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Rooms serviced with a smile?

13 October 2005

The hotel room attendant is indispensable to the creation of the central hotel product, the serviced guestroom, yet these workers have such a low profile in our industry that they are almost invisible. There is a widely held perception that the job of the room attendant is just hard, physical, repetitive cleaning work. It is frequently described as unskilled work though seldom by those who do the job or those who manage and train room attendants. Also, since it involves cleaning up after people, society looks upon it as rather lowly work. Nevertheless, it is work that is vital to human hygiene and well-being.

The ideal room attendant
Most obviously, considerable physical stamina is needed to service a full section of rooms in the allowed time, particularly when there are many check-outs and some rooms are left in a bad condition. The quality standards and brand-specific presentation of today demand a good eye for detail. Having access to guests' personal territory and belongings requires an honest individual who is respectful of the guests' privacy. Of course, a reliable worker who is seldom late or off sick is always valued. Particularly in the "self-checking" scenario, where supervision is less intense, room attendants need to be self-motivated with a high level of personal pride in their work. The various forms of "empowerment" or "taking ownership" programmes all depend upon room attendants that have the social confidence to address guests courteously and sometimes to deal tactfully with an unhappy guest.

How to get the best from a room attendant If asked, nearly all room attendants would say they work for the money. They are certainly not well paid, earning just above minimum wage level, possibly with a bit of overtime added on. Some, who are self-checkers or on other quality or productivity bonus schemes, may earn more. Overtime or bonus money is often allocated to domestic essentials even before it is earned and becomes taken for granted. In this way, as the weeks go by, a pay increase loses its power to motivate. The employer cannot continuously pay more and more to improve quality and quantity of work, so there have to be other approaches.

Lesson one: minimise the negative Room attendants frequently work under pressure to achieve high productivity yet without compromising high quality ratings. Tense relations between housekeeping and reception can create problems because one department does not appreciate the pressures they can apply to another. Reception staff who are constantly chasing rooms may not realise just how long it takes to service a room and that a rapid series of "rush rooms" is exasperating and exhausting for room attendants. On the other hand it is reception that takes the "flak" when rooms are not ready on time and or when rooms are badly serviced. Commendably, some hotels place newly hired receptionists in housekeeping for a day or two so they will realise how hard working and pressurised room attendants often are. Equally, new room attendants should observe at reception at the height of check-out or check-in. Mutual respect, understanding and a professional approach is the best way forward.

In a study of 12 Cardiff hotels (see reference 1) involving 64 room attendants, one-third said they were delayed by having to borrow equipment (to replace items that were broken and not repaired). Eighty-five per cent of the room attendants indicated that the most effective way to reduce the stress and pressure on them would be to employ additional room attendants. Of course, a sense of pressure from time to time can stimulate staff to work very effectively to achieve a desired outcome, but frequent pressure can cause anxiety and stress.

The Cardiff study also revealed that more than a third felt workers in other hotel departments were not respectful towards them. This can happen where the sense of the whole hotel as one team is not developed. However, the finding that more than a quarter of those surveyed felt the general management were also disrespectful to them is harder to excuse. Other negative impacts on worker attitude and performance that should be tackled include having a poorer pay package than competitor hotels, bad relations with supervisors, irregular/inflexible work rosters, dirty staff rest areas and nasty staff meals.

Lesson two: maximise the positive In a research journal article Lennon and Wood (see reference 2) commented: "It appears that accommodation work enjoys little esteem, is viewed/experienced as relatively unexciting and perceived as offering little scope for acquiring responsibility or achieving personal fulfilment." Realistically one cannot refute every aspect of that statement but among the room attendants in the Cardiff study there was clear evidence of positive aspects of the job: 94% felt they were providing a useful service to guests; 74% were generally satisfied with their job; 73% felt they were treated respectfully by guests; 66% of the "traditionally organised" staff took personal pride in their work - but this jumped to a striking 90% for those working in an "empowered" system.

The importance of friendships at work is not to be underestimated (91% enjoyed and valued their friendships at work) and these should not be disrupted unless they seriously hamper work efficiency. Of course, the negative side of this factor is that falling out with friends can affect work performance.

There is evidence that many room attendants who are always allocated the same set of rooms come to identify with them as "their rooms" that are almost an extension of their own home. As such they work hard to keep up a high standard in "their rooms" as an expression of their personal pride. Managerial and customer approval of these rooms is a very powerful motivator to such room attendants.

