Hospitality has long been touted as a great place to work. Historically, companies have focused on luring candidates by sharing the glitz and glamour of working in an international environment, and highlighting how it’s the perfect place for networking and honing a range of soft skills. In reality, however, employees report of poor work-life balance, low salaries, high stress levels, and dissatisfaction with their workplace. The ongoing staff shortages are evidence that the sector needs fixing, but the question is how? 

We sat down with Dr. Michael Ohler, a certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt and sought-after consultant, to understand how the industry can empower its people, improve reward and recognition, and create a thriving workplace culture with the help of data.

Read on to glean insights from his expertise in strategy, change management, systematic innovation, continuous improvement, and data analytics across hospitality and other industries. 

Article Index (click on the headers below to jump to the required section)

1. Dr. Michael's journey and consulting background 

2. Why staff have been undervalued in the industry

3. Hiring and retaining talent in times of shortage

4. How can leaders offer employees the resources they need? 

5. How can leaders empower employees? 

6. Which EVP can help hospitality attract talent? 

7. Why fair pay is the need of the hour

8. Increasing retention by developing middle management 

9. How to insource talent and enhance operational efficiency

10. Using data for process improvement 


Could You Tell Us How You Went From Physics to Consulting?

Certainly. As a researcher in physics, I am trained to look at a system and ask how it functions. That thinking has helped me for roles in project and quality management, controlling, and systematic improvement. From corporate, I went on to consulting to understand how to make an organisational system run better by assessing all its functions. My personal insight is that people are the cornerstone for making systems work. A key aspect of my work is to help them realise the role they play. If we succeed, that makes both them and me happy. 

I've worked on improvement and transformation initiatives. One of my biggest projects, spanning 5-7 years, involved helping leaders across the globe with “strategically” setting up their business function. These leaders had the responsibility to develop their business over the next three to five years. I helped them do the strategic thinking, design a strategy, set up the plan and get people on board with internal and external stakeholders. That work has led me to China, Japan, the USA and more. Along the way, I’ve also experienced the hospitality industry as a guest in these different places and could sample their unique and fascinating flavours. In another role, I have also worked with two major hospitality brands as a trainer, coach, and advisor on design and process improvement.


Why Do You Think Staff Have Been Undervalued in Our People-Centric Industry? Did We Need a Pandemic to Illustrate it? 

Let me answer this from a guest’s perspective first.  As a business traveller arriving at a hotel, I typically want to rush to my room, perhaps to make a call or two before having a quick dinner and then hitting the bed. If that is my goal, then a somewhat lengthy or slow check-in procedure is standing in my way, since in my mind, I should already be in my room. 

Caught up in such thoughts, I will not see – and even less appreciate  – the polite, attentive human being in front of me at the reception counter.  Furthermore: hospitality staff are expected to appear as if they weren't even there, so smooth should the interaction and the level of service be that they offer. As a business traveller, I must admit, I tend to under-appreciate the wonderful people who do all they can to make my experience the best possible.

When I leave my room the next morning to go and work with my client, somehow, an employee magically comes in to clean up after me, transforming my room into a wonderfully clean space again. That just happens by miracle, right? I don't see the fairies, the Harry Potters, the helpful beings who are responsible for this cleanliness and order. I typically don’t even notice they are there, and even if I met them, it would be hard for me to remember their faces or names.  That's the guest perspective. We tend to under-appreciate the people who do their very best for us. And I hope with what I just said, they understand – and hopefully forgive me. 

Now comes the employer perspective. In the past, hospitality employers may have felt they could easily substitute someone who didn’t perform well. In that line of thinking, employees can be easily trained on highly-standardised procedures, and employers simply expect certain behavioural standards for treating guests. 

The problem with this approach arises in times of scarcity of labour. That’s when we realise how hard it is to have a good and stable workforce, and how few of these people are around to help our guests feel welcome. Employers are only now truly realising the scarcity that was always there, in my opinion. 


What is Your Perspective on the Emotional Labour and EI Required in Hospitality, And How Should Leaders Hire and Retain Talent in Tough Times? 

Along my consulting journey, I have learned how much empathy everyone should develop for the hospitality industry. The long working hours and vast amount of emotional labour required day in day out can be a deterrent for choosing to work there. Not to mention the evident power distance between hospitality employees and guests, as well as the high expectations from staff for making each stay memorable. 

It's a people-intensive industry where you’re producing guest satisfaction and not “just” products. Obviously, this impacts the way one should hire for roles. Take people in the first levels of the hierarchy, let's say at the reception desk: even they may need to make high impact decisions on the spot. They need to be empowered to make these decisions and they need to be skilled at that.

What I have learned during my time as a consultant to the hospitality industry is that hospitality staff tend to develop high decision quality at a speed that would be unheard of in other industries – and this is thanks to the very nature of the business. They also need quick problem-solving capabilities, which implies that leaders must keep training and developing them - or they’ll have to deal with a high turnover rate. Because hospitality employees talk to people from other industries and are aware of their skills and competencies. 

