Home sweet home

Investing in quality staff accommodation will attract the best employees, says Harriet Sinclair.
Home sweet home
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By Harriet Sinclair
Mon 07 Jun 2010 05:10 PM

Investing in quality staff accommodation will attract the best employees, says Harriet Sinclair.

Staff accommodation has not traditionally been an important consideration for hoteliers. As owners and operators must think about driving volume to their hotels, dealing with existing guests, marketing, and countless other aspects of business, it is no surprise that staff accommodation often falls by the wayside.

It is only in regions such as the Middle East -where hotels have always had to provide housing for their staff- that accommodation becomes such an important issue in hotel management.

Many hoteliers in this region realise that providing good quality staff accommodation is no mere PR stunt or unfortunate obligation, but a vital aspect of good hotel management, which can be utilised to great advantage if done properly.

More than 90% of hotel staff in the UAE are expatriates, and across the region expatriate staff make up a significant proportion of hotel employees - although nationalisation programmes are becoming more commonplace, particularly in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

The high number of expatriates working in hotels in the region means that hotels who want to attract - and keep - good staff to work in their properties must make the provision of top quality staff housing a priority.

The issue of staff accommodation was brought to the fore at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference, where the annual Staff Accommodation Awards recognise best practice in the staff housing arena; using criteria such as leisure facilities and activities, food and beverage facilities, international communication and transport to assess which hotels in the region are providing the very best in this important field.

Why Invest?

Winning awards shouldn't be the only incentive when considering investing in staff accommodation. Staff housing has the potential to impact on the business as a whole, with many hoteliers agreeing that staff accommodation plays a significant role in the way staff work and interact with hotel guests.

Mövenpick Jumeirah Beach director of human resources Feras Salibi agrees that the impact of good staff accommodation can be seen throughout a hotel.

"Good employee housing greatly affects staff motivation. If our employees are unhappy it has a direct impact onto their performance at work. The way we approach it is that we treat our employees as our internal customers and we can only expect them to deliver five-star service to the guest if we treat them with the same respect and care," Salibi says.

"In addition to providing a home we try to create a community feeling at our housing complex with movie nights, sports tournaments and socials. By creating a community it not only instills a sense of belonging, but also builds team spirit and camaraderie, which is reflected in work performance," he adds.

Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain director of human resources Gemma Meale feels that staff accommodation is an investment that owners and operators will see a guaranteed return on in the way that their guests are treated by staff.

"Our human resources and housing team are here to develop a service. We know if we look after our people well, including giving them a nice environment and home, they will be engaged and that can only have a positive impact for our hotel morale and guests," Meale states.

In addition to the obvious benefits of having staff who are well slept and live in safe accommodation, creating a real home for employees can enhance brand loyalty and work ethic and encourage staff to be more aware of how they are treating the hotel guests.

Ramee Group of Hotels chairman and managing worker Raj Shetty feels that staff will work to the best of their ability when they feel taken care of, and adds: "If the employees are cared about and have their needs taken care of, they actually want to put their best foot forward and will work diligently to take care of our valued guests".

And while good accommodation can encourage staff to stay motivated and provide quality service to guests, it is no surprise that bad housing can have a negative impact on the way that staff work.

Tom Meyer, director of operations - IHG, Dubai and area general manager, IHG Dubai Festival City, recalls staying in bad staff accommodation at the beginning of his career in the industry."I have to take you back almost to my first job in Europe, where a lot of the housing facilities are in more out of reach places which are sometimes also associated with high crime rates. When you are staying in a place like that and it is your first job away from home, you are working different shifts -it can be extremely difficult. The pioneers of the hospitality business in Europe deserve a lot of praise because they went through some very tough times in those facilities," he says.

Retention

Not only will well looked after staff tend to work harder, they will also be likely to want to stay with your hotel for longer.

"There is a strong correlation between staff retention and constructive livelihood, which in our case is offered through our accommodation," says Wasl Hospitality general manager Abdulbasit Al-Hai. "There have been numerous studies conducted on staff retention and the factors that attribute to staff motivation. In all cases, housing is one of the leading factors that affects an employee's personal life."

This is where the hospitality industry differs from most other businesses, where employees' personal lives are not a big consideration; in hotels it is important that staff are kept happy as it is their attitude which so often keeps guests returning, and business coming in.

As housing, particularly when moving to and living in a new country, plays such a large part in the wellbeing of employees, it has become a deciding factor in the level of staff retention in hotels.

"I have come across housing that was not up to scratch. The impact onto employee morale is high with very negative effects.  Bad housing is a key reason for high employee turnover and in some instances has resulted in illness," states Salibi.

Employees, particularly those who have been trained and invested in by the company, are such a valuable resource that anything which affects staff retention must be a serious consideration for hoteliers, and staff housing is no exception.

