Anna Sebastian was one of many to leave operations this year. She reflects on what needs to change, if not for the current generation of hospitality workers, for those of the future.
Photo by Jonathan Sharp
It is 4am, the witching hour – that ghostly time between the depths of night and the dawn of morning. As usual, I can’t sleep and I’ve been lying here for hours. Finally, I succumb to the familiar void of aimlessly scrolling Instagram.
For the best part of 16 years, I’ve been working in bars, clubs and hotels, and this has been my routine. Until this summer, when I called time on my life in operations – at least for now.
With almost two decades in service, there were plenty of good times. Bar operations is fun, exciting and instantaneously gratifying. You get that buzz when everything falls into place during shift, that cold beer at the end of the night as you sit down with your teammates, body aching with satisfying tiredness. The not knowing who will walk through the doors at any given time, the intrinsic behaviour you develop where you just know what will happen next. The unspoken language you develop with your team mates to communicate. The part you get to play in your guests’ experience – it is exhilarating and addictive at the same time.
Pre-pandemic, the industry was alive with events, parties, full restaurants and bars, hotels at 100% occupancy. It was a never-ending rollercoaster where each month we’d say “next month will be quieter, we’ll have more time then”, but next month was never quieter and we never really had more time. We would speak a lot about changes that would rarely come about.
The romance of, and the emotion you attach to, your workplace can lead you to normalise the culture. The long hours, regular double shifts, being short staffed, holidays that take ages to get approved, or rotas that arrive a few days before the family occasions you’re now unable to attend. The feeling of being exhausted was so imbedded in us that it felt normal. We would be asked how we were doing and, we would reply “living the dream”, because in some moments we were. At other times we were sat alone in the back of a taxi at 4am going home after another 17-hour day. Somewhere deep inside me there was a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode. I left before it detonated.
The pandemic not only exposed the fragility of life but also of the hospitality industry. More people left than ever before and fewer people seemed eager to join. There seemed to be less passion, less love for hospitality as we began to come out of the pandemic and reopen for the third time earlier this year.
I have my own experiences, my own journey and reasons are probably all too familiar to many of you, but I wanted to know why others have also chosen to leave. Through a survey on Instagram and Google Forms, which drew 300 replies, more than half of people who had left operations did so because of redundancy, but just under half complained of a lack of opportunity or a lack of work-life balance. Alarmingly, 72% of people who had left operations said that their lives had improved.
My survey exposed the top five challenges of working in the hospitality operations as staff shortage, long hours, low pay, an uncertain future, the effects on mental health and wellness and lack of work-life balance.
As we stand at the precipice of significant societal shifts, we have to accept that hospitality has a problem. The publicity of the nationwide staffing crisis and media coverage around the stress of working in this sector have exposed hospitality’s working conditions. It’s no wonder people are leaving, and we are struggling to entice their replacements.
For all the talk of culture change following lockdowns, my survey suggests it hasn’t happened – 86% of respondents said their workplace hadn’t changed. But as we emerge, the pandemic could still be the catalyst for positive culture change. First and foremost, we need to place as much focus on staff experience as we do guests’ experience.
Creating a new workplace culture can start with the small things that impact your team’s day-to-day. So, if you’re a bar owner or manager, speak to your staff about what tangible changes could be made. Have you considered that some staff worry about locking up alone, getting home safely at night because they spend hours on a night bus across London? Could taxis home after a certain time be budgeted for? If you have a kitchen, could good, healthy food be offered on a daily basis? How could you plan your rotas to allow your staff to plan their free time?
Unsurprisingly, better pay and fewer hours rank highly on the list of priorities – according to my survey – but open and fair communication is also one of the changes staff want most.
Photo by Grant Pritchard
Monica Berg, co-founder of Tayer + Elementary, made the decision to close the bar this summer to give the team a well-earned break. “I’ve always said that the sustainability of people is equally important to the sustainability of our environment. I think at this point we just need to take care of our own before we can take care of others. One thing is to be closed because you are told to, which does not give you relief or relaxation – something entirely different is to choose to close your bar to give yourself a break. I think the past 18 months have taught us that you just can’t underestimate the importance of happiness.”
Pippa Guy, formerly of the American Bar, moved to NYC to work at Crown Shy just before the pandemic hit, only to find herself swiftly returning home – but not to operations. “I’m sure this will resonate with many people: Covid changed a hell of a lot about my life. My job, location, my outlook on life and my future. During seven long months of unemployment I had a lot of time to reflect. My journey at the American Bar was outstanding but it involved a lot of sacrifices and I was really desperate to get some balance back into my life. There’s that saying that no one on their death bed says they wish they had worked more and that really resonated with me.”
For Guy, balance comes in having the flexibility to see family, play netball, surf and, importantly for a morning person, get up early. “There are elements of service that are unchangeable – the time frame and days of the week that people want to be out drinking – but I think businesses need to be stricter on overtime. We also need to make a cultural shift and stop ‘heroing’ working 90 hours a week and not getting any sleep. It’s not cool, it’s not fun and it doesn’t make you any better at your job than the next person.
“I’d be interested to see if hospitality would be able to move to a four-day working week. Many people work 10-12 hour days in service anyway, when you include overtime, so maybe we just need to change the way we look at our rotas and give people three days off and see if that’s helpful for people to find balance.
"I realise that there is a staffing shortage at the moment and we have to get back on our feet before anything like this could be trialled.”
Will Beckett, co-founder of Hawksmoor agrees changes are needed: “The industry should spend more time thinking about what makes for rewarding, sustainable jobs for the vast majority of people in the industry – the waiters, the CDPs, the bartenders. It’s an industry which can be highly skilled, but where the barriers to entry are character and work ethic, not formal qualifications, those are the people we should be focusing on – making sure those jobs receive adequate wages, benefits, training and work-life balance. That is what we should celebrate and communicate.”
Alex King, formerly of LCC and Artesian, is now working at Sweet & Chilli: “Lockdown showed me what a ‘normal’ schedule is like. You can actually plan ahead instead of having to wait for your rota to see what you can do with your life. It’s not a sustainable lifestyle having to wait a week (or even days) to see when you’re working.”
It can start with small changes. Public in Sheffield is one bar that has started to make changes to improve staff wellbeing. Co-owner James O'Hara fills us in. "We’ve done two-day sessions called So Let’s Talk, run by Patrick Howley. They’re about mental health, financial health, sleep, exercise and nutrition. This is just the start of a journey for our company of self-improvement.”
Leaving traditions in the past
We are often so bound by the traditions of hospitality operations, we forget many of our approaches aren’t relevant to people’s lives today. We need to reset and create a model that offers an appealing career for everyone who works in hospitality.
The secrets of hospitality’s working conditions are no longer secret. An article in The Guardian this month spoke about a new initiative in Spain in which tourists will now be able to choose hotels based on whether the staff enjoy decent working conditions. Set up by Las Kellys, Spain’s chambermaids' organisation, there are several criteria to meet, including wages and hours worked. Transparency of working conditions at the click of a button – how long before customers choose their hotels, bars and restaurants, not only by the service, but by their working conditions too? Businesses of the future will also see that happier staff are more productive and provide a better service.
Hospitality is more than just a meal, a drink, a place to sleep. It is where celebrations take place, love is found, broken hearts mended. It has created moments, memories, unbreakable connections, passed from person to person, generation to generation. Now the responsibility lies on all of us, as operators, managers and owners, to do better, to challenge the norms handed down to us and create culture change. For our staff and those that follow them into this great industry, now and in the future.