Therefore, focusing on competencies such as timely decision making, decision quality, and dealing with ambiguity from very early on is advisable for creating a thriving workplace culture. Personally, I use the Lominger competencies (a list of 60+ competencies). I think using them, or a similar model, could make good sense also for the hospitality hiring and training processes. The leadership architect sort cards are a tool based on these competencies and I find them worth investing in. 


There’s Often a Big Gap Between the Resources Employees Need and What is Expected From Them To Do Their Job Well. How Can Leaders Bridge This Gap and Create a Thriving Workplace Culture? 

I am convinced the keyword here is having standards.  Some people may perceive standards as a straightjacket, as in having to follow a certain script when I pick up the phone, the protocol to follow how I receive someone at the reception desk, and so on.

Yet, leaders must develop standards for work situations to help safeguard employees as well as the company. This includes dealing with difficult guests and critical situations. The objective is to turn these protocols into proven standards that employees will rely on. Leaders must assure that these standards work for their own people, that they help and empower people.

The hospitality industry knows situations for which no standards exist. Then there must be guidelines for handling exceptions, when standards don't work or apply. The guidelines I have seen work best are a short list of 5 things or so. People can easily memorise this list to see if they are on track with what they do.

The third element is what I see as critical. That’s to say when a situation really runs out of control, for example with a difficult guest, and neither the standards nor the guidelines really work. Employees may then take a decision to the best of their knowledge. If their decision leads to an undesired result for the guest,  hotel, or team, then it is up to the leaders to reflect on one thing: how could they, or “the system” let an employee end up in such a highly stressful situation that nobody wanted, without standards or a guideline to rely on? 

I believe those are the key elements that a leader needs to put into place. 


Employees Are Expected to Politely Deal with Rude Guest Behaviour at all Times, Which Can Be Disempowering. Do You Think There’s a Way to Empower Employees Amidst Adverse Situations? 

I think we all know the answer to that one. Whether we follow the “Seven Virtues” of European antiquities, or the ethical framework of Confucius, a guest isn’t right when they are being rude and disrespectful. The problem is when a disruptive work situation (like a rude guest) clashes with our personal conviction or our ethical framework. 

Managers can empower employees by training them to understand that, while the guest may be wrong, their role isn’t to educate the guest. Their role, rather, is to make their time memorable. Having that clarity can help the employee stay personally calm rather than getting emotionally involved. 

A manager must also train their employees to understand rude guest behaviour is not an attack against them - it's an attack against some ethical principles. An employee becomes successful in a customer-facing role when they can distinguish between an attack against themselves and an attack against ethical principles. 

The next step is teaching the employee how to deescalate a situation and when and how to involve their manager in a respectful way. As per my personal experience, these steps increase staff resilience and help them develop a higher level of emotional intelligence. 


Which EVP Would Help Attract Talent to the Hospitality Industry Based on Your Consulting Experience? 

In many industries, employees’ physical appearance doesn’t matter. But it matters in hospitality. Self-respect is important, otherwise you can't really work here.  I am convinced and I have seen how much self-respect and self-discipline can help polish people in the long run. There’s simply less room in the hospitality industry for self-neglect. 

Another advantage for individuals who want to learn and develop fast is that employees in the hospitality industry can get daily exposure to difficult situations. A  good manager can then debrief them on the learnings from each situation. These experiences and debriefs will help them develop competencies faster than elsewhere and hence grow in their career. 

The Employee Value Proposition (EVP) I’d focus on is: You don’t need a university degree to work in and reach high positions in hospitality. The focus rather is on the unique value the industry brings to the world. Working here polishes you like a diamond. If you truly want, you may go in as a fresher and then you come out as a skilled, competent and respected person - someone who can face any situation calmly, and work in any given role with resilience, confidence, and self-respect. I’d see that perspective as a big plus for the industry and for working in it.


Adequate Remuneration Remains the Elephant in the Room. Could You Share Why Fair Pay is the Need of the Hour? 

The way the world ticks is that pay expectations are generally tied into the stage of life one is in. That is to say, when we are young and have less financial pressures we can also accept lower pay. My own experience may serve as an example here.  During my physics doctorate, I was paid half the salary for my role as a researcher. I believe it’s still the same till today. I was told “this is the only way you’ll get a chance to work in this role and earn your PhD”. I did and could accept the offer because I believed in learning, and I had no family to feed or a mortgage to pay off. 

I think people would only see a lower pay as a chance if they get an opportunity to learn, get polished, and pick up things that make sense to them for their future career. Of course: that also implies they will leave the job once they achieve that learning goal. In the hospitality industry, I believe, we must come to terms with this. 

If that logic were right and applicable, then hospitality hiring managers and recruiters could do something similar for fresh graduate roles: They could highlight that the pay may be lower than expected but there are other things on the table, such as benefits and learning opportunities, because everyone knows this isn’t the candidate's last career step. Ultimately, the question becomes a case of supply and demand. You’ll have to analyse how many candidates are ready to take up the offer of pay plus learning – then you can adjust the offer accordingly.