Coral Deira, Dubai human resources and training manager Adline Batal, believes that staff housing can play a big role in encouraging employees to stay with a company.

"If you give staff the right product and atmosphere to relax, it helps them to stay calm and focused. Also, it prevents any kind of attrition. We have a retention rate of nearly 70%, which is good compared to current industry standards," she stresses.

Best Western director of operations Asia and the Middle East Ehtisham Waris says that housing also has an effect on how staff view their employers and their status within the company.

"Well-maintained staff housing is one of the key factors in keeping up the morale of the employees. It always makes a positive impact in day-to-day operation and helps to fight attrition. Employees feel that their efforts have been valued by the management if the standard of the accommodation is acceptable," Waris argues.

This opinion is shared by Emaar Hospitality Group general manager accommodation Eddie Yago, who believes that accommodation will affect staff retention as well as performance at work.

"I believe if staff are comfortable with the accommodation, it reflects the way they perform at work. If your accommodation is positive you are thinking positively at work and you're not thinking about why you want to leave," Yago says.

Accommodation which is secure, well fitted out and pleasant with a community feel will of course affect the length of your stay, argues IHG's Meyer.

"The quality of your accommodation is going to determine how long you stay, wherever you stay. What we try to do is make people feel at home as soon as possible. We introduce you to the person you will be sharing a room with on email before you arrive. When you arrive here we have a welcome basket and card for you, complimentary internet facilities so  you can get online and talk to your family straight away," he says.

Meyer believes these measures build a community feel, which makes the real difference to employee' attitudes to their accommodation - and their company. Quality Staff

Good accommodation also plays a role in attracting a high calibre of staff to hotels. With most new recruits either coming from overseas or expatriates already in the Middle East, they will undoubtedly see the housing they are provided with as a deciding factor in their job choice.

And just like the guests in a hotel, staff  are looking for a good standard of room, facilities, and location but more importantly, they will look for the additional factor of being able to call their accommodation ‘home'.

"Housing is competitive and with many new hotels opening, what a property can offer can be of great appeal to employees. We benchmark within the market to monitor what is being offered and strive to lead in terms of housing," says Ritz-Carlton's Meale.

Rosewood Corniche organisational development manager Amro Hussein says reputation is key in the hospitality industry, and this includes the reputation of the accommodation provided for the staff as well as the guests.

"Happy and motivated staff helps in the recruitment process. Word of mouth spreads quickly and this helps us to attract the best quality people," he asserts.

Making staff housing a priority is an attitude which Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts president of worldwide operations Jim FitzGibbon believes should come from the top down.

" I flew into Riyadh and I went to the employee housing first not the hotel. I phoned the general manager and asked him to meet me there and he wasn't surprised. That was to me a very important message: first I will go to the employees to see that they're looked after and then I'll go and see the guests. A lot of what you do in my position is symbolism, I can't change it physically but I can certainly put it high on the priority list. It's about who emotionally connects with the employee and cares enough about them because they're all individuals and honestly, I think in this part of the world, because a lot of people are away from home, that takes on a whole other dimension," FitzGibbon says.

Creating good accommodation

That good staff housing is an important contributor to both staff attitude and retention rates is not surprising, but what exactly do employees expect from their employer? Do they care about having the latest pool table and TV stations, or are safety and ease of communication more important? And how much of a role should housing play in internal interactions?

For EHG's Yago, who lives in the staff accommodation himself, the fact that the housing is shared by so many levels of employee plays a vital role in encouraging team spirit.

"I think it is very important that I myself live in the accommodation as well because it shows the associates that the facilities we provide are just as good for any level [of staff]. It also gives me a chance to show my face to the associates and show that I support them in anything they have to say. But the biggest thing about living there for me is the feel of it - you really feel like you're part of a community," he says.

Best Western's Waris believes  location is key when considering staff accommodation, particularly since many staff work a variety of shifts and may be returning home late at night or  early in the morning.

"The most important consideration is accessibility to the place of work as this saves employees transport time as well as the cost," he says. "It is also just as important that the accommodation provided is safe and comfortable to live in."

Safety is a concern which was also highlighted by Batal at Coral Deira who outlined the main factors in staff accommodation considerations as: safety and security, comfort, privacy, proximity to the workplace and convenience of public transport to places such as the supermarket, hospital and mosque.

During submission for the AHIC Staff Accommodation Awards, a recurring theme mentioned by all entrants was the need to develop environmentally sound accommodation, with winning Jumeirah citing a recycling system as one of the important features of its housing.

Although there are many considerations which must be taken in to account in order to develop good staff housing, it must be seen as a necessary investment into both staff wellbeing and the future of the company's business.

And with the benefits of creating good quality employee housing including higher retention rates, better quality service for guests, and your pick of the best staff, it is an investment worth making.

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