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What working as a hotel housekeeper taught me about life

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When I finished college, I was at a bit of a loss. I knew what I wanted to do, but the thought of moving to a large city and actually looking for a job, especially during a recession, was daunting. So I took advantage of a student visa extension and headed to London to see friends. I’m not sure I thought about how I was going to support myself.

Being without a place to live and no ability to work longer than three months quickly pointed me towards working as a hotel chambermaid. I’d get room and board (as long as I didn’t mind eating only breakfast food), and no one expected me to stay long-term. And so the adventure began. 

I thought I knew what hard work looked like. I’d had stints painting fences on my dad’s farm, which was about as hot, dull & unrewarding as it gets. Oh yeah, and I was underpaid. That was actually good preparation for working in housekeeping. Physical labor, repetitive tasks, and the joy of doing it with people you like who you trust to work just as hard as you do are common themes in a lot of life. I started the trip, and the housekeeping, as a lark, but I worked hard and despite my intentions I learned a lot. I also had a lot of fun.

  1. Work doesn’t have to be exciting to be satisfying.

    I admit this to very few people, but I love making beds. My dad taught me to make hospital corners and pull the blankets very tight; ever since then I’ve found making a bed oddly rewarding. So great, I get to make bed after bed after bed after…ok, not so rewarding the sixth, seventh or tenth time in a day. Also, I hate cleaning toilets. Especially other people’s toilets. But that goes with the job. And guess what? Every job has its beds (& the satisfaction of creating those ‘just vacuumed’ streaks on the carpet) and every job has its toilets. Both have to be taken care of. You don’t get one without the other. And the tenth time you do anything is usually not as challenging, interesting or rewarding as the first, but it still has to be done and there’s an inherent satisfaction in doing a job well. A customer is going to enjoy that room (or whatever the task is) and although they probably won’t think about all the work that went into it, it is part of growing the business.

  2. If you’re willing to put forth more effort, you (often) get more reward.

    I was promoted after about two days on the job. Maybe they knew a sucker when they saw one. Or maybe they realized I was pretty responsible and would follow through. For whatever reason they asked if I’d get up an hour earlier than the rest of the housekeeping staff and be the breakfast cook. For that, I got an additional hour of paid work at an increased rate. (Which someone probably kept track of on a notecard somewhere–now they could use WrkSpot’s time & attendance features.) It was a risk, asking an American to make a traditional English breakfast for up to 60 people or so a day. I had a terrible time appreciating the value of limp bacon. And my assistant spoke mostly Spanish, so it was a bit like Fawlty Towers at times. We provided comedic relief for the rest of the staff.

    But I quickly learned to produce breakfasts that met or exceeded guest expectations. Breakfast–including cooking time on the bacon–wasn’t for me, it was for them. That is consistently true in life. In every job I’ve had, whether or not something resonates with me isn’t nearly as important as whether or not it resonates with customers.

  3. Sometimes you need to take a risk on someone.

    On one very obvious level I was not the best person to be making those breakfasts, but someone realized I’d figure it out and that fundamentally I had the essential attributes they needed (reliable, accountable, patient) in the person who started off the first shift. If you give people additional responsibility, they often rise to the occasion. And if they don’t, well, then you know.

  4. Flexibility is critical.

    Our work was to clean rooms and do it as unobtrusively as possible. But our real goal was to create a great experience for guests. That meant that if another housekeeper needed help, I needed to help. If a guest stopped me in the hall to ask a question, I had to handle the interaction professionally and get them an answer, even if it was something I knew nothing about. If the owner or manager needed something, I needed to be flexible and get them the support they were asking for. And through all of this, I needed to keep my own shift time and room allocation in mind.

    I’ve actually had people say, “That’s not my job.” when I ask them to jump in on something. That’s a terrible answer. Making sure the team and the company are successful is your job. And making sure you can meet your own job responsibilities is also your job. Whatever your role, “Let me get an answer to that for you,” is a great answer. Or “I’m happy to help, but I have a deadline I need to meet. Can I help you after that? Can I go into overtime, or can I find someone else to help you?” Because meeting customer expectations and making the organization successful is the real work we’re all doing.

  5. Sometimes things just go wrong. When that happens, you’re in it together.

    I’d had some much appreciated time off, and I returned to the hotel to see a double mattress falling out of a second-story window. That got my attention. It turned out that the mattress was pushed out of the window by the rest of the housekeeping staff and the GM, all of whom had handkerchiefs tied over their noses and mouths to try to reduce their sense of smell. A guest had gone through some traumatic emotional event, dealt with it by getting wildly drunk, decided to lock himself in his hotel room, then gotten very, very sick, and passed out. All of this had happened between breakfast and check-out time. After extricating him from his room and escorting him out of the hotel, we all had to deal with the clean-up. (The mattress was a loss, but I’m not sure pushing it out the front window was their best move.) Suddenly I was on the clock and joining the rest of the group to somehow get that room ready for the next guest. (I think we were able to keep it empty for a couple of nights to air out, thankfully.)

    If you work in a hotel, you’ve probably had to deal with a scenario very much like that. Some people seem to believe that anything goes when they’re not in their own home. But it happens in every job, in every family, in every group you’re part of. Something goes badly; someone falls apart unexpectedly; the presentation is lost and no one saved a copy…. And it’s all hands on deck, because the problem needs to be solved.

  6. A lot goes on behind the scenes–stop & appreciate what people are doing for you.

    Everyone in my family now leaves a tip when they stay in a hotel. My kids remind me if we’re about to walk out without doing that. Why? Because a lot of people work really hard to make sure my stay went well. And leaving a tip is the way I can recognize and appreciate that work.

Whether it’s staying in a hotel, enjoying a restaurant meal, or using a piece of software, a lot of people have come together to make it happen. Remember to stop and appreciate that. Just saying thank you goes a long way, even if that’s to someone in your own team who’s doing great work. 

So yes, there are life lessons to be learned everywhere, even (and maybe especially) in the jobs that aren’t as socially desirable. It is also a reminder that a housekeeper isn’t necessarily “just a housekeeper.” First, there’s a lot of value in doing that role well. And second, maybe that housekeeper has the attitude and fundamental skills to someday lead your management team.

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