Firmdale Hotels' Employee Engagement Week: keeping staff keen

17 March 2017 by
Firmdale Hotels' Employee Engagement Week: keeping staff keen

Uber-chic Firmdale Hotels has come up with a fun way to keep its staff tuned in, switched on and keen as mustard by launching the Employee Engagement Week. Rosalind Mullen dropped in for a day

In one corner a Hospa representative is explaining how its revenue management, finance and IT courses can support development, while nearby there's information on how Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications can boost F&B skills. Over by the bar Portobello Gin is running a cocktail competition, to be followed by demos in making the perfect coffee from Lavazza; at the back a masterclass on co-owner Kit Kemp's bespoke toiletry range RikRak is winding up, and later Leon Taylor, former diver and Olympic silver medallist, will give an inspirational talk.

caterer firmdale hotels 1812
caterer firmdale hotels 1812

Director of people and development Julia Murrell explains how it all came about: "We were getting feedback that employees didn't know what the benefits were. Everyone is briefed at induction, but as time goes on, people forget how to access, say, learning and development," she says.

Indeed, today is just a snapshot of what's on offer to the company's 1,300 staff throughout the week. It aims to showcase everything from apprenticeships and training opportunities to company benefits, career advice and tips on building better relationships.

"Different facets of what we do attract different people," explains Murrell. "That is why the engagement week turned into something so big. We were thinking: 'why is the kitchen porter going to come along? Why is the IT team going to come?'"

Needless to say, recruitment and retention are the driving forces behind Engagement Week. Figures to date from the 2017 Best Places to Work in Hospitality survey show that the number of employees who are happy to work at Firmdale has increased by 7.5% in the past year. But with employee retention figures for 2016 at 76%, the team believes there is scope to improve.

caterer firmdale hotels 1812
caterer firmdale hotels 1812
"To be fair, it has dropped a bit, which is why we are putting emphasis on engagement and learning and development," explains Murrell. "I believe retention is driven around engagement. We have a diverse workforce, so we need to think of new ideas all the time."

Group operations manager Anna Jackson adds: "We spend time on guest engagement, work on how to exceed expectations, how to turn that visit into a repeat stay, and we need to apply those principles to our team, too. We need to look at how we engage them from day one - make them feel special, understand their needs and meet those needs around every role and nationality, as we do with our guests. It is a people business after all."

Engagement between departments has certainly gained traction during the week, as evidenced by the fact Firmdale's Facebook page generated a 994% increase in page views and 46 new followers. Each day's schedule has included one competition live-streamed through Facebook. Some 153 staff watched the Ready, Steady, Cook competition, with up to 900 online views for each heat, while the Housekeeping Olympics - where blindfolded staff race to strip beds - garnered 1,300 views.

caterer firmdale hotels 1695
caterer firmdale hotels 1695

Another successful initiative was the introduction of the Mentoring Programme, during which would-be mentors had to sell themselves to expectant mentees - a bit like speed dating. And a new online learning lounge was introduced, called Flow, where staff found out how to access and request training.

But Jackson and Murrell are particularly excited about the launch of the Love What You Do annual awards, to be held at the end of the week at the Haymarket hotel in London. The awards recognise high achievers who don't get selected in the Quarterly Staff Awards. Quirky categories include Inspirational Service, Bright Idea, Number Cruncher, Department Trainer, Unsung Hero and Rising Star.

"It was really difficult to pick one person out of the [quarterly] submissions," says Jackson. "It planted the seed that we have many special people in the company. So, we went on to create the new awards."

The week is also expected to help with recruitment, which is an ongoing challenge. At the moment Firmdale is busy with the opening of its second New York hotel, the Whitby. Closer to home, competition from new hotels - such as the Ned, which is looking for 800 staff in the City - means the recruitment team needs ever-more innovative strategies. For that reason, Engagement Week included a masterclass in how employees can build LinkedIn profiles and share job vacancies to get a broader reach - it's one of the company's most successful recruitment methods. Other highlights included a talk on how staff can post a review of their experience at Firmdale on recruitment channel Glassdoor to encourage job applications.

caterer firmdale hotels 1806
caterer firmdale hotels 1806

"We are all competing for the same people, which makes retention ever-more important," says Jackson. "We need to promote from within where possible and have career paths and opportunities with each new hotel opening. Some 9% of our recruitment last year was through return employees and more than 20% of staff have been with us for five years or more."

Regarding the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, she says: "We share concerns with the industry as to what might happen. A big part of our goal is to reassure our team that our principles won't change, because diversity is important to us. We continue to recruit as we always have done."

That's why Engagement Week reminded managers and their teams that the company runs English lessons, and that this year it has introduced GESE qualifications in both written and spoken English.

"It is a visa requirement for employees from outside the EU, so we are putting that in place now. The main reason is to increase skills, but we would also be in the right place to help and support people," says Jackson.

caterer firmdale hotels 1687
caterer firmdale hotels 1687

It all sounds good. But what may worry other operators considering organising their own engagement week is how the logistics work. After all, you need your staff on the ground, right?

Jackson explains: "That's been the role of the managers. The schedule was put out a few weeks ago and staff could sign up to something they particularly wanted to attend. But it was also made clear that on each day it was 'come if you can'," she says. "It's not easy to manage a busy operation and have the team out. But it has been helped by having something at a different hotel each day, and as the hotels are in walking distance of each other, staff can pop in for just 10 minutes. By the end of the week, more than half of employees will have attended something. A good figure when you think how busy the business has been, too, so it's worked really well."

