Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? ...Lime Wood Group Hotels

30 Apr 2020 By Francis Churchill

People Management finds out what employers are doing to tackle the logistical, financial and staff wellbeing implications of the global pandemic

The organisation

Home Grown Hotels and Lime Wood Group has seven hotels in the UK and one in France, and approximately 850 members of staff.

The impact so far

When the lockdown was announced, the change was “literally overnight”, says Steve Rockey, people director for the group. For many of his hotels, that weekend was their last service. “We still had some guests in the hotels over the weekend, but as of the Monday they were shut down, cleaned up, chairs on tables and that was it. It was a pretty rapid turnaround,” he says.

Rockey and the team had been hedging that there was going to be a lockdown and had been putting measures in place in case everyone needed to leave “at the drop of a hat”. When the announcement came, the majority of staff finished their last shift and went home, while decisions had already been made about who still needed to work to secure and maintain the properties. “The hotels are all in old buildings and they tend not to do well when they’re not being used,” says Rockey. 

Communication

The team then put out a video message from the CEO with all the information they had available, and said when there was any more information they would pass it on. “It was important to let everybody know we knew as much as they did,” Rockey explains.

That first week was then a series of daily meetings, conference calls and constant updates. Members of staff needed to be repatriated from the hotel in France – “We were desperately trying to find a bus because we couldn’t get any flights” – and it would still be a week before the furlough scheme was announced. The group received its information from the government’s daily briefings, like everyone else, which were inevitably followed by conference calls “to talk about what that then meant for us and what we then needed to put together either that night or the next day”, says Rockey.

Using the furlough scheme

“As a collective group we’d made the decision that we didn’t want to make any knee-jerk reactions,” explains Rockey. The priority was protecting members of staff and, as such, the decision was made early on to guarantee their wages for March.

Nonetheless, like many employers, Rockey “breathed a sigh of relief” when the job retention scheme was announced. They then started the process of drafting various letters for different employees outlining what was going to happen to them over the next few weeks and months. “We had a relatively detailed letter with a big FAQ that went along with that, and tried to cover off as many scenarios as possible,” he says.

“We know people are going to go off on maternity leave and we know people are going to fall sick and that sort of thing, so it was about letting everybody know how those things would impact them and what would happen.”

The group has already had its furlough grants come through – in time for April’s pay day – and Rockey praises the government for getting the scheme up and running so quickly: “To their credit [the government] have done exactly what they said they’d do. They said it would be up and running on the 20th and that you’d get your payments five to seven working days after your submission and that’s exactly what happened.”

There were employees who weren’t covered by the furlough scheme – notably 37 new starters, and a new team who were going to open a hotel in Cornwall. The group’s March new starters missed out on being eligible for the furlough scheme even after the cut-off date for being on payroll was extended to 19 March. The group is lobbying the government, through UK Hospitality, to see if these members of staff can be included, and have rolled out their own scheme that will see affected employees stay with the hotel on 50 per cent wages.

“We don’t want to lose them because they’ve already started to work for us,” says Rockey. “That’s at our cost because, when we open, we’ll need to open with them.”

Keeping the business turning over

Decisions also had to be made about the employees who were not going to be furloughed. There was still a lot of work to be done in the hotels, but most of it would not require full-time staff. “We needed to get the people who were working to agree to a slightly different variation to their terms and conditions,” says Rockey. “It was really important to think through and be clear – who are these different groups of people and what do we really need to be specific and let them know about so they feel safe and know what’s going on.”

One part of the hotel that still needed maintenance was the hotel gardens, which in spring were starting to reach peak productivity. “Everything that’s been busily planted in the winter is now about to come through so we needed our kitchen gardeners to still be working because the kitchen gardens couldn’t go to ruin. When we open they’ll still need to be in good shape,” he says.

These staff are also being kept on at the company’s cost. “It’s short-term pain – there’s no revenue coming through – but we have to assume that, at the drop of a hat, in the way the closure happened, the opening will be exactly the same.

“The company has taken the cost for that because in the long term it’s the better thing to do.”

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