Each department within the GCH Hotel Group was affected differently by COVID-19 and the resulting hotel shutdowns. How did the HR department experience those days? We talked to Andrea Sudfeld, Director of People Development, Recruiting & Communication at GCH Hotel Group.
Many of our colleagues had their working hours cut down by 100 % when the crisis started. How did it feel in the beginning, with all the strategic changes? What possibilities did People Development have to make the situation bearable for the employees?
Especially in the beginning, we largely depended on the government’s decisions and regulations. Although we were prepared for short-time work – which is what we had announced already at our kick-off party – we still hoped that a complete lockdown would be avoidable. However, things turned out differently.
Our first reaction was to send all employees to their home offices straight away. It was important for us to give parents and single parents the option to schedule their working hours according to their childcare needs and still be able to finish their projects. Due to the hotel shutdowns and the tourist travel ban there was little room for further proactive measures.
The company applied early for immediate financial support by the government.
Yes, there fortunately was the opportunity to apply for a short-time allowance, which enabled us to reactivate at least some of our employees in their home offices for a few hours per week. We immediately applied for the short-time allowance. Apart from that, we applied for further economic subsidies. This required a lot of own research and initiative but it worked out in the end.
For both the management board and us in People Development, this was a crisis we had never experienced before. There were little tangible reference points. Therefore, we focussed on strengthening the sense of community within the company - this togetherness we already proudly highlighted during the kick-off party. Our employees paid it back with their fullest dedication in maintaining the individual hotels operative. This dedication truly proves the solidarity within our GCH family.
How have your tasks and responsibilities changed since the first outbreak of COVID-19?
Our activities since the beginning of the crisis have been very process-oriented and quite different to our everyday tasks. It required quite some research to ensure a protected work environment for our employees. We had to figure out the right choice of masks, gloves and Plexiglas® partition walls. Due to the high demand for disinfectants in the general population, the procurement of these turned out to be rather challenging.
We tried to build a framework of measures and regulations that could be easily adapted to the individual situation of each hotel. Both our colleagues at the headquarter and on-site at the hotels should be able to easily implement and follow the measures.
After some time, it became apparent that there was still room for optimisation in certain aspects of our communication process. Of course, we were all used to open and direct on-site communication. As soon as everyone started to work from home, we had to figure out which platform would best serve the purpose of communication. Next to that, we faced some organisational challenges, especially in the procurement of replacement devices where some of the hardware broke. We took a step back to reflect and then created tables to illustrate which areas already worked well during the crisis and where there was still potential for improvement, also when returning to everyday business. This led to an even stronger focus on data-protection compliant communication than before.
What was the biggest challenge for HR during COVID-19?
For HR it was mainly the question of how long short-time work would be in place. We are glad that there were hardly any contract terminations at GCH. Nonetheless, we had to put some projects on the back burner in order to ensure the survival of the company. This definitely changed our mindset.
The next big change was the home office. I have to admit that in the beginning it was almost relaxing to work from home. The weather was brilliant and I was able to enjoy my balcony and clear my head. At first, the leisure options were limited so that the reduced money was not an issue, but after some time it definitely becomes more challenging to cover the general cost of living with a lower income.
What’s more is the permanent question of how long this situation is going to persist. We count with that much human potential but were just not able to fully exploit it under these circumstances. Not only the colleauges in short-time work but also I did ask myself the question when we would finally be able to get cracking again.
Did the hotels serve alternative purposes, e.g. as accommodations for medical staff?
They did indeed. We brainstormed together with the crisis unit and decided to offer the hotels to hospitals, retirement homes, as quarantine accommodations, etc. By doing so, we were able reactivate some of our people, which was the most important goal for us in HR.
Despite the tense overall situation, there were also funny moments. There was this time when a representative of the government’s crisis unit visited one of our hotels. The meeting room there was called “Wuhan“, which the representative immediately pointed out to us. Well, this name might have been a bit inadequate regarding the situation. Apart from the lighter notes, there were always situations that took you straight back to reality - for example all the talks with our colleagues in short-time work. Some of them went right under my skin. However, the situation made us grow beyond our role as HR managers.
In what way did communication within your team and with the upper management change?
As I mentioned before, we recognised where there was still space for improvement. When you work from home, you depend on your e-mail inbox. It is difficult to keep everyone up to date at the same time. Therefore, we introduced a cloud-based solution that offers simultaneous access to the same source of information to a large number of users. Now everyone knows immediately what the status quo is. We are also going to see a switch from in-person to web-based trainings and workshops.
Talking about trainings, what is the future of the GCH Leadership Programme? Did the prerequisites for coaches and participants change?
We put increaased focus on web-based trainings and workshops. What we used to teach in person is now conveyed virtually to our employees. Nonetheless, we won’t turn our back on in-person training completely. We work with people and people are always going to be at the centre of our work. This makes individual contact indispensable.
Not only the individual hotels, but GCH as a whole have to reposition themselves these days. Which company values are especially relevant to this mission?
Every single one of our company values helped us through these difficult times and they will remain equally important to us in the future. Thanks to Employer Branding, the hotels were able to quickly implement the guidelines. We were all pulling in the same direction. We are proud to announce that none of our hotels had to be shut down by the authorities due to irregulations. The number of suspected cases of COVID-19 has been vanishingly small up to now.
It motivates us to see how our hotel employees stand in for the GCH values and how they do everything in their power to make it work. Of course, there were other important aspects next to the values. To install a "crisis unit“ in each department was an especially relevant step to be prepared for future pandemics and other crises, e.g. of an economic nature. We have to build and enforce points of contact between the departments that will provide support and security for future events. In the long run, these points of intersection will help us to offer our employees the highest possible workplace security.
For you personally, what was the biggest learning during this crisis?
This is a really good question. For me, the biggest challenge was definitely having to deal with the individual employees' situations. Some colleagues re-oriented themselves during the crisis. Though not many, there were still a few goodbyes. You can only accept such decisions. And of course, they have my fullest understanding.
On a brighter note, everyone, from the headquarter management board to the on-site hotel staff, showed how much they care for the company. It is impressive to see how a hotel director puts their heart and soul in their business and cleans up to 20 rooms by himself every single day to keep it going. This and many more examples of the solidarity within our GCH family have truly amazed me. I can only express my utmost gratitude and respect to everyone who was and still is fighting by our side.
Thank you very much for the interview and insights, and especially for your engagement for the company during these challenging times, Mrs. Sudfeld!
Editor: Bea Lehofer