You don’t need to look far to find alarming statistics about how hard the hospitality and tourism industries have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the same global travel fears, barriers, and restrictions remain in place, a staggering 174 million travel and tourism jobs could be lost. The International Air Transport Association estimated that airline passenger revenue would plunge by $314 billion this year—a 55% decrease from 2019 levels. The tourism sector as a whole could be set back by $1 trillion by the end of 2020. 

Things look bleak and it’s challenging to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s even tougher to maintain employee engagement and keep your staff motivated. In fact, our own Hospitality Pulse survey found that workforce engagement is the second biggest priority of hospitality businesses—ranking only behind financial management. 

Times are tough, and there’s no easy way through this. However, there are a few strategies you can use to boost your workforce’s morale.

1. Communicate Openly

This year hasn’t been business as usual. And, while you don’t want to add fuel to the fire by continuing to emphasize and obsess over the curveballs that have been thrown your way, you can’t sweep everything under the rug.

It’s important that you communicate openly and honestly with your staff. 31% of employees feel more transparency at work would help them understand their employer’s goals, and 23% said it would help them feel more motivated. Only 7% of employees said that increased transparency would cause them more stress. 

How can you boost transparency on your team? Proactively talk with your employees about: 

  • The challenges you’ve already faced, as well as the ones you anticipate, are still coming
  • Your plans for continued operation, including if you need to lay off or furlough employees
  • Changes in your operations, safety protocols, and other standard operating procedures

To put it simply, don’t assume that your employees will hear important information through the grapevine. Receiving these details from you allows you to increase transparency while also controlling the message.

2. Resist Making Promises

You need to communicate candidly with your workers. But, keep in mind that everybody is operating with an unprecedented level of uncertainty—so you don’t have the luxury of speaking in absolutes right now. 

For that reason, avoid making guarantees. The tourism and economic landscape is constantly shifting around you, and those promises will likely only end up being empty. When 57% of employees don’t trust their manager under normal circumstances, you don’t want to give them additional justification for not putting any weight in your words. 

You don’t know that your hotel will be running at 65% occupancy starting at the beginning of the year. You can’t guarantee that your restaurant will move away from a carryout-only business model anytime soon. 

Instead, you need to be humble enough to share that ambiguity with your employees in a way that’s still motivating. Here’s what that could look like:

“Much like everybody, we don’t have much concrete information about what’s next and how that will impact our hotel’s return to normalcy. What we do know is that we’re staying on top of best practices and doing everything we can to keep moving forward. More tough decisions might need to be made, but we’ll continue to prioritize proactive and honest communication about everything we’re facing.

When it’s your job to lead, it can feel unnatural not to have all of the answers. But, being upfront about your uncertainty instead of making empty promises will keep employees in the loop about what’s happening and help them manage their expectations accordingly. 

3. Solicit and Act on Feedback

We’re all saddled with a loss of control, and the last thing you want to do is make your employees feel like they’re only along for the ride. Unfortunately, 34% of employees worldwide don’t think their company listens to their ideas to improve the business. 

Involve your workforce in important decisions and regularly ask for their ideas and opinions on how you can get through this. Do they have suggestions for what you could do differently and ways you could pivot?

Plenty of hospitality businesses have gotten creative, such as a historic inn selling wine curbside or a restaurant rolling out a program to support cooks in launching their own ideas and businesses. 

Keep in mind that asking for input is only half of the equation—you also need to act on the feedback that’s valuable. If you continue to gather opinions from your staff but never do anything with them, that will breed frustration and resentment and negatively impact your employee engagement. 

4. Continue to Prioritize Relationships

Many hospitality businesses feel as if they’ve been kicked into maintenance mode. They’re operating with reduced offerings and a barebones staff while doing anything they can to keep their doors open.

When you’re treading water, relationships often get pushed to the backburner. However, bonds in the workplace are incredibly important. 55% of people say relationships with their colleagues are “very to extremely important” to their quality of life, and these personal connections can increase employee engagement. 

Even though nothing is normal about the way you’re currently operating, continue to provide ways for employees to maintain their relationships and support one another: 

  • Host virtual happy hours, networking events, or venting sessions
  • Start a dedicated place (such as a shared document or instant messaging channel) where employees can share advice and resources with each other
  • Implement fun team traditions (like sharing themed photos or creating a shared playlist) that can be done safely and/or remotely
  • Save time at the beginning or end of meetings for small talk and personal catch-ups

This is another opportunity to collect feedback from your employees. What would they like to participate in? The bonds they continue to strengthen will make them more resilient as you continue to ride the waves of this pandemic. 

5. Set Goals

For your employees who are still working, they shouldn’t feel like they’re showing up each day, sitting in a vacant business, and biding their time until their day is over. 

If you want to keep employee engagement high, you need to give your existing staff some meaningful goals to work toward—even if those goals can’t be exactly what they were pre-pandemic.

Maybe your booking management software needs a major clean-up and you want one of your team members to organize and lead that process. Or perhaps you want to give an employee the opportunity to manage the ins and outs of your boxed lunch takeout program.

Continue to give them things to work toward. This not only keeps them focused on progress but also offers them a greater sense of purpose. And, when nine out of 10 people say they’d earn less money if it meant they could do more meaningful work, it’s important that you go beyond the day-to-day and help them see how their work benefits the bigger picture. 

Employee Engagement Is Tough, But So Are You

Maintaining employee engagement is always a daunting task. But, it’s even more challenging when the hospitality industry seems to be in a tailspin.

The good news is that you aren’t totally powerless. There are a few strategies you can put into practice to provide support, boost motivation, and help your staff continue to put one foot in front of the other. Remember, one step at a time.

Download 10-point crisis communication checklist