Acorn award winners on returning to work and the fallout from the pandemic

05 March 2021 by

How will ‘normal' feel now that we're used to living with Covid? How have our priorities changed, and do we even want to carry on as before? Lisa Jenkins gathered a group of Acorn award winners and the Acorn Awards' headline sponsor CH&Co to ask what companies are doing to give their people a soft landing when they return to work.

How has the pandemic affected staff? How will their experience form their expectations of employers in the future?

Tom McMillan (TM): Park Plaza Waterloo has been closed since March 2020, and although we have stayed in touch with everyone, there is inevitably some divide between those who have been there as a skeleton crew and those who have not. When we reopen properly, our priority will be about re-engaging and retraining returning team members and updating them on the new health and safety procedures.

Jessica Burrow (JB): Everyone's had a different experience; whether that is as skeleton staff, being on furlough, or relocating to hotels that were allowed to remain open in some tiers, and we are going to have to cater for all of these experiences when we come back.

Chinwe Inyamah (CI): Our back to work programmes may need to be bespoke to each individual. Managers will have to sit down with their teams on a one-to-one basis to uncover specific concerns. We must not be afraid to have these conversations We are all social beings and we thrive on social interaction and we've had this taken away from us for so long.

Charlotte Hutchings (CH): We've been making plans for getting our teams back since last April. We've had many iterations of our restart programmes, but we will be tailoring then to the individual.

Emma Wood (EW): Right now I am experiencing a lot of positivity from the team about returning to work – there's a real desire to get back. I also think we will return to a more collaborative office space, fewer silos and more group working.

Josh Key (JK): There is a real hunger for more certainty in regard to the way forward, in terms of how the business will develop post-Covid.

Jakob Gowin (JG): We have effectively brought back our entire team this week, so it's not theoretical any more. We used a lot of technology over lockdown and continue to do so with our new online training packs.

Allister Richards (AR): I think there will be some health concerns from team members about coming back to work. Not necessarily from younger team members, but perhaps our staff who are slightly older, who have felt safe at home and spent more time with their families.

Everybody will be worried about having their autonomy taken away, and we will all have to ‘lean into trust'. People have had a better work-life balance and have still delivered, and they now know the relationship between good work and just work. We will need to be mindful of this as employers. You can't just remove that level of autonomy now, but I understand not all businesses can do this.

The panel
The panel

Could there be cases of trauma or survivor guilt and increased mental health issues? What are the signs to look out for?

JG: A lot of the younger team members will have missed some crucial elements of their training and social interaction with their peers at a time when they are at their most ambitious. I hope we can recapture some of that, but I think we will have a lot of subdued people coming back due to a perceived loss of opportunities.

CI: In terms of survivor guilt, yes, I think there may be some. This could be linked to redundancies and surviving those job losses. Again, we need to keep the lines of communication open and be transparent with everyone.

JB: I think all companies should have a mental health first-aider on the team as a legal requirement, and managers should have more training to look out for the signs. Red Carnation has sent out lots of communication on this subject over the lockdowns.

Richard Newell (RN): At the Dorchester we've talked a lot about the term ‘Coronacoaster' – the highs and the lows of the pandemic. Communications are going to be crucial when we return. We launched an internal programme at the beginning of this year about mindfulness and wellbeing, and results from that survey showed that team members had been suffering from lack of sleep and financial worries among other issues. Our teams will still be in survival mode.

CH: We will all need to be better at listening and to have a better general awareness of mental health issues. Survivor guilt is interesting – we don't want people to come back feeling flat; we will need to re-energise them. We've been planning for the next three years and including people in making some of those decisions makes them feel part of it. Wellbeing is a massive focus for us. We have mental health first-aiders, but for me their responsibility is about signposting and raising awareness. Everyone can do this to a certain extent.

AR: I'm a little worried about people's physical stamina on returning to work, and this means we should be asking about fatigue. This concept of openness means it's incumbent on us as managers to show a little more vulnerability, and fatigue may be part of that. We're going from standing still or sitting on Zoom calls to being expected to be shiny and bright back on the floor. We need to plan how to manage that transition.

RN: I did an eight-hour shift for a project meeting a couple of weeks ago and I felt a bit broken. My legs hurt, my feet hurt – there will be a lot of adjustment.

TM: We might not see the effects for a while. My guess is that most people will live on the adrenaline for a few weeks and then we may run the risk of fatigue and exhaustion. We will need to make regular and continuous checks on full return.

My guess is that most people will live on the adrenaline for a few weeks and then we may run the risk of fatigue and exhaustion

Will there be a surplus of new talent to choose from now there are fewer operators?

