How to create a good hospitality staff culture

17 November 2023 by

In a notoriously tough labour market, having a positive workplace culture is important. We speak to some of the industry's best places to work to find the secret to nurturing a healthy culture

Despite the labour crisis in the hospitality industry, Ceri Gott, chief people officer at Hawksmoor, says the group has had healthy job application numbers over the past year. The reason? "A lot of recruitment is word of mouth," she says. "It's based on people's actual experience of working at a company." And, for the past decade, Hawksmoor has been named as one of the best places to work in the UK by The Sunday Times.

"Happier people produce better work," Jane Sunley, co-founder of employee retention experts Hendrick and Hyde. "Not only will they be heathier, more engaged and motivated, you'll be more likely to retain them and have them recommend your workplace to their friends. The bottom-line benefits too as they'll be more productive and deliver a better customer experience – and who wouldn't want that?"

At the heart of this is your workplace culture. Think of it as your company's DNA, continues Sunley. "It's what makes you who you are, what makes you special. If you can capture that and make it ‘sticky' so it's not just words on a page; if it's in everybody's hearts and minds, then it will start to work for you, shaping everything you do. It's hard to do, though worth the effort." So how do you create a positive workplace culture – one that attracts, retains, supports and empowers its staff? The Caterer has spoken to some of hospitality's best employees and people specialists to gather the secrets of starting and nurturing a positive workplace culture.

Establish your values

The first job is to establish your company's core values, says Sunley. "That's much easier if you are a newer company as you're starting with a blank slate."

When Gott joined Hawksmoor in 2011 – back when it had just three restaurants and 200 staff – founders Huw Gott and Will Beckett had already established a core set of values. She says: "They are: to work hard and be nice to people. Which sounds easy, but it isn't because people are working under a lot of pressure, so if you can manage to do both, that's really what most of culture is built on. After that, our other values are: quality, support, and personality."

Similarly, Dishoom's people director Andy O'Callaghan joined the restaurant group as it was expanding in 2016 and found a set of values that were already established by the owners. "Our core values are based around seva, which is an Indian word that relates to the idea of being really big-hearted in everything you do. It's absolutely ingrained in the DNA and fabric of the business."

Simon Houston, director at contract caterer Houston & Hawkes, undertook a similar exercise when he co-founded the business in 2019. "Our values are: ‘To deliver what you promise, to eat well and have fun.' We don't do values beyond that because people don't remember them."

For more established companies looking to retrofit a set of values, the exercise is much harder, says Sunley, but not impossible. "You have to go out and ask colleagues what they think the business is about. And it doesn't mean that it should all come from them, but if you sit in a boardroom and go: ‘Oh, we're all about this', and then you go and tell people and they've had no input, they're just never going to buy in and it'll be a waste of time."

Be the values

All culture comes from the very top of a business, says Sakis Dinas, general manager of Lucknam Park in Chippenham, which this year finished in the top six of The Caterer's Best Places to Work in Hospitality. "A staff culture has to come from the top, through to the executive members of the team and to the operational heads of department. It has to be a true belief in everybody that is involved in the business."

Mitch Tonks, founder of south-west-based restaurant group Rockfish, says he feels a huge responsibility to embody the group's workplace culture. "You have to act it and be it and demonstrate it. Then you'll be very surprised at how good culture breeds good culture. In the same way, any toxicity or bad culture in a business can spread like wildfire and bring it down in months."

And, adds O'Callaghan, this must be utterly genuine. "When you meet our co-founders, you realise how naturally seva comes to them and how authentic it is."

"If it is in any way shape or form fake, people will catch on," says Sakis.

Implement your values

"Getting your values into words is about 10% of the work," says Sunley. "And the 90% is embedding that across every stage of the employee experience."

It's all very well cooking up a set of dream values and embodying them, but it will all be for nothing if they aren't successfully implemented across the business, says O'Callaghan. "Sometimes people talk about values and culture interchangeably, and I think they're quite different. You can have a set of values that are aspirational but if they are not aligned with what perhaps people experience on a day-to-day basis, then you won't have a good culture."

It's easier to foster a positive culture when a company is small and founders have direct and regular interaction with their employees, says Sunley. However, the real challenge is to maintain and deepen that culture as you grow and get bigger. "Sometimes you've got really good intentions at the top but they never make it down to the bottom. I always think that middle leadership layer is either the greatest barrier or the greatest conduit to a good culture."

Step one is to recruit well, says Houston. "We spend a lot of time on recruitment and a big part of that is reputation. One of our biggest focuses has been creating a really good shop window, and there's lots of ways to do that through the likes of Instagram and LinkedIn and by knowing your audience – for example chefs and baristas love Instagram because it's so graphical."

