Hotel / Catering

Staff engagement at the heart of business

by Charles Mak

Janet Lai, director of human resources
Crowne Plaza Hong Kong Causeway Bay
Photos: Edde Ngan

International hotel group turns elusive management concepts into corporate performance drivers

New hotels in developed economies with vibrant tourism industries, such as Hong Kong, contend with almost similar challenges — recruiting competent staff from the same pool of talent, for instance. The reality is that even staff who have put their names down for a career can take it elsewhere at will, leaving human resources managers tossing and turning over tight staffing schedules and training deadlines.

Janet Lai, director of human resources, Crowne Plaza Hong Kong Causeway Bay, says that this does not have to be the case, not even in times when the hotel industry is on an uptrend.

A new member of the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Crowne Plaza Hong Kong Causeway Bay, is scheduled to open this November and Ms Lai is confident that an engaged and high-performing team is coming into shape.

She notes that while a high rate of mobility among hotel professionals and retaining staff can potentially pose headaches, there are ways and means of addressing and resolving these issues.

"Hiring 200 staff at a time is challenging; keeping them happy can be even more so," Ms Lai stresses. The secret, she adds, is to engage staff emotionally at the very first instance.

Intrinsic factors

The very concept of staff engagement remains impalpable, with a barrage of available tools and strategies that complement each other to fit into different business, cultural and employment contexts.

However, Ms Lai states that assuring staff of the significant contribution that they are making to the hotel should be given a priority. "Every job is important," she says. "Staff have to realise that the career choice they make today will have an impact on the hotel's long-term performance."

She says extrinsic features like pay packages and incentives play a minor role, but rewards such as promotions, lateral movements and overseas secondments must be on offer to deserving staff, and the mechanisms for such movements made impartial, transparent and constant. "A job has to be so stimulating that the persons doing it will want more out of it," Ms Lai explains. "To motivate staff, an attainable goal will serve as a strong incentive."

As IHG manages a worldwide portfolio of more than 4,200 hotels and resorts across approximately 100 countries and territories, staff can look forward to opportunities for training, familiarisation or even secondments at sister hotels outside Hong Kong. For instance, a number of Hong Kong staff have helped prepare new IHG hotel and resort properties in Taiwan and China over the past few years. Also, the pre-opening team of Crowne Plaza comprises long-serving IHG staff who were either transferred or promoted to help build teams, contributing their experience to the Hotel's future success.

"Staff development is a promise and the scope of our business allows us to deliver this," says Ms Lai. "Our computerised talent management system keeps track of every individual's qualification, experience and performance. If a person needs certain skills or a piece of qualification for a higher position, he or she can rest easy that assistance is at hand. This will ensure that our people will have the best foot forward when the opportunity knocks on the door."

Middle-up-down management

Employee surveys gauge staff sentiments and align expectations. The IHG group does these twice a year. All staff are also given access to the group's intranet, as well as two "confidential enclosure hotlines" that offer assistance at the group level.

However, general staff, by and large, look to their immediate supervisors for guidance and beyond. Forging constructive relationships with and among team members is therefore a major task for managers.

Ms Lai emphasises that staff relations is primarily a leadership issue. "We expect our leaders to be receptive, responsive and responsible. A good leader must be able to assert authority and drive performance regardless of specific management styles," she says.

Bolstering leadership skills is given a high premium within the group. "Regional IHG coaching sessions give our managers a bit more edge. For instance, they gain insights of employee behaviours by learning the DiSC role behaviour analysis. This enables them to leverage individual strengths more effectively, minimising grievances while creating an optimal working environment for staff," explains Ms Lai.

An annual overseas conference takes managers away from work. Such occasions also see them share expertise in specific markets, throw in new ideas and build synergies with their counterparts worldwide.

Other communication channels also help managers discharge their duties with utmost effectiveness. These include daily briefings, regular departmental meetings, a "Town Hall" meeting with the hotel's general manager, as well as a "Great Hotels Guests Love programme" that keeps all employees on course towards achieving the hotel's core objectives through measuring and communicating the hotel's performance.

A few months away from its opening, Crowne Plaza will continue to roll out a range of recruitment activities for key positions. "We are currently looking for ambassadors, a duty manager, a night manager and other frontline staff," Ms Lai says. "Helping launch a new hotel, you learn new systems, meet new people and ultimately achieve something as part of a team. Not many jobs entail this level of involvement, and I guarantee that the sense of achievement will be second to none."


Taken from Career Times 21 August 2009, p. B5
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