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Doing Less With Less

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October 26, 2020
Michael Schubach - michaelshubach@me.com

Early in my career, I received a shockingly memorable lecture from the general manager of the hotel where I had just accepted the position of front office manager. He was explaining his approach to ideal staffing levels, using a white board to illustrate his theory. He drew a classic sound wave, an undulating curve of alternating highs and lows that reached out across the board. He then drew a horizontal line straight through the middle of his little mountain range, segregating the peaks from the valleys. The GM then explained that the corkscrew line was guest occupancy – with its resulting demand for service – and the straight line was the on-duty staffing level.

The illustration begged the question he was expecting: how were we going to serve our guests effectively when the volume of their requests could overrun the staff that would be available to respond? “We’re mountain bikers,” he replied, “we pedal hard to climb the peaks and then we coast through the valleys.” And there you have hospitality’s interpretation of Einstein’s theory of relativity: you’re going to be relatively beaten to crap when its busy and relatively free when it’s not. I am confident that each reader has heard this story told any number of different ways, so you may pick your own favorite cliché – perhaps the well-worn “don’t build the church for Easter Sunday.”

But what if we built the church to accommodate our regular Sunday attendance and suddenly a pandemic swept through and made every Sunday look like a Tuesday afternoon in Hot Coffee, Mississippi? I’m approaching this problem from the operational and administrative aspects of the IT department. Of course, guest-facing positions with elastic headcounts that rise and fall based on occupancy have already dropped to survival level, but how exactly do we do business in IT where most work requirements don’t come and go with our guests?

In fact, a reasonable case could be made that as we attempt to sell our way out of the pandemic and deploy touchless technologies, we actually need more and better IT assistance than was required when we were all fat, dumb, happy and living in a fool’s paradise. I believe I can safely say that it’s a dilemma/dispute/headache/issue/obstacle/pickle/predicamentquandary. (And thank you, Thesaurus.com.)

This much is true: even the IT department lives and dies by the profitable accommodation of guests. If there are very few guests and even fewer opportunities for profit, then IT will never be exempted from the reduced staffing that must follow. The hospitality industry is facing an existential challenge: we are fighting to keep our nostrils above the waterline until there is a vaccine, a lot of consumer confidence and a genuine desire to brave these new worlds, both professional and personal, without risking life and lung capacity in the process.

So how does IT successfully survive the plague? The first rule is to brace for the tornado of clichés that’s headed your way: “You must do more with less/pick up the slack/work smarter/give 110%/get creative /understand that everyone needs to put in some extra hours to do what must be done.” I am of sufficient age that I am not experiencing my first recession/depression/economic crisis, but I can’t help but notice the missing cliché – which will never be a cliché because no one ever says it – is “we need your team to take on less and offload a great deal of what it’s doing today.” Let me tackle some of those helpful management clichés for surviving minimalist times, not because I’m feeling victimized but because staff reductions are their very own pandemic.

COVID-19 is simultaneously thinning the herd medically and professionally; the impact of this health crisis on our livelihoods is every bit as deserving of thoughtful, data-driven consideration as the disease itself is. For the sake of easy math, let’s assume that an existing IT department is cut by 50%, since most hotels have seen at least that many points of decline in their 2020 occupancies. At half the staff, you can’t give a 110% effort and produce pre-pandemic results. Minimum effort is now 200% if you wish to do with your reduced headcount what you were doing in the good old days. Sixteen-hour days – with no increase in compensation because it is the economic impact that drove us to staff reductions in the first place – are the new minimum, but that assumes that your resources were always appropriately engaged at the 100% level before the crisis struck. So, let’s further assume that there was a fair amount of unproductive time when we were in FDH (Fat, Dumb and Happy) Mode, and split the difference.

The modified requirement is now 150% of the previous effort, and that simply isn’t sustainable with any sort of suitable work-life balance. Even if you could get your staff to tow that line for as long as they were able, you’re destined to lose the battle if our untoward circumstances prevail for any extended period of time, as they are currently forecasted to do. Bottom line: if you lose staff by expecting too much, you’re now comparing new-hire cost and productivity to pre-pandemic cost and productivity, and I guarantee that every analyst in the business will tell you that you’re destined to lose that battle. The brief analysis that I offered just above assumes that we were adequately staffed and appropriately engaged during normal times. I call your attention back to the whiteboard illustration of the sound wave diagram that was offered to me several decades ago but still very much applies to contemporary staffing: we are never staffed to adequately handle the full scope of our job requirements.

The cost of labor precludes the possibility that we are ever staffed for high demand – for Easter Sunday, as it were – we hustle over the peaks and catch our breath and address our backlog in the valleys that present themselves. Since the workload didn’t drop as low as the horizontal staffing bar did, the result is that the valleys of reduced activity are briefer, shallower and further apart. Rather than sound like a labor attorney, let me offer a helpful suggestion. Cutting your staff by ‘X’ percent, whether ‘X’ equals 5 or 50, means that you are going to modify the way you are currently doing business. Management typically prefers that the staff simply apply the X-factor to all current activities at hand, reducing the labor applied by the reduction percentage.

That may seem like a reasonable approach, but tell me how this sentence sounds to you: “Since we are reducing the staff by 50%, let’s simply pay 50% less attention to [fill in the blank] Cyber Security.” Should we ping our IT associates at chains who have been breached recently like [fill in the blank] Marriott and see if they think this is an appropriate way to approach the workload requirement with reduced staffing? My guess is that you can guess that answer. I fight distressed processing alternatives when I can, but I can’t fight the idea that we’re distressed – because we are. I also can’t fight the idea that we require processing alternatives – because we do. I can only fight the idea that applying the staff reduction percentage to all our current tasks – because that approach is no way to contend with recessionary circumstances.

It’s certain to create more problems than it solves. There are very few, if any, halfway measures in information technology. We are better off setting aside projects and closing lower priority activities when we can no longer address them competently and effectively. IT professionals will tell you that a job left fractionally done will need the resources already spent to be spent again – and then more – when the time comes to finish the job. Do-what-you-can-withwhat-you-have squanders the two resources that matter most in any crisis – time and money. There is no escaping the fact that we will end up doing less with less. The horizontal bar across the sound wave has been lowered; we can’t help but be a smaller organization with a smaller output. In lockstep with the leadership team, it’s time to make very hard decisions about what that smaller output must be.

There are many “tier two” activities in every schedule that seem mandatory simply because they’re there. They might be good ideas and nice touches, but they all take time that must be cut in the short term so that we survive to fight another day. Some of those miscellaneous good ideas may never return. IT becomes a new organization with some – hopefully many or miraculously, all – of our key associates still firmly in place, knowing that they themselves have become better leaders after a very difficult shared experience. Just as importantly, the hotel also must emerge as a new organization with a revised set of expectations to be overseen with a new understanding and intent. Managing to manage in times of adversity means we all do things differently – and that’s as it should be.  

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