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Retaining hospitality staff – A conversation with James’ Places


James’ Places is a group of hospitality businesses operating across the Ribble Valley, Lune Valley and Yorkshire Dales employing over 400 people.

We spoke with group commercial director, Warren Bennett, and group operations director, Mike Auld, about how the business has looked after staff in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Kate Shawcross from our employment law team also shares her tips for retaining hospitality staff.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned during the pandemic from a staffing point of view?

Warren Bennett: For me, it’s been the importance of having a robust HR function within the business. We brought in a dedicated HR manager about five years ago and have steadily grown our HR infrastructure over that time. Without it we would have really struggled, not just in terms of staffing the business but in the deeper engagement of our people during what has been a very tough time for everybody.

Mike Auld: The importance of helping staff look after their mental health cannot be overstated. The uncertainty of the last two years, especially for the hospitality sector, has shown the need for all employers to prioritise mental health support for staff and encourage colleagues to look out for each other. We want our staff to know that we’ll support them if they are struggling mentally.

What have been the biggest staffing challenges?

WB: I think the biggest frustration has been knowing there’s a lot more opportunities out there to innovate and grow if only we could get enough of staff to make it happen which, of course, is the position so many hospitality businesses are in, not just us.

There’s been a big gap for us in the 20-29 age bracket which has traditionally been a core demographic in the hospitality sector. Staff are either very young or in the 30 years plus bracket.

KS: This is something many of our clients across the hospitality industry are reporting. There’s been a shift in the generational make-up of workers in the sector. A combination of Brexit and the pandemic has seen many overseas workers relocating back home, and other millennials being attracted to work in other industries where there is a perception of greater job security.

Now more than ever, employers in the hospitality sector need to be able to convince people that they offer genuine opportunities for career progression. I think hospitality businesses have a great opportunity to hold more open career planning conversations with workers and offer more training and access to industry recognised qualifications.

MA: This is something we are very conscious of. We’re looking at ways to continually improve our staff appraisal processes to focus on personal growth and long-term career progression. We’re looking at partnering with colleges too to help shape training and improve the skills of people coming into the sector. This may also allow us to provide mentoring opportunities.

What have you done to help keep hold of your staff?

MA: We knew that the closures, furlough and then, of course, the sudden rush that the re-openings brought with them, would have a huge impact on our teams’ mental health. We therefore engaged a mental health provider to offer support to all of our staff as and when they needed it, and the uptake on this has been great. We also wanted to understand what is most important to our staff and what their views were, so we conducted a staff survey.

While not everyone completed it, we felt the results were representative of our team and it provided us with some valuable insights. As a result, we’ve tried to be a lot more flexible and open minded when it comes to considering staff requests, particularly around shifts and working patterns. Work-life balance has become far more important to people.

WB: When the hospitality sector reopened, we obviously had to ask a lot more of people to enable us to adequately staff the business. As a result, we’ve had to be a lot more innovative in areas such as pay and bonuses.

An example is some staff who were previously salaried now wanting to be paid hourly, as this gives them greater flexibility over their hours of work. We recognise that it is an employees’ market at the moment, and we have done what we can to accommodate their wishes.

We’re investing a lot more in HR, both in terms of HR staff and software that can help us with better employee communication. We intend to grow our HR administration team to place even greater focus on staff retention.

What else can hospitality businesses do to retain staff?

KS: It’s great to see how the steps taken by Warren and Mike have helped them retain staff. People will stay in a job if they are treated fairly and given flexibility and autonomy. The pandemic has given people a different focus about what they want from their work. Increasingly, people want to be shown how what they do makes a difference, which means businesses need to have a purpose over and above just being profitable. You must communicate with staff – ask them what motivates them and what’s going to keep them with your business.

The recent developments with the Omicron variant are posing new challenges for the sector at a critical time. How optimistic are you about the ongoing recovery of hospitality sector in 2022 and beyond?

WB: What’s encouraging is the demand for hospitality and leisure has never gone away, it’s just being inhibited by these ongoing issues from the pandemic. Things are going to get better, and we know there is strong demand across our business, from casual dining and overnight stays to weddings, conferences, and events.

MA: The last couple of years have made us an even stronger business. We’ve invested a lot into our systems and processes that make us more robust to face any potential future business disruption. As Warren says, the demand is there and we’re leaving no stone unturned to give people a great customer experience.

KS: Whist of course there is an air of caution with the current Omicron variant and the uncertainty that brings with it, there are many reasons for optimism. The sector is projected to grow by over 180,000 jobs into 2024. I think household savings from the pandemic, particularly in relation to a lack of opportunity for holiday spend, added to people’s reluctance to travel overseas, means there will be even more pent-up demand for domestic hospitality and we should start to see a strong recovery in 2022.

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