CI: Not necessarily. We've lost a lot of EU citizens over the last year [from staff members returning to their families] and that will have an impact on resources. And although we have lost operators and some may not reopen again, the delayed new hotel openings will affect the talent pool.

JK: I think we should look outside of hospitality to some of the other industries that have suffered, such as the travel industry.

EW: I have just been in the middle of recruiting for a role at a contract catering company and we were flooded with applicants, some amazing ones. The reality with so many redundancies is that I do think we will have a surplus.

JG: There will be fallout from the supply side of the industry too, so we should look to recruit from this area. They will have very transferable skills and will understand the industry.

How will businesses retain the best staff in the future?

CH: I read something at the weekend that suggested that the shiny benefits pre-Covid, such as pool tables, dartboards, etc, are a thing of the past. Employees will be looking for employers who offer support for mental health, for flexible working, who offer a wellbeing package, and probably options for life assurance and critical illness cover – more serious benefits.

EW: We've just launched Wagestream, an online and app-based system that allows team members to draw down their salaries so they don't have to wait for month end. We think it will avoid people needing to use payday loans. We see this as a real benefit for our staff.

JB: Everyone is going to be more health and safety conscious and staff will be looking at employers' procedures and how seriously they take them – whether that's the requirement for PPE, travelling more safely, or extra precautions in certain departments like housekeeping.

RN: The employer brand and employer journey will still be key to retention, and as leaders we should all get back on the floor too and lead by example.

As leaders we should all get back on the floor too and lead by example

JK: We must not forget to focus on the continued growth of our companies and communicate that growth and success to continue to allow for more opportunities for our teams. We shouldn't lose sight of the amazing staff we still have in the industry.

RN: Continuing to work with college and school leavers remains vitally important for any business. Encouragingly, we've just taken on our highest ever intake of apprentices – 32 new F&B joiners – at the Dorchester.

CH: With regards to salary expectations I do think on the whole people will accept minimal salary increases, if any, for a short while. Although I'd like to think that across the industry we do not use salaries as a weapon and get into bidding wars.

How should companies attract talent?

JB: It's inspiring when companies talk about how people have developed in their business. Promoting those pathways and long-serving staff members are a benchmark. It's all about highlighting success stories.

CI: It will be important to track the employee experience, including their physical and mental wellbeing.

TM: The majority of businesses in the industry have dealt with the pandemic so well already – people in the industry will have been watching who's done it well.

How should the industry promote itself as the place to work?

CI: I've always said that we are the industry of opportunity, with so many chances for growth, and we can teach a range of transferable skills.

JK: There is a real lack of understanding around the depth of roles within hospitality, such as sales, graphic design, finance, logistics, supply chain, etc. We really need to communicate this better and with a louder voice.

JG: I agree, we need to be more vocal and work together to promote the industry. We do need to shout louder and, of course, a minister for hospitality would help with that. At the Heathrow Hoteliers' Association we have been working together so apprentices can work across all the brands involved in the association, reinforcing how diverse we are as an industry.

CH: The ease of entry into the industry is a positive in my opinion.

JB: I think the post-pandemic world of hospitality is going to be so exciting. We're starting from scratch; it's fresh and it's new. We can change people's perception of the industry and it gives us a second chance. I think guests will have a new level of respect for hospitality workers, too.

JK: We still need to work at a grass-roots level and ensure that the industry is being taken seriously by schools and colleges, and that they have the right subjects on the curriculum.

What other lessons have we learned from the last 12 months?

JG: A word of caution – we need to be mindful of how we measure success on the reverse side of the pandemic. The numbers may be disappointing, so we will have to think about our metrics.

AR: As well as celebrating the youth and opportunity for progression in the industry, I'd like us to not forget the longevity of careers in our sector too, and that we can offer careers to people of all age groups. I would also like us to look at how we change the narrative around hospitality. Should we be celebrating wealth creation more – without being crass about it – and how you can generate a comfortable, good living, a career that enables you to provide for a family and one that can give you mobility?

JB: Let's remember how versatile and adaptable the industry is. We could have completely crumbled, but we didn't. Hospitality has the best people in it – people that want to give back and support others. We are such a strong community.

JG: Everyone is going to have different requirements and some or most of these may incur a cost. We need to pay attention to this in the costs and budgets we are putting together now. We should really be reviewing all costs associated with people very closely. When we have our transparent and open conversations when our teams return, we need to be prepared to invest in them.

RN: This year is not about looking outside the box – it's about changing the box. Taking all the innovation and learning from it.

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