Cost might be another consideration, but Firmdale's suppliers were generous with their time and materials, and in return received meals and accommodation. "We used our own venue for the awards and let staff experience it as a guest. It will be worth every penny that it is going to cost us," says Jackson.

Meanwhile, Murrell intends to measure Engagement Week's long-term success in a number of ways. These include how many staff now sign up to apprenticeships or the e-learning management system Flow. "Hopefully, we will see increased demand for what we have launched," she says.

What the employees thought

Jose Adea, reservations manager, Charlotte Street hotel Adea joined the company in 2005 and worked at the Soho and the Haymarket hotels before moving into his current role. He found the launch at Firmdale of cloud-based rewards platform Perkbox particularly interesting.

"Now you can reward staff online. It's easy. I have a small team and we are always busy on the phone or computer, so sometimes giving someone a reward is difficult to fit in. But I will definitely be using Perkbox," he says.

He got another positive buzz from the Mentor Matching event. "A mentor doesn't have to be perfect; just somebody who is inspiring. I've now got a mentee and hope that in the next year she will be flying. I have so much knowledge that I want to share."

All in all, Adea felt the week worked well. "All masterclasses are short - about 30 minutes - and they are informative. Each hotel is only 10 minutes away from the next, so it works. For some employees who haven't seen a product demonstration or visited the Wedgwood factory, it's nice for them. My staff are glowing when they come back."

Alex Cooper, restaurant manager, Haymarket hotel Mentor Matching was a stand-out session for Cooper. "It was like speed dating," he says. "You have four-minute conversations with each potential mentee and then they choose who they want. It was interesting as some managers were looking for mentors too."

Cooper, who has been with Firmdale for more than seven years, was also impressed by Purple Cubed's presentation of the Talent Toolbox appraisal system. "It's important to get as many people as possible to see how it benefits them. It enlightens my team," he says.

He learned a lot during the week, such as the advantages of using Perkbox and how to use recruitment channel Glassdoor, which allows staff to rate and review their workplace.

"I employ ambitious people - 12 have been promoted in the past year. They love being involved. They even want to come to the Employee Engagement week in their own time. It is one massive family. That's the best bit about it."

caterer firmdale hotels 1754
caterer firmdale hotels 1754

Samantha Moore, reception supervisor, the Soho hotel Moore found the "Building Relationships - the three interpersonal dynamics" presentation particularly helpful for her role as it stressed the importance of eye contact and body language.

"I also had a brief talk with Hospa, because revenue is an interesting area for me," she says. "And I visited the English lessons, ISE qualifications table, because that is useful for my team and I wanted to find out how we can help."

Moore reports a positive response among staff. One of her new starters who had never worked in hospitality before claimed he'd had an "amazing" time learning about the company.

"For me, it reminds us that we are part of a hotel group," she says. "You meet up with colleagues who you've worked with in the past and you can have informal chats with managers. And the competitions make it fun."

Lawrence Rugeroni, senior restaurant and bar floor supervisor, Ham Yard hotel Rugeroni is on the Management Development Programme and joined the company 18 months ago. He says the Building Relationships masterclass was his favourite.

"It focused on initial rapport and explored spectrums of over- or under-communicating," he explains.

His own team have been coming back from events energised, he says. "There's a lot to engage with - you can decorate your own Wedgwood cup, watch demonstrations with Lavazza or get information on English lessons. It's cool to see a cross-section of staff. I met waiters from our other hotels and there was a genuine excitement about how the company works," he adds.

But how does this week synchronise with running a busy restaurant? "Logistically, January is the only month this is feasible," he says. "I have time to send staff out, but it is always a challenge in hospitality. You need to train without sacrificing the core delivery of great service."

caterer firmdale hotels 1731
caterer firmdale hotels 1731

Engagement Week facts

During the week, staff were encouraged to complete the 2017 Best Places to Work in Hospitality survey. Figures to date show that in the past year there has been:

  • A 7% increase in employees who are proud to work for Firmdale
  • A 7.5% increase in employees who are happy to work at Firmdale
  • A 3.5% increase in employees who would recommend Firmdale to others as a best place to work
  • Being part of a team that respects each other increased to an 80% rating; access to personal development increased to 81.1%; respect for work/life balance increased to 77%; and good communication with a manager increased to 80%. Some 84% rated Firmdale as a good environment to be in.

Figures from FirmdaleLife Facebook page at the end of the week show:

  • Number of people reached increased to 22,232
  • Number of video views - 14,282 in one week
  • A 994% increase in traffic to the FirmdaleLife page

Learn more about employee engagement at the HR Forum on 24 April at The Wellcome Collection

Firmdale's Julia Murrell will be among the inspirational speakers at this year's HR Forum, addressing how she has delivered meaningful people engagement on the ground.

The director of people and development will explain how she has encouraged experimentation within the department and changed the role of HR within the company, with people and development managers working directly in the hotels for which they are responsible.

She will be joined by other employers in the sector, who will share their expertise with practical examples of how to become a talent magnet, while Best Places To Work in Hospitality partner Purple Cubed will present this year's key findings.

The forum will also explore key topics, including:

  • How to maximise the opportunities the Apprenticeship Levy brings
  • Why sustainability isn't just about food and the environment - with the Sustainable Restaurant Association
  • What Brexit means for HR and recruitment - from sponsor Perkbox
  • How to empower your people through financial literacy - with Davidson Asset Management

We will also announce the Top 30 Best Places to Work in Hospitality.

This is a must-attend event for any HR or people leaders in hospitality. The standard delegate price is £149 plus VAT, which includes refreshments.

Book your ticket now at

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