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December 14, 2016

It’s No Holiday for Hotel Workers When Bad Design Burdens Them

By David Brody

When I was sixteen lightning struck my family’s home. The fire and my three-month hotel stay at the Bethesda Marriott led to a lifelong fascination with hotels and inspired my new book, Housekeeping by Design.

What I remember least about the hotel was housekeeping. The women who came to my room each day to tidy up my messy space, change the sheets, and disinfect the bathroom are barely even a distant memory. The invisible nature of housekeeping at the Bethesda Marriott, and the fact that guests take this labor for granted, is intentional.

The hotel industry does everything in its power to make certain that guests do not have to think about the hard work involved in cleaning guest rooms. Hotels turn to housekeeping as a way to maintain the guest rooms’ design integrity, while making certain that guests feel they are staying in a clean and sanitary environment. What is most important about this perception of cleanliness is that the housekeepers complete their job without interfering with the guest’s stay. People rarely comment on housekeeping after they stay at hotels, unless they experience their room as unkempt. They mention the design of their rooms, talk about the service (usually focusing on things like the front desk), and may describe other amenities at the hotel like restaurants and gym facilities, but housekeeping is an invisible given. It is axiomatic that housekeeping will do its work, but it is even more important that the labor completed by housekeeping gets done without our awareness that any work is actually transpiring.

The connection between design and the concealment of housekeepers’ work is particularly significant, since it is design that manipulates our perceptions about what does or does not occur at a hotel. How customers and workers encounter workflows and the organization of a service is a design issue that frequently gets overlooked and needs to be considered.

The problem is that most practitioners and thinkers who engage with service design and physical design choices focus their attention on the experience of the customer while ignoring the realities, voices, and bodies of workers. Industry designers, for instance, will inevitably spend time thinking about the ways in which guests will move through the process of checking into a hotel. The service designer—who, in the case of most hotels, is the property’s manager—will assess how the guest enters the hotel, goes to the front desk to exchange payment information for a key, and then makes his or her way to the guest room. Alternatively, the interior designer and architect will be more interested in how the front desk looks and how the guest perceives the reception area’s materials and appearance. This hypothetical team of designers will consider questions about the lobby’s appearance, the hotel’s software system, the training of the hotel’s employees, and the workflow that enables a smooth checkin—but all through the lens of the paying customer. Since the fiscal bottom line often drives hotel design, the customer-centric focus is not all that surprising.

Offering a new perspective, Housekeeping by Design asserts that hotel workers, and by extension all workers, need to be considered as more than just facilitators of the consumer experience. Workers need to be integrated into the design process. Their labor can make or break the guest’s stay at a hotel, but when management disregards employees’ needs, especially in the context of their interactions with interior and service design, the ramifications on individual workers’ lives and bodies can become catastrophic, and the impact on business can lead to unintended disadvantages.

For example, in 2009, Starwood Hotels introduced a program called Make a Green Choice to several of its properties in Hawaii. Starwood is a major player in the hotel industry, as it manages brands such as W Hotels, Sheraton, St. Regis, and Westin. The green program allowed guests to opt out of housekeeping for a small bonus, such as Starwood Preferred Guest points (which lead to free stays at hotels) or a meal voucher. The relationship between the tourism industry and ecology has been well documented, as washing linens and using toxic cleaning chemicals does adversely affect the environment. And, in fact, many hotel guests expect the hotel industry to respond to these issues.

However, the lived experiences of Make a Green Choice were quite different from its progressive ethos. Guests did utilize the program, and it was not difficult to get them to embrace the idea of not having their rooms cleaned. As a result, Starwood could point to the ways in which the program led to a reduction in the use of laundry, electricity, and cleaning solvents. On the other hand, Make a Green Choice had two consequences that made the housekeepers’ lives difficult.

First, as the housekeepers I spoke with made clear, the hotel rooms’ physical design elements became degraded as a result of rooms not being cleaned for multiple days. Mold built up on the surfaces of these Hawaiian guest rooms, and several of the housekeepers described these rooms as “hurricanes,” since guests scattered their belongings everywhere, as if tossed up by a cyclone, after not being visited by housekeeping for several days. In addition, housekeepers noted how myriad service design issues arose. Usually housekeepers clean a specific set number of rooms that are close together, to allow for the easy movement of what can be heavy equipment, such as a housekeeping cart. Now that certain rooms had to be “skipped” as a result of the program, this typical navigation of a well-delineated group of rooms was disrupted. In fact, housekeepers I spoke with on the island of Kauai described having to move their carts to multiple buildings across a large property to fulfill their quota of fifteen rooms. Additionally, green guests still asked housekeepers for help with things like towel changes and trash removal. Consequently, housekeepers now had to clean their allotment of rooms and deal with additional guests who still wanted some level of service, even though they had opted into Make a Green Choice. These realities made Starwood’s sustainable efforts a service design nightmare, as they interrupted and hindered housekeeping’s orchestrated efforts.

Having fewer rooms to clean also led to housekeepers losing work hours while waiting to be called into work, undoubtedly the most profound consequence of these unfortunate design choices that did not account for workers’ lives. Even though the politics of Make a Green Choice appeared progressive, the program’s implementation meant lower pay, decreased benefits, and other significant design-related costs for many of the housekeepers I interviewed.

The housekeepers and their union were eventually able to restore more predictable work schedules by ending the Green Choice program in Hawaii. My book argues that the housekeepers’ activism could be extended if hotel managers and owners willingly adopted a co-design policy. Co-design fosters a design process that includes contributions from myriad constituents who inevitably have to contend with design decisions. Co-design could reveal the benefits of listening to workers’ voices while both improving hotel design for everyone (guests, management, and workers) and decreasing the friction between unions and management.  

David Brody is associate professor of design studies at Parsons School of Design at The New School. Reprinted with permission from Housekeeping by Design: Hotels and Labor by David Brody, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2016 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.