Definitely Doug 12/16/22: Technology to Attract and Retain Staff

by Doug Rice

This week’s topic will be a holiday-shortened but nevertheless important one. As an industry, we all know there is a labor challenge today. Some parts of the world have earned a temporary reprieve as travel demand has dropped, but others, notably the U.S. market, are still struggling to find staff. For most of the world, it remains a long-term problem.

There have been many articles and studies about how the pandemic, in combination with demographics, has changed the view that many (especially younger) workers have towards employers. Flexibility, work-life balance, good training, clear career paths, and the need to feel valued have never been more important.

Unemployment, at 3.7% in the U.S. in November, is close to its all-time low. Before the pandemic, the industry filled the gap to a significant extent with immigrant workers, but visa restrictions have reduced the available pool. Further, many hotel workers who were furloughed in 2020 have moved on in their careers and have said they are unlikely to come back to hotels – they like their new work situation better. Turnover in hotels remains astronomical.

Hotels need to rethink what they do to make themselves attractive as employers. While there are many aspects to this, technology can play an important role. I will summarize a few ideas here, many of which are available in the market today. Others may represent opportunities for vendors to build or improve.

Flexibility. One of the top benefits cited for gig work is the ability to control when and how much you work. Hotels have mostly avoided gig work, with a few exceptions mostly around banqueting staff. But why not a gig platform for housekeepers, bellmen, and perhaps certain restaurant staff? While some staff will prefer or need regular hours, there is a large pool of labor that can be called on only when needed, either because permanent staff can’t be found, or because of surges in demand that do not justify permanent hiring. Gig-work platforms could record training certifications for brands or management companies; they can also provide ratings of workers to the hotel (and of hotels to the worker). A mix of permanent and on-call staff makes sense for most businesses that face widely fluctuating demand, and where is that more true than a hotel?

There is only one company I have found in this space (Adia), although there may be others, as it represents an emerging opportunity. Software for gig-work platforms exists and could easily be adapted, so perhaps there are or will soon be others. Gig-work businesses are usually limited in geographic scope (even Uber doesn’t operate in many rural areas); they tend to cluster in urban areas where there is enough supply and demand to make a market. Employing gig workers would enable hotels to better match daily variations in labor requirements to availability, without the inflexibility of having to post all shifts two weeks ahead. Workers who dislike inflexible schedules could find hotels more attractive to work in than currently.

Communications. Most hotels do not provision email accounts for many non-exempt staff, due to costs and the burdens of account maintenance. Yet the ability to communicate with all staff easily and reliably matters. They want to know what’s going on, and they want to get feedback on what they or others have done well. It is hard to keep everyone in the loop when managers and staff tend to work overlapping shifts and days off, and there is no time you can call a team meeting that everyone will be able to attend.

There are lots of solutions here, from commercial employee communication apps to free platforms like WhatsApp and lightweight collaboration apps like Discord, Slack, and Telegram. One major brand CIO I spoke with was raving about a simple, low-cost custom app that his company had had built by a mobile app development shop. Look for something that facilitates simple communications that can keep staff up to date and aware of major changes in policies or procedures, as well as provide specific snippets of information that may be relevant to a specific team on an upcoming shift. The ability to broadcast messages to all staff, to specific departments, or to workers on specific shifts can go a long way to making colleagues feel more connected and engaged. This can be particularly important for staff who have only limited interaction with managers and peers already, such as housekeepers.

Whatever you choose, make sure it has the ability for managers to give public shout-outs to staff who make the extra effort or earn an “attaboy” in guest surveys or online reviews. Positive feedback in front of peers is a proven way to keep employees motivated and to help them learn what kinds of actions are valued by guests and management. You can also use it to post job opportunities that will give staff better visibility of potential career paths, and to encourage those who might consider themselves unqualified to apply. Many hourly staff are qualified move up may be too timid or afraid of rejection to seek out unposted opportunities. A little push and encouragement (“housekeepers and bell staff are welcome to apply”) may be all they need.

Meaningful Work. I recently received a note from an educator at one of the world’s top hotel schools. He had been communicating with a student on an internship at a large city hotel affiliated with a major chain. The student told him that about a third of his day is spent compiling a custom report in Excel for the general manager, pulling data manually out of the property management system, point-of-sale system, revenue management system, and others. The educator asked how motivating this job was on a 10-point scale. The answer: zero (are we surprised?).

How do hotels expect to retain talent if they are giving them purely menial work that is well below their capabilities, and that automation would be doing in almost any other industry? There are so many technology solutions to this problem, ranging from business intelligence tools and dashboards to using tools like robotic process automation to emulate what the intern is doing. Find the people in your hotel who are bored with repetitive manual work, replace it with technology where you can, and assign the people to more rewarding tasks that will motivate them to stay!

Training. Older workers received their training mostly in classroom settings, or in intense one-on-one sessions with more experienced peers. Generation Z has grown up with the ability to Google search almost anything they need, and their approach to learning is very different than boomers, Gen X, and even much of Gen Y. Give them a few two-minute video overviews of the process you want them to follow, enough to handle the most common cases they will encounter. Then give them a searchable or context-driven tool that can find material on the edge cases when they need it.

There are plenty of e-learning platforms at all different price points that can create curricula that a staff member can follow at their own pace over time. You can track completion and competency, and when they forget how to do something that occurs only rarely, give them the resources to refresh their memory. Make the two-week full-time training sessions a relic of the 20th century and adapt your training programs to today’s students!

Compensation. There are lots of new tools to help employees earn more and get paid faster, without the employer having to pay higher wages. Two major chains, Wyndham and BWH Hotel Group, recently announced app-based digital tipping; many individual hotels have already done so. While the metrics are hard to pin down because historically many cash tips go unreported (duh!), staff at some early pilots (many of whom were initially skeptical) have reported that digital tipping has increased their average hourly pay by $2 to $4, at little or no cost to the hotel. Better compensated staff, at little or no cost to the hotel … why wouldn’t you take advantage of this?

Early wage access is another winner. Many low-paid hourly staff live paycheck to paycheck. One manager started probing into why so many of staff were calling off. He frequently heard the answer was “I have to drive for Uber today because I need the money today, and with Uber it will be in my bank account when I finish the day.” Hotels in recent years have been able to do that through arrangements with banks, but it was often cumbersome. Now, it’s getting easier. Some of the payroll platforms commonly used in the industry are partnering with banks to do the heavy lifting, integrating with time and attendance, payroll, and tipping solutions. The employee gets a checking account with a debit card, and some or all of their daily earnings are deposited at the end of each day.

These are low-cost or no-cost technologies that increase compensation and provide more flexible cash flow to low-wage workers. Most of the providers allow the modest costs (usually a few percent of the transaction) to either be paid by the hotel or passed on to the employee or (in the case of tips) the tipper. And the combination of early wage access and digital tipping can be very rewarding to the employee who scores a large tip from a happy customer and wants to celebrate and spend it tonight.


There are lots of problems in the hotel industry that are difficult to solve with technology. But there are so many simple and inexpensive things that we could do with technology to make hotels more attractive as employers. What are we waiting for?

Douglas Rice

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