In this supply and demand logic, if you’re not getting enough talent as a hotel, you’ll need to put more money on the table. Especially if you’re looking to hire people that have families depending on them or if they need to pay down mortgages, etc. But I am convinced: organisational culture, team spirit and mainly learning – that is my theory here - remain attractive factors at every stage of a career and should always be asserted in a job offer. 


How Can We Incentivise and Develop Middle Management to Increase Retention? 

What I have seen work best here is a “chimney model” for developing middle managers. Considering a company has fewer managers than staff, staff members who’ve worked for the company for some years have a higher chance of leaving, as mentioned earlier. The “chimney-effect” would then make sure there is “pull” from the top that pulls many people into and the right people up the chimney.

There may be staff members who decide to stay on because they love their role, the industry, and work environment. You can offer them a pay rise to help them train others with an offer such as “if you see yourself working here for longer, we will put more money on the table because you create value by helping others create value.  And we want you to bring your life and job experience to the team by training the next generation”. 

In sum, companies must acknowledge that middle managers are not only in charge of skill development. They are also shaping the company culture and building a thriving workplace culture from within. A remuneration package for middle managers must take these factors into account, and the hiring strategy must be adjusted to these factors. 


What Advice Would You Give for Insourcing Talent and Enhancing Operational Efficiency? 

Managers are typically expected to develop certain habits and lead the team through daily and weekly or biweekly meetings. There should be a part of these meetings dedicated to learning too. Ideally, this is where you allow team members to teach each other what they have individually learnt. You can be creative here and use micro-credentials, formal education, and so on.  

Next, hotels could of course engage a consultant to help their teams assimilate this learning and put it into practice. For example, I could send a few of my managers to a Lean Six Sigma training because I believe it could help our work processes become more efficient and guest-focused. 

As of today, there are many opportunities. For example, I would definitely engage my people in micro-credentials and have them complete an online training and exam first. Only then would I engage a consultant to help us put the procedures in place and build that supportive work culture internally. Developing talent internally means you have the next generation of managers ready, and their newly acquired knowledge will also help with operational efficiency. 

You Mentioned Leveraging Data for Process Improvement in Hospitality. Could You Give us an Example of How This Works? 

I can share an example of a project I did years ago for a large hospitality company. It consisted of making the housekeeping process for guest rooms more efficient.  I imagine many hotels can relate to this issue.  

The manager in charge had told me “I have x number of rooms to clean in a morning and I know it should take x number of hours to clean the rooms. However, my staff is unreliable, and I can't predict how long they will take for housekeeping. Some clean faster than the others, which makes calculating the time required unpredictable. I don't know what they're doing. Are some of them taking breaks all the time?”

My first assessment was that they had no data on how long cleaning rooms actually took. So I asked the staff to fill in sheets of paper to keep track. In the beginning, people started fudging the numbers out of fear of retaliation. In the end, however, we were able to predict the time it took based on a simple model: What mattered was how many changes between floors an employee had to make and how many rooms of loyalty members someone had to clean.  

It turned out that loyalty members’ rooms took longer to clean because there was more work involved. We didn’t know the true reasons but speculated these guests were less attentive how they left their rooms behind (perhaps because they felt entitled to do so thanks to their long history with the company). 

With this model, we understood why some employees took longer and it had nothing to do with laziness or wasting time. As a result, we allotted extra time to employees cleaning loyalty members’ rooms. The data and our model helped us understand what needed to be done instead of making assumptions. 

Thankfully, today we have systems to keep track of timestamps through badges etc. when someone starts cleaning a new room. The issue to take care of, of course, is an ethical one: data can be categorised on a personal level and linked to personal performance. Some would say it's confidential and unethical to use such data to manage a process. I’d answer: any management needs to be done in an ethical manner, whether you use data or not. 

My experience is: fairness based on data is appreciated by people. If you try to learn about your business processes and identify what is and isn’t working, and if you involve people to identify and drive improvement, that can become a cornerstone of your own business culture. That's how your workplace culture can thrive. 

My advice here is to collect meaningful data in the critical parts of your processes, and use it to lubricate the functioning of your processes. Don't use data to spy on people. That wouldn’t get you far. 


Get to Know the Expert Better 

Michael Ohler

Michael Ohler 

Dr. Michael Ohler is dedicated to guiding global leaders in effecting transformative change. With over two decades of cross-industry expertise in process improvement, machine learning, systematic innovation, strategy design and deployment, he embodies a relentless curiosity and a commitment to continuous learning. His fervour lies in catalysing change alongside individuals, harnessing the power of collaboration to drive meaningful progress. Dr. Ohler recognises the hospitality industry as an invaluable arena for honing emotional intelligence and acquiring transferable competencies crucial across various sectors.