The Availability Trap

Today’s post comes to us from board member and Group HR Director at Merlin Entertainments, Natalie Bickford.

In the hospitality sector, many of us have fallen into what I think of as “the availability trap”: running our consumer-facing businesses on the whim of a 17-year-old who wants to work, but also attend band practice three afternoons a week. Or the 19-year-old who wants shifts mid-week but likes to hang out with their friends on the weekend. We hire for availability, and then add more employees to our payroll on variable contracts, just to ensure that we have enough staff to open our visitor attraction, our coffee shop, or our store. The result? We have far too many employees to whom we offer far too few hours to create meaningful jobs. Those employees might well then go out and get themselves a supplementary job (or two) meaning that they aren’t available to work in any case when you actually call on them. This certainly doesn’t make for an engaged workforce, often results in reliance on agency staff who might not share your business’ values or have been properly on-boarded, and ultimately damages the consumer experience.

Unfortunately, we have created this mess ourselves. The desire to have maximum flexibility within our workforce so that we can run on skeleton staff on a rainy day, but staff up fully when the sun comes out makes sense on paper if you’re running a P&L. Nobody wants to explain to their boss that they made a loss during a quiet period, with minimal customer footfall and employees sitting around twiddling their thumbs. For many, however, this has gone too far – with the vast majority of the front line workforce being hired on variable contracts, resulting in significant employee turnover, leading to more hiring, and so the addiction to the variable drug  goes on.

So, here’s a thought. Every consumer-facing business needs a core of frontline employees, whatever the weather, the holiday, or what sport is on the TV that weekend. Let’s start by making all of those positions permanent with a minimum 35 hours per week. These folks become your brand champions, your trainers, and your future managers. Then supplement these core jobs with a much smaller number of variable roles, again maximizing the hours as much as possible. Cross train the teams so that they can work across a number of departments. In visitor attractions, this means training employees to “follow the guest” – admissions booths in the morning, food and beverage at lunchtime, and retail sales in the afternoon. This way you can create more interesting work experience for the employee, more valuable and flexible roles, and a greater sense of team amongst the workforce. Supplement this with sales or service incentives, end of season bonuses, recognition programs, and access to training. These variable employees might well then become your core employees of the future.

Implement, if possible, a mobile-enabled staff scheduling tool that allows employees to swap shifts amongst themselves, allowing them to fit in that band practice or shopping day.

Let’s free ourselves from the availability trap and rebuild our work schedules with our employees front-of-mind.  This will have far greater an impact on our P&L than ensuring the maximum flexibility that we don’t really need.

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