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4 ways to motivate employees during lean times
February 9 2010

If there’s anything that’s sunk lower than profit margins during the recession, it might be employee morale. And as workers get laid off, benefits get cut and stress takes hold, it’s not just your associates who are suffering—guests are too.

TORONTO—If there’s anything that’s sunk lower than profit margins during the recession, it might be employee morale. And as workers get laid off, benefits get cut and stress takes hold, it’s not just your associates who are suffering—guests are too, as they experience less than glowing service.

Fortunately for the hotel industry, there are ways to motivate your work force without breaking the bank, according to panelists during a breakout session at the Hotel Association of Canada’s 2010 Annual Conference.

“Research tells us that professional development is usually at the top of the list of things that an employee values about their benefits in the workplace,” said Wendy Swedlove, president of the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council.

Other motivators include:

  • a visible career path;
  • a positive workplace atmosphere;
  • flexibility (e.g. hours, benefits);
  • a sense of employee empowerment; and
  • compensation and benefits.

And while it’s important to know the motivators, it’s something else entirely to know how to implement them in a way that actually gets results. Here are four ways to motivate your work force during lean times:

1. Don’t forget your managers

“How can you motivate folks if your managers aren’t motivated?” asked Bill Pallett, senior VP of people resources and quality for Delta Hotels and Resorts, a management company with 44 properties throughout Canada.

“We as an industry go about this all wrong,” he continued. “We’re focusing on that front line, but we’re forgetting that person who translates strategy into action on a daily basis.”

While it’s tempting to cut middle managers during lean times, Pallett strongly advised against doing so. Letting front-line associates clock-in without the supervision and coaching of a good manager is like setting passengers out to sea without an experienced captain.

Instead, remember your managers first in every morale-boosting initiative you set into action. If you make sure you motivate them, the rest will follow, Pallett said.

2. Communicate

There’s nothing that breeds stress and anxiety like uncertainty, so it’s imperative you keep the lines of communication open with employees, said Mo Aladin, director of operations for Cara Operations Limited, the largest operator of full-service restaurants in Canada.

The ways you enact that exchange of information can vary, from casual one-on-one discussions to companywide meetings. Aladin advised holding “state-of-the-union” gatherings to address any major changes within your company, as well as weekly updates within departments to keep everyone informed and up to speed.

While these updates invariably are easy to give when times are good, they’re even more important when times are bad, he said. Therefore, you shouldn’t be afraid to share bad news.

In one such instance, Aladin described how he went over the balance sheets for one restaurant location to justify to an employee why her hours were being cut. While she wasn’t necessarily happy with the decision, taking the time to communicate with her made her much more accepting of the decision.

3. Set focused goals

Even when times are tough, you still can set focused goals to motivate your work force, the panelists agreed. One oft-cited example was improved guest satisfaction scores.

Kevin Swark of Genesis Hospitality explained how he motivates his work force using a redeemable points system.
When doing so, just remember to measure your results and reward your employees for reaching their goals.

At Genesis Hospitality, for example, executive president Kevin Swark oversaw implementation of a points program that rewarded guests for improved performance. The company owns and operates six properties in Manitoba and Ontario.

“We have points for green ideas, staying healthy—if they don’t use sick days—different things based on sales—if they sell so many bottles of wine or desserts,” he said. “ … If they score a perfect mystery shop, they’ll get points.”

Employees then can use their accrued points in exchange for gift cards and other goods like iPods and golf clubs.

Swark admitted the program did require a significant investment on the part of the hotel owner and operator—to the tune of CAD$240,000 (US$233,806). But as employee and customer satisfaction scores increased, that upfront cost seemed more than worth it.

4. Train and train again

“Our biggest thing has been training, and training a lot more,” Swark said.

While any training program requires some capital expenditure, they often yield the biggest returns of any motivational initiative. For one thing, professional development was cited as the most important thing employees value about their benefits in the workplace, according to a study conducted on behalf of the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council.

Training programs show employees that you value their services, and that you’re willing to put time and resources into making them better professionals.

That can go a long way in promoting employee loyalty, Swark said. At Genesis Hospitality, training initiatives helped reduce the company’s turnover by half, saving tens of thousands of dollars, if not more.

Aladin said for every hourly worker that leaves, a company typically loses half that employee’s salary on the bottom line. For management, it’s even worse—a full year’s salary.

Pallett agreed, saying that when figuring out the turnover’s real cost, “that’s a good rule of thumb.”

But it’s not just the cost that’s a concern. How you treat your employees now will go a long way toward retaining them when the economy does turn around. And with historic work shortages predicted in Canada, that’s an important consideration, the panelists agreed.

“People are going to remember how you treated them right now,” Pallett said. “They don’t forget. … We need to be very cautious during this period of what might seem like a surplus (of workers).”

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