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Running a hotel during a pandemic

Richard Lee, General Manager at Hilton Garden Inn Heathrow Airport, ran an airport hotel during the pandemic. He witnessed a number of changes happening among us and watched as the pandemic brought many new experiences.

11 April 2022

How did the pandemic affect the hotel and those of you working there?
“At the beginning of the crisis there were moments when it felt as if a tsunami of problems was washing over us fast and with full force. Our established ways of working and thinking were completed erased. Now, in hindsight, we can see how we were forced to be more agile and resilient, and to make faster decisions. I believe that Pandox’s agile culture and flat organisation helped us to be more proactive and flexible than our competitors that have a more traditional and hierarchical structure. This enabled us to adapt, because the hotels were forced to find entirely new ways of providing services to our guests. Some of the temporary solutions we introduced were perhaps not as elegant as our normal guest experience, but in a way it took us back to the origins of the hospitality industry: we provided a safe and welcoming environment when people needed it. Because we’re an airport hotel, many of the guests staying with us were stranded or trying to get home to their nearest and dearest. When I look back I feel proud of the resilience we showed and of the help we were able to provide to so many people.”

What has been the main challenge during the pandemic?
“Apart from the obvious effects on the business, our other big challenge was taking care of our employees’ health and well-being. Covid-19 negatively impacted everyone’s lives at work and at home, which manifested itself in a number of complex and sometimes surprising problems that our employees were presented with. There is no handbook or guidance for managers to tell us how to act in such situations. All we could do was to make sure that we provided humane leadership, showed people that we cared and did our best to support them. Naturally, we didn’t do everything right, but I believe that our team of employees could see the effort we were putting into sup-porting everyone. They became closer and that increased commitment and loyalty.”

What will be the biggest challenge after the pandemic?
“There was an enormous shift in the relationship between employee and employer during the pandemic – our teams expect things to be different now and want to work in new ways. It’s easy to just see this as a staff shortage crisis, but I believe it goes far deeper than that. It’s a challenge for us all to change the way we look at our culture and our purpose as an employer, and at our own individual ways of working. Employees want more flexibility, a better work-life balance, better terms and benefits, more training and development opportunities, and an increased sense of meaning in their work roles.” 

Why are we seeing this change?
“No doubt there are many economic and social reasons for this change, and it’s impacting most industries and countries. Here in the UK it’s very easy to blame Brexit for the staff short-age. While it’s true that the changes in our immigration rules have limited the supply of migrant workers, there must be more to it than that because many of my colleagues in Europe are experiencing the same challenges. I believe that the pandemic gave people an opportunity to think about what’s important to them and whether their work role coincides with the lifestyle they want and their personal goals. Employees want to feel a strong connection to a clear purpose at work and to know that their work is making a positive contribution to their company, their own development and the world around them. They also expect higher compensation in the form of salary and benefits, but in return they’re willing to go the extra mile at work, take on more responsibility and develop new skills. Many people in my team have found themselves a sideline – such as being a baker, DJ or social media star! It’s extraordinary and inspiring to discover hidden talents within our team and to see how passionate they are about their projects.”

How can Pandox respond to this change?
“Although the short-term effect of the change has been relatively acute, I believe that the new paradigm provides an opportunity for a responsible, purpose-driven company like Pandox. Employees are no longer willing to work for low quality employers. This provides us with a new opportunity to attract, retain and develop the best talent for our teams, which in turn helps us to create a more guest-centric experience at the hotels and ensure guest loyalty. Pandox has always had a clear purpose and a culture based on fair play. That puts us in a very advantageous position as an employer after the pandemic.”