Step two is to make sure all managers are completely aligned with the company's values, regardless of your size. Dishoom employs 175 different line managers, says O'Callaghan. "That's lots of different interpretations of a culture, right? How do you keep people aligned? For us, it's really about continuously reminding people of our values. We call our managers babus, which is a playful word that means bureaucrat in Indian. They all go through a babu masterclass that focuses on seva and how you treat one another. Then every Monday they have meetings where they'll talk about the seva that they've shown to team members. So it's just about keeping it on the agenda as much as it was when there were only 10 managers."

The group has also recently created a new role called a welcome waiter who spends up to eight days with new employees. "Their job is to make sure their onboarding and their training is happening as perfectly as possible. We're really conscious around those touch points about how we can share what our culture is," says O'Callaghan.

Make a people promise

These days, employees don't just want to know what they will do for their employer but also what their employer will do for them. Key to this is making an attractive people promise, says Sunley. "Some places call it an employee value proposition, which is really boring and corporate. We call it a people promise. And that is: what do you get if you work here? What's the deal? And that's not just pay and benefits. That's about how does the leadership work? How much freedom can you expect? How do you expect to interact with your colleagues? What opportunities are there for getting together? What opportunities are there for learning?"

Red Carnation Hotels also featured in the top six of The Caterer's Best Places to Work in Hospitality. Liz McGivern, vice -president people and culture at the group, says an enhanced learning and development programme should be at the heart of every people promise.

"We are really strict about people having appraisals every three months. They're not just talking about their performance, they're also asking about their health, how they are, what they want to do, whether they want to carry on working in food and beverage or whether they want to be a manager or even a general manager. Those conversations are designed to help people feel they can move forward with us, and then the learning and development will support them to get there."

The earlier these chats can happen, the better, says McGivern. "If you can give people a sense of engagement and belonging and development in their first six to nine months, you've probably got them for five years. That's what our statistics show."

Benefits needn't be over-complicated, says Houston. "A lot of it is fairly simple stuff. It's about paying people fairly and it's about looking after them, it's about giving them opportunity, it's about giving them a voice and a platform to be able to communicate their feedback."

Don't look for a one-size-fits-all approach to benefit but tailor them across your workforce, says Vicky Freeman, director of people and training at contract caterer Thomas Franks. "You have to recognise the different benefits that might apply to different groups of people. I think people want to know they can have a work-life blend and they want to have as much flexibility as they possibly can."

Employees also want to know they have support when they need it, says Gott. "Almost everyone has a personal issue at some point and they've had support from us. Whether it's been to fly to another country because their parents are ill, which we have just sorted out, taking a bit of time over a health issue or having a partner in hospital. I think a lot of the support is really about how people treat each other."

The key is to listen to what employees actually want, says Sunley. For example, at Dishoom, the company's employees had a huge role in redesigning their annual get togethers into something they really wanted. "Now twice a year now we have a cricket tournament at Lords where 12 different teams from across the country compete. And it doesn't have to cost the earth. We run the whole tournament, including paying for people's travel down from Edinburgh, for just under £2,000."

Monitor how people feel

"How do you keep a great culture? How do you stay true to your culture?" asks Gott. "You've got to check in to see that you're doing what you say you're doing. Workplace engagement surveys are great and one of the reasons we do it is so that we can get the data every year. I know how people feel year-on-year and I know what the most important things to people here are."

Bringing in third-party accreditation schemes is a good way of monitoring culture and engagement, says Freeman, who uses Investors in People at Thomas Franks. "They provide us with valuable information on how our employees are actually feeling, so if something comes up that not quite right, we can take action."

Monitoring culture is partly about data and partly about dialogue, says Sunley. "Everybody should be having dialogue on an ongoing basis, but some people need more dialogue than others. You might have a graduate who's really ambitious, who ends up having a review every month. And you've got somebody else who you know checks in once every couple of years. You've got to make it flexible so that people have the mechanisms to trigger those conversations when they want to."

Reap the benefits

All conscientious businesses want their employees to be happy and fulfilled, and if this alone isn't motivation to nurture a positive workplace, Sunley urges companies to look at the financials behind investing in people and culture. "If you cut 10% off your labour turnover, you're going to get it back over and over and over again. You don't realise that if a key person leaves and takes half the team, it's not just about the cost of recruitment and retraining someone – it's the knock-on effects on the business."

For any business with aspirations to scale, nurturing a brilliant culture is paramount, says O'Callaghan. "It is the only way you're really going to be able to grow your brand with integrity. When you have strategy and culture perfectly aligned, that's rocket fuel."

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