a simple email has replaced. Along the way, workers have become more productive and what were once chores have become much more pleasant assignments.
A similar quiet revolution has been taking place in the hospitality arena, as new technologies have and are being introduced - for everything from climate control and building security to making reservations, keyless room entry or communicating with guests.
Technology is now being extended, as discussed in this article, where it has a much greater impact on the daily life of a frontline hotel employee. Certainly, caution is always advised where technology can influence subtle human relationships, whether it's one between employer and employee or between hotel staff and guest.
However, nothing will replace the human interaction that is at the core of hospitality; a warm and genuine smile upon a guest's arrival at our property; or sincerely asking a repeat guest how things are going.
With today's best technologies, we can solve many of the cost and efficiency challenges now faced by the hospitality industry, without overwhelming or diluting its fundamental people relationships. Who wants a robot as a co-worker, anyway?
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