Hospitality Design With Employees In Mind

Assessing how the business operates is key to creating a space that serves its employees as well as its guests.

By David Shove-Brown

The hospitality industry is built on the central tenet of — get this — hospitality. Hoteliers and restaurateurs know that their success depends on treating guests and customers with generosity, consideration, and warmth. Creating a culture and environment in which guests feel well cared-for builds loyalty and brand recognition.

But what about employees? It is crucial that the staff are treated with the same level of compassion, particularly as we consider the record number of hospitality workers who are leaving not just their jobs, but the industry as a whole. Providing for employees means ensuring that the business focus isn’t zeroed in on just the customer experience, but that it encompasses the employee perspective as well. The benefit is two-fold: a business model that helps its employees feel supported and valued not only increases employee satisfaction and retention, but in turn also encourages a greater level of service for the customer.

Photo: Adobe Stock/didesign

The Value Of A Well-Designed Back-Of-House

What does caring for staff look like from a design perspective? There is a long running debate regarding comfort in employee breakrooms and work zones. Providing staff with hard plastic chairs will certainly discourage lounging, but it may also discourage long-term commitment to the business. This isn’t to say designers need to outfit break rooms with high-end sofas and jacuzzis — making a break room too comfortable will likely be counterintuitive for encouraging productivity. That said, it is important to ensure that staff are able to take a level of pride in their surroundings, because this sends a message that the employees and their work are valued by ownership.

Rather than designating employee areas to leftover spaces, designers should take the time to analyze the needs of the staff in question and prioritize those needs within the square footage. Perhaps this means installing employee lockers somewhere other than that dark and dingy hallway, or investing in nice staff-only restrooms. People want to work for an ownership group that is willing to spend a few extra dollars on their employees, whether on competitive compensation and benefits or on first-rate facilities that are more conducive. Purchasing high-quality kitchen equipment, for example, tells a chef that their work is valued. Workers want to feel that they are part of a team that values its employees and the work that they do.

The Process: Understanding Operations

Assessing how the business operates is key to creating a space that serves its employees as well as its guests. Who is running the food? Who is clearing plates and dishes? Where are servers putting in orders? Designers need to understand circulation paths in order to maximize efficiency and create a more rewarding experience for the staff. In a busy restaurant, creating clearly designated spaces and pathways for workers to accomplish their tasks minimizes clashes and keeps everything flowing in a logical manner.

So how do we start to unravel these operational logistics? Designers should ask the client a lot of questions — and not just “What color would you like to paint the walls?” Instead, they should ask the client, “How will your servers get from the kitchen to the tables?” and “What do you want the experience to be like for a guest who walks in the front door?” Designers with their clients should learn as much as they can about both guest and employee processes — food and drink curation, check-in, how far the walk is to the breakroom — whatever it may be. Once the business is understood from an operational standpoint, then the team can really start to fine-tune the experience and determine how the necessary equipment will fit into the space at hand.

A prototypical design for IHG’s new Atwell Suites hotel brand included a focus on enhanced sightlines. (Photo: //3877)

The Solution: A Tailored Approach

There is no plug-and-play solution to designing employee workspaces. Each project requires a tailored, thoroughly-researched approach. Our firm recently worked with a hospitality client who walked us through their staff’s daily procedures and explained how everything needed to function. After this conversation, we stuck around for several days to simply watch how everything played out on a day-to-day basis. In reality, the day-to-day experience for staff was actually quite different than what we had initially discussed. The employees had developed intuitive methods of using the space, and were avoiding certain spaces altogether. This is why it is equally important for a designer to source insight from employee teams as well as ownership.

Our team had the privilege to help develop a prototypical design for IHG’s new Atwell Suites hotel brand (pictured above). During the process we spent a great deal of time analyzing the employee back-of-house and circulation within the space. We were very strategic about positioning the check-in area next to the bar so that whoever is helping check in guests can also man the bar. That individual is also within sightlines of the market area and elevator bank, and can keep tabs on the guests who are arriving, leaving, or heading up to their rooms. Given the nature of the layout, one person can have a clear sightline of all that is happening within the central hub without having to continuously move around. This level of care and attention to staff efficiencies naturally benefits ownership from a business standpoint, but for a busy employee who may be wearing several hats at once, it also contributes greatly to their job satisfaction and overall well-being.

More Than Design: Leading With Compassion

Leading with intention when it comes to employee satisfaction is not a new concept, but it is one that bears repeating in a capitalist climate that too often leaves hospitality workers feeling undervalued. It’s also important to note that a well-designed space is only one small part of the bigger story. A hotel might have the nicest breakroom in the world, but if the ownership team doesn’t respect and value its employees, the design won’t matter a bit. All of the pieces — good design, livable wages, sick leave, and paid time off — need to come together to support a working atmosphere that is beneficial for all. When hospitality owners display compassion and empathy for their workers, the team can in turn forward that attitude to the guest. One of our longtime clients, KNEAD Hospitality & Design is testing out a four-day work week for its staff, a statement that says “we value your time at work, but we also value your time away from work.” When employees are treated with the same level of hospitality that is extended to guests, it not only creates a healthier and more rewarding work environment, but also translates into a higher level of service for guests.

Shove-Brown is the Co-Founder and Principal of Washington DC-based, multidisciplinary architecture and design firm //3877. The firm has been named in the Washington Business Journal’s ‘Best Places to Work’ for three consecutive years, and the only DC-based architecture firm to achieve B Corp status. In addition to his practice, Shove-Brown has recently been named on the National Small Business Association leadership council. He is a guest faculty member at the Catholic University School of Architecture and Planning, and has conducted classes at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, leading lectures for the National Building Museum, Washington Architectural Foundation, and DC Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. 

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