Reality check Some will say you can praise too much and make staff feel it is insincere. In reality there will always be aspects of the work that are not so good and need to improve. Faults must be examined and put right, but if criticism is all they hear staff will loose self-esteem and become demotivated. There needs to be a balance between recognising and correcting faults as well as recognising and encouraging good work. The criticism and praise of individuals should take place in private but all opportunities for collective praise of good service and the affirmation of exemplary attitudes should be taken.

A major challenge exists in motivating that increasingly significant part of the room attendant workforce that does not have enough English to interact with the more subtle or complex ideas in your motivation initiatives. To get the most out of these approaches, the housekeeping management needs to learn more of the employee's language, perhaps using translation services. Ultimately we need to encourage and facilitate the room attendant's own ability in English.

References:
(1) Service Unseen: the hotel room attendant at work.
P Hunter Powell, D Watson. International Journal of Hospitality Management.
(2) The sociological analysis of hospitality labour and the neglect of accommodation workers. J Lennon, R Wood. International Journal of Hospitality Management.

Ten ways to motivate room attendants 1. Continually emphasise the central importance of their work to customer satisfaction and business success.
2. Read out all positive guest comment slips and letters and pin them on the noticeboard.
3. Inform housekeeping staff of the progress of the business and their contribution to it: summarise all management reports, audit statements and customer satisfaction statistics.
4. Express recognition and praise: if it has been a hectic day/week where they have been under pressure, don't take their commitment for granted.
5. Invest in continuous retraining/updating - this gives the message that their standards matter and skills have to be kept fresh. Room attendants will feel they are valuable to the hotel.
6. Reward the consistent high-quality work or admirable attitudes of individuals with recognition in the department/the hotel/the company. This could be in the form of in-house publicity and gifts or prizes.
7. Be aware of individual circumstances. Don't intrude, but be sensitive if they confide in you.
8. Keep their job interesting and varied - and sometimes a bit of a challenge. Tell them about new equipment or products you are considering and get them to try them. Ask for their ideas on better ways of working or enhancing service and use them. Make it possible for those who want a change to work in other jobs within the housekeeping department.
9. The hotel manager must show active interest in the work of housekeeping. Room attendants will notice if the hotel manager or head receptionist ignores them or slights them or their head of housekeeping.
10. Consider the importance of friendships at work. Groupings of friends may like break-times together or the same floor or shift. If this does not compromise their work, keep them together.

Cleaning standards under the microscope?
Most hotels are accommodation led, earning their greatest revenue from the sale of rooms. Rooms normally yield the highest profit margin and contribute the largest proportion of the hotel operating profit. Guests rightly expect cleanliness as standard. Undercover reporters have exposed careless cleaning routines in hotels and hospitals. Recent publicity surrounding hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA is sensitising the public to an extent not seen before. Some customers may view their hotel room as an extension of their own home and expect fastidious standards, while others assume a room is clean until some startling omission comes to their attention. Of course, a clean, well-ordered room tends to be taken for granted and seldom attracts direct praise… or big tips.

How clean is your hotel room? Of course the room has to look generally clean, tidy, smell fresh and meet various "brand standards" but every Head of Housekeeping has favourite tests for thoroughness, including some of the following…

Bathroom

  • All outer/inner surfaces, crevices, hinges of toilet - no stains/debris anywhere
  • Check for invisible contamination using ultra-violet torch - toilet, wash basin, bath/shower, door handles, switches and any other surfaces users touch that can transfer bacteria person-to-person
  • All other shiny surfaces in bathroom - spotless and gleaming
  • Soap dish fitting at shower/bath - no soap drips underneath
  • Shower head - no clogging
  • Towels/mats - spotless without damage
  • Floor behind the bathroom door - no dust or hairs

Bedroom

  • Bed: all bedding spotless without damage, top cover flat and smooth, neat corners
  • Dust/debris can be missed: tops/insides of wardrobe, inside drawers, trouser press, chair legs/rails, under beds, picture frames, table lamps and bulbs, all surfaces out of direct view
  • Picture glass and mirrors: no smudges
  • Telephones/TV: no dust or smudges, cable untangled, remotes clean/working
  • Tea/coffee tray: all items spotless, no stains. Fully stocked
  • Perfectly draped curtains
  • Carpet edges: no dust/debris

Attention to detail is the key. Overall the test is that the room shows no evidence whatsoever of the previous occupant.

Compiled by Patricia Hunter Powell and Jean Roberts, Hotel du Vin, Harrogate

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