• Anemona Knut

Interview of the month - Eugenio Pirri, Chief People and Culture Officer of Dorchester Collection


Eugenio Pirri – Chief People and Culture Officer at Dorchester Collection. He has been acknowledged and awarded many times in the industry for his innovative, but very intuitive thinking that challenges the status quo and disrupts the traditional ways of managing people. He has exceptional background in people leadership, organisational development, employee engagement. He has tremendous global experience with working for hotels of diverse cultures and attitudes. We have talked to Eugenio about Corporate Culture and People development in times of crisis. We talk to him about how to nurture and improve our Company Culture in those hard times.

The Initiative: Starting with the most important thing – our people. Times now are very difficult for anyone who runs a hospitality related business, regardless whether it is a restaurant or a hotel. What is your perception of the mental resilience issue in our teams, and how do you personally tackle the problem?

Eugenio Pirri: I definitely think it is a unique time. Unlike other things that happened in the past, other events that had impact on businesses, this current situation is right across the board and it has affected every single industry in every single country, almost at the same time. For once in the world everyone is dealing with the same thing at the same time, and many of us had to really change our perception of the relations between people. We needed to reflect on how we communicate with people and we need now to be putting effort into staying in touch. Certainly we (Dorchester Collection) are in the unique situation because we guarantee everyone’s jobs and we pay everyone’s salary, so even people on furlough are still getting a 100% of their wages. That took one side of their worries away, however what was one of the major realisations, is the importance of sustaining the engagement with the company and gluing people together through communication and staying in touch. We have initiated a lot different things here. We call our employees legends now, so we have now a program called legends at home. We continually stay in contact by sending them stories and newsletters. We have introduced morning 10 am coffee chat with General Manager where anybody is allowed to do join in. We recognise some people may be at home alone, some others with families, some people have family abroad and need to deal with separation. So we are worried about them and we recognise everyone wants to be treated a bit differently. However, I think the most important thing above is the personal contact - at least every couple of weeks you need to actually have a physical conversation with someone, you need to hear their voice. We have put phone trees in place and we are at least trying to communicate with every single employee. You need to show them you care, but then you’ve got to take an advantage of the times, and f.ex. try getting them involved in voluntary activities, like training. You also should try support those who, for whatever reason, can not get involved - because there is a childcare issues, because of being partnered with key and health care workers, because they need to take care of venerable family members, or whatever the case could be. We have addressed this issue as well, and in some of our hotels, we have found champions who can help others by coaching, providing help with f.ex. other people’s children through home schooling. This is a challenging time, but it also allows us to unwind our creativity. We need ensure that people mental health is taken into consideration, because everyone is so different.

AK: Obviously most of our line staff will have slightly different needs when it comes to supporting and strengthening mental resilience than our leaders. Leaders are also experiencing anxieties and worries in these days. Although Leaders are here to stay positive and motivating, to go head strong - especially in our industry where they need to be adaptable and creative in critical situations - but it has never happened in our lifetime that we are exposed to such a big level of uncertainty of future. So how do you support and encourage leaders?

EG: It’s a really good point. Actually when we started, the first couple of weeks it was all about our employees - what we are going to do, how are we going to stay in touch with them. Then we have quickly realised we need to start programs and support networks for the people expected to take on the communication with employees. We have been working with amazing companies out there such as the Centre for Creative Leadership, which we had developed a long standing relationship, and they have provided us with the best possible resources, online tools, seminars and webinars. Apart from the tools we have also extended the support network upwards and now our very senior management – myself, or our CEO, are required to do weekly catch ups and meetings with the leaders. We are now also including a weekly video message from our CEO or myself sent to all our leaders so they continue to feel inspired. At this level, what I think is really important, is to give everyone something to work towards, so at first it was ‘let’s communicate, let’s keep in touch’ and now it is more about what’s going to happened during this period and what’s going to happen when we come out of it. We need to keep people continually motivated, and you can do this through training or through projects. Finding also the best way to inspire a leader is the key because everyone has different level of mental health requirement. People do not want to stop developing and once thing is for sure, nobody would ever normally get this type of experience like we are getting now. We can and should look at this time as a learning opportunity – I have never done hygiene reopening plans, I have never dealt with furloughing to this level. Everyone has a lesson to learn here, whether it will be improving communication, being better at planning or future strategic thinking. It is our role in People and Culture to remind people they can do this as well.

AK: Were you thinking about preparing the staff on both levels – the leaders and the employees, to actually to go back to normal operation after the crisis situation is over? We are all used to our guests as we knew them, but this such an unusual event is surely going to change a lot of people in their habits, in their outlook. Is there any way that we can support our teams in getting ready to provide the service up to the level of new, completely yet unknown expectations. We might have done all of the research in guest expectations, but it might be outdated to certain extent now, right?

EP: You know, the reality is that people are going have to go back to reality. What we need to start with is the basics like taking into consideration the personal protective equipment. We need to take into consideration what the social distancing will look like, how will the signage look like, what is the flow of service now. How do you implement your five star standards, when you actually can’t approach your guests to shake their hands, and things along those lines. So the first part is creating all of those new standards and procedures. At the moment we are talking about post-vaccine and pre-vaccine world, so you need to think about both scenarios, and then you also have to take in consideration guest perception. Even if you are doing everything right, people might still be a little bit afraid to come back, most definitely what we are doing is creating a whole new onboarding program. So even if you are working with the company for 25 years, you still are going to be re-engaged. Our induction program is called engage, and everyone is going to go through a re-engage onboarding program, that will specifically be focused on new hygiene and health and safety standards. It will be very practical – if the guest arrives in taxi, how do you deal with it, how do you seat them in the restaurant, how do you serve the food, how do you space people, how do you present the food, all of those types of things. You need to have a specific type of documents, you need to look into your SOPs, and then you have to retrain your employees. That is going to be a lot more difficult than people think. Because we naturally engage with people, we naturally provide services, we naturally want to shake people’s hands, we naturally serve in a certain way, asking for change in habits is a bigger taks than people realise. So yeah, we are doing a full onboarding program. We are starting the program already in California.

