Large hotel groups may outsource their housekeeping needs as a matter of course, but PPHE Hotel Group is the latest company to buck the trend by bringing its housekeeping staff back into the fold – and it's benefiting from its decision. Janie Manzoori-Stamford looks at how PPHE has cleaned up its recruitment
Every hotel, no matter the size or style, has one thing in common: housekeeping. From boutique independents and country house luxury to budget brands and city centre corporates – all require their beds to be made, the floors vacuumed and the towels changed.
This crucial and largely invisible function is frequently carried out by agency staff, a trend that began in the 1990s, when hotel ownership started to shift towards big banks seeking sharper profits. By outsourcing some or all of a hotel's housekeeping needs, costs can be controlled in the face of fluctuating occupancy rates. It also helps hotels with sickness management and when there is a shortage of local labour. And, done well, outsourcing can undoubtedly be successful (see panel).
But housekeeping horror stories have periodically reared their ugly heads over the years. Tales of agency staff being subjected to low pay, poor working conditions, exploitation and even abuse make for difficult reading. In one instance, it was claimed that staff were expected to work additional, unpaid hours in order to meet cleaning targets. It was also alleged that they had to sign a document saying that they had taken a 30-minute break, even if they had been unable to do so due to an excessive workload. Some agency staff have also not been paid for training days.
The toll this takes on staff is immense, as demonstrated by a 2013 survey carried out by trade union Unite, which found that 84 out of 100 housekeepers were taking painkillers before they went to work. Many also said they believed that they would be unable to carry on working beyond the age of 50 because of the stress of the job.
Such examples of poor practice have – in part – influenced some hotel operators to tread another path, including PPHE Hotel Group, operator of the Park Plaza brand, which created its new Accommodation Services department in early 2018. But given the potential cost and operational benefits of outsourcing, what does the company hope to achieve by bringing more than 500 agency housekeeping staff into its employee fold?
From agency to employee
"We were more than aware of the stories within the industry," says PPHE chief operating officer Greg Hegarty. But, he adds, the company's decision to take housekeeping in-house was driven by the challenges of its previous structure, which was a blend of agency and permanent staff workers.
"We were seeing a big turnover of agency staff, significant shortages across the portfolio, and we had issues with consistency in approach and quality," he explains.
This led the company to in-source all housekeeping services at its 10 UK hotels (this figure excludes franchised properties) as part of the group's Europe-wide £100m multi-year investment programme. Its aims were straightforward: attract talent; drive employee engagement and development; and support PPHE's growth strategy.
"This was never a cost-saving exercise, but instead a quality-driven exercise for the brand, guests and team members," adds Hegarty. So how did PPHE go about it? In the first instance the company wanted to ensure the smooth transition of staff from agency to permanent employment.
To do so, the hotel group collaborated with its former outsourcing supplier and completed the process one hotel at a time over the course of nine months. It also worked closely and extensively with Unite, which supported the consultation process and PPHE's commitment to behave "in an ethical way" as it finalised the TUPE agreement. This meant every employee was offered a guaranteed number of hours on permanent contracts. Another key component of the new contracts meant wages would be paid per hour, rather than per room – a common practice for outsourced staff that is often blamed for poor working conditions.
Hegarty says: "We were clear from the beginning that we wouldn't have a second tier of staff. The focus is on a primary group of team members with everyone having the same terms and conditions contractually."
As a result, the housekeepers that were brought in-house became entitled to all PPHE employee benefits, including discounts on the group's hotels, restaurants and bars, access to the recruitment referral scheme and perks programme, a pension plan and one meal per shift. In addition, they could reap the benefits of career development opportunities, a move that is equally important to the business as it strives to maintain its growth trajectory.
"Our people are at the heart of our business and we have various initiatives in place to support our team's career development," says Hegarty.
These include apprenticeship and graduate training programmes and talent management. Flexible working Integration between new and existing team members within the department was a key consideration for PPHE. So too was ensuring high levels of employee engagement. To achieve this, the hotel group worked hard to quickly train the incoming management team according to company culture and best practice so that they in turn could train the new employees in an adapted on-boarding programme.
Hegarty says: "It was challenging for the business from both a logistics and communications perspective, while also making sure our housekeeping team members felt supported and welcomed during the process into their new roles at PPHE Hotel Group."
Operators often opt to outsource because it enables them to manage housekeeping resources in the face of fluctuating occupancy and, like all hotels, PPHE manages supply and demand accordingly. But with the majority of PPHE's hotels located in London, Hegarty says, consistent occupancy levels are easier to maintain and there are plans in place for when there are variations in housekeeping demand.
"We are able to flex the working hours with needs across the business. During quiet periods from a housekeeping perspective, we use members of the team in other, busier departments, such as meetings and events," he explains. "This not only benefits the business but provides opportunities for team members also, with crossdepartmental training available to all. We also have the ability to move team members around hotels as they are trained across the portfolio."
Saving money is an easy to measure KPI of any initiative, but it was not the ultimate aim of in-sourcing the housekeeping function. So how is PPHE measuring its success? One way is through its annual employee engagement survey, which saw the new accommodation services department achieve an index score of 83.6 in its first year.
Perhaps even more telling is the change to the recruitment needs. Whereas previously PPHE saw as many as 100 vacancies within the department at any one time, the company has just four out of more than 500 positions (at the time of writing).
Staff retention has certainly played its part, but so too has the company's hiring strategy, which includes a dedicated recruitment team that is responsible for filling vacancies as and when they come up. It is able to do this by interviewing and hiring on the same day, which the company's interactive recruitment open days help to deliver.
The benefits have also been felt more broadly across the business, according to Hegarty, both in terms of success within the business and external recognition: "We believe this has made us better hoteliers. There was a knowledge gap in PPHE among senior leadership teams with the majority managing contracts and agencies as opposed to a department," he explains. "It has also driven us to be more innovative in housekeeping."
Latterly this includes the creation of the company's Team Leader Development programme, which aims to develop the next generation of technical housekeeping experts and has seen 60 team leaders complete the course to date. Future innovation will likely include the adoption of new technology designed specifically for housekeeping, while the company is also in the process of creating new staff accommodation (see panel).
"Our continuous training and development programmes have contributed to us being awarded the coveted AA Large Hotel Group of the Year 2019-2020," adds Hegarty. Additionally, the group was presented with the Housekeeping Team Initiative of the Year last week at the Springboard Awards for Excellence 2019.
City centre living
The cost of living in – or commuting to – London only ever moves in one direction: up. For one in five London workers, this means choosing the cheapest route to work, rather than the shortest or most convenient.
In recognition of this, as well as the tightening labour market, PPHE Hotel Group has invested in an apartment building that is in the process of being converted into staff accommodation.
"This latest development is a significant step for us in strengthening our employer offering," says Hegarty. "Our focus is to attract and retain hospitality workers, and one way we can look to achieve this is by offering cheaper rent for nice accommodation in the London area."
Located in the Chiswick Park area of west London, the property will be able to accommodate 25 team members from mid-November. The primary focus of the undisclosed investment was for members of accommodation services, but the success of its recruitment strategy and small number of vacancies has led other departments to be considered.
"For us, this is just the start," says Hegarty. "If it is successful, we will continue to look for more accommodation opportunities for our team members."
Travelodge: in-sourcing creates career opportunities for housekeepers PPHE Hotel Group is by no means the only major group to bring its housekeeping staff in-house. Travelodge, the UK's second largest hotel company with nearly 600 properties, chose to end its relationship with agency staff in 2016. Peter Gowers, the group's chief executive, said it was important that all housekeepers are made to feel as though they are an integral part of the wider Travelodge team and provide them with the opportunities to climb the career ladder.
"I want our housekeepers to have the same benefits – our housekeepers get a thank you card that gives them discount food and rooms," Gowers told The Caterer earlier this year. "Taking the decision to scrap outsourcing enabled me to scrap zero-hour contracts.
"We had reputable outsourcing partners, of course – we don't take risks there – but I think it makes people feel part of the team. It makes people know that when we say, ‘would you like to apply for our management training?', that means you. It doesn't just mean people in front office."
To outsource or not to outsource?
Hotels can have an entirely in-house housekeeping team or an in-house executive housekeeper and an outsourced team. All can be outsourced, or the team can be a mixture of both. Done right, any of these solutions can be a success. The only difference should be who pays the staff, because ultimately, it's about having the best possible guest experience.
That's according to Liz Smith-Mills, an independent hotel consultant and member of the UK Housekeepers Association, who points out that by understanding the needs of the business, a hotel can decide which route to take.
"A shortage of labour in the hotel location can prompt the need to outsource. So too can the need to manage the peaks and troughs of occupancy as well as sickness and absenteeism," she says. "In-house means you can manage your own team, but when occupancy goes down you still have to pay salaries.
"Outsourcing means you don't have to pay for potential redundancies should the business levels decline, while a mix of both means you can bring more in from the agency when busy."
So how can a hotel operator ensure success where outsourcing is involved? "The best scenario is to treat outsourced workers as you would treat your own staff, not like the stories we hear of agency staff not being included in training or even not being invited to the Christmas party," says Smith-Mills.
"It needs a strong general manager or housekeeping manager to ensure that behaviour doesn't happen. There are also many success stories where agency housekeepers are fully integrated into the team. But if outsourcing is not managed properly, it can be a disaster."
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