AK: Next thing – naturally, I will go to company culture. Right now is a great time to reflect. As we have slowed down in operation, we can think about what we have done in the past, and we can engage more people around us in building better future. So what is the biggest lesson we can take in hospitality and how can we improve company culture overall, what is the most important thing we should focus on?

EP: The reality is that somewhere in this whole drama, in this whole crisis, many companies have looked at employees as almost as disposable. Whereas certainly in our world of we have realised, people who truly understand 5 star service, and take on board the reputation you want to be known for are those loyal employees, who are truly dedicated and truly understand the company. So I think how you treat people during this period, how you are staying in contact with them is going to make or break your future success as an employer. Even if you have to furlough your employees, or you have to lay them off, or make some of them redundant, whatever the case may be, there are proper ways to approach the situation. There are proper ways to stay in touch and to communicate. This is going to be a really long haul before we are out of it. Even if they lift off all the restrictions next week, people won’t be rushing out to go back and I think it is going to take long time for people to go back to natural flow, airlines flying again, people travel extensively around the globe. What your goal should be is ensuring that when customers do come back, they feel like they already know you. You want them to trust your reputation, because they already know Joe the server or Mary the front desk agent. We need to stay two steps ahead in guest journey, so we need to be able to protect that culture at all costs. What I have found quite surprising recently is my simple every day life experience. Yesterday I went and did some grocery shopping at supermarket and I was quite surprised at rudeness of some of the staff. Somehow for the prioritising of health and safety has almost given people a license to to be like ‘no – you have to stand there, no – you have to do this, and step back from me’. I was thinking to myself – why wouldn’t you still do all that in a very friendly, engaging and polite way? This is where you need to protect your culture more than anything because it is really easy to stand behind the procedure and policy now ignoring all the other aspects. But when you will be trying to bring your service to the levels that people expect you might have face a real issue.

AK: Referring to the situation here in UK, to certain extent also a bit broader, do you think that employees expectations towards the employers will change? Is the crisis going to change employees mentality? We know in UK immigration laws are changing, we know our sector is going to be hugely effected by those laws, we know a lot of young workforce has already gone back to EU, we know there is going to be a struggle with finding great talent and on the other hand the staff is going to have a little bit more to say. So how do you see the situation after Covid-19 from the employer point of view?

EP: I think there are multiple ways to look at this question. First of all if I was an employee I would want to know that during this process the company that I’m working for did it right. They took care of me, they communicated with me, they ensured that I was important part of the business. Even if they had to furlough me, or lay me off, they did it in the right way and I was treated with respect. If I was an employee I would want to work with this type of company. Secondly, at the end of the day, employees and the guests actually want to know that you have a plan. So when the employee comes back to work - you are putting them through re-engage or onboarding program. When the guest comes back through the door, your staff will want to know that you thought about their health and safety. If you want the people to be loyal, you need to show them that you have a plan, that you are ready with the PPE and service standards. We also don’t want to put the employee in a bad, scary or difficult situation. When it comes to recruitment – I don’t think we will see much problems this year. Even though after the lock down is lifted you will see a little spike in people wanting to go back to dining out, I don’t think it is going to be this huge prolonged thing. People will need longer to go back to normal life, it’s not going to be in 2020. The world will need long time to stabilise, and especially when it comes the reliance on international travel market. So naturally the war for talent won’t be as serious now, as it will be in 2021. There is a lot of people who are unemployed now, so they are going to want to work - finding the talent won’t be as difficult just yet. But I do think that people will want to work for the companies that do the right things, for as what we do now will reflect on what the future is going to bring.

AK: One thing that makes me thinking, as we have already noticed a movement in this direction last year and covid has only magnified it – is the issue of need for improved work/life balance and increasing working from home opportunities. We saw Hilton last year becoming the first international hotel company that introduced work from home jobs for reservations agents. Do you think this is a possible direction for hospitality?

EP: Yeah, I do think it is possible. I think it will always depend on the job and the role, but I’m not going to lie. In our world, in Dorchester Collections, our eyes have been opened. We have in some places the reservation positions and some administration positions, for sure are the kind of jobs which be done at home. We are currently looking at our regional sales offices to be organised a little bit differently, we have 14 regional sales offices around the world and 12 of them are in locations where we don’t have hotels. So there is opportunity for people to work from home now, it’s logical. I think in a traditional hotel it is never going to be possible, because you need to be there to serve. However in administrative roles and in corporate offices we definitely will experiment even more in that direction.

AK: If you had one advice for people out there on the priorities in current people and culture strategies?

EP: For me it is all about putting yourselves in the shoes of the people working for you, so think about the employee experience. The traditional employee journey has 9 steps, from the moment when people even start thinking about a job, through people who are thinking – ok, I have a job but who are the people I want to work with, to the onboarding and full time work and the plans for future professional development. You need to continue to put yourselves in the shoes of the employees at all those stages, sometimes even if you need to make an important decision, employees need to know that you took their sake into your heart if you had done the right way. Everything you do is serving the vision of the company but you will never get there unless you have your employees behind you. Take this in consideration, and continue having employees in the centre of your decisions, the same way as you take your guests at the centre of your service.

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