Picture it. It’s 3am in any city or decent-sized town in the world. The majority of the population is sleeping, or depending on the location, enjoying a social life in their own way.
At the same time there will also be a group of individuals at work, who in general, will be serving the community. These are the taxi drivers, the nurses, the doctors, the police and firemen and women, the street cleaners, and more of course. And within hotels, there are people at work as well. The Front Office Agent, the Room Service Attendant; a lone Chef; the Security Officer; a Duty Manager, an Engineer, and perhaps a Bell Attendant. This can be a motley crew of individuals who often have little in common other than the dark hours that they share.
An interesting part of hotel life is that this small number of staff will be responsible for a far higher ratio of guests-to-employees than any other shift. For during the day and early evening when most managers are present along with the majority of line staff, most guests will be out of the hotel either at work, taking in the sites of the location, or moving on to their next destination. Whereas when the comparatively smaller overnight team is on duty, generally every guest will be in the hotel, enjoying the comfort, or struggling with the discomfort of their hotel bed.
The reasons for overnight employees taking on such responsibility and working these hours are as varied as they are. Some do it as it can be viewed as necessary to advance a career in particularly Front Office; some do it as they enjoy the solitude of the night; and some do it because, well, because their managers instruct them to do it. Many will resent the overnight shift and the personal struggles that will come with it, but there is also a small number who genuinely adore such hours of work, and will happily work the shift for years, and sometimes decades. If you ever have such an individual in your team, do whatever it takes to keep hold of them – for they are priceless in reducing the need for ‘normal’ staff to work the overnights, and should they resign, it can be close to impossible finding a like-minded replacement.
If an overnight employee is fortunate, they will have a good team of colleagues working with them. Team members that have a similar sense of humour, and an equal desire to get the job done effectively and efficiently. But if luck is not on their side, then being paired up with colleagues who are quick to irritate them can be a version of hospitality torture. Sharing duties with frustrating colleagues is tiresome at any time, but when it happens at 3 o’clock in the morning it just seems like some sort of sick joke that will make a person question what they have done to deserve such an outcome.
The habits of the night crew are humourous to be part of, or even to observe. Walk into the back offices on the overnight shift and you will invariably find a dieticians’ nightmare – a hardcore supply of candies, chocolate, energy drinks, and coffee – basically anything to keep the eyelids open. The consequence of such a diet is that individuals will have peaks of buzzing physical and mental energy, followed by troughs of such desperate tiredness that serious thought and internal debate will be given to getting a few minutes sleep on any possible surface – a desk, a massage table, an event room floor, even a guest room.
This tiredness can at times cross over into pure deliriousness that will produce both hilarious conversations and moments of stupidity. One colleague revealed to me that he once stood in front of an elevator for more than a minute becoming openly furious that the doors would not open. Physically pounding at the elevator, his brain eventually awoke to the realization that he had not actually pressed the button to open the doors. Yes, the night hours can turn even the most professional of hotel workers into raving fools.
Outside of these humourous moments, there are the darker consequences of performing the overnight shift. If an individual is a negatively-emotional type; going through a break-up; or enduring other life difficulties; then working the midnight hours provide far too much time to think – and over-thinking at 3am rarely results in rays of positive vibes going through the brain.
Additional to this emotional stress (and most likely contributing to it) is that the body of the overnight worker is often in a state of confusion. Sleeping patterns will be completely thrown about, and basic eating habits do not apply when working such hours. If you wake at 20:00 to prepare for your night shift, should you have cereal before commencing your work? Is that breakfast? Is that dinner? Who knows, just put something in my stomach! And lunch? That meal period is a mythical concept for a hotel’s night team.
Through food, hotels can demonstrate the sense of value they have towards their overnight team. Some will provide leftovers from daytime meals – thank you for working such difficult hours, please enjoy food that was served to your colleagues more than half-a-day earlier. These companies might as well put a leash on their employees and have them drink water out of a bowl. But there are others who recognize the importance of providing their team with some form of edible incentive, and will have the Room Service Chef prepare meals from the guest menu. Now we are talking!
As the night shift comes to an end, things can become desperate. If the morning shift scheduled to take over has a briefing that goes for an excessive amount of time then although the night person will remain at their post, they will seethe at the injustice of their life. Whilst if their morning replacement ever sleeps in and is late for their shift, then there will be little point trying to pacify the night person because the news that they will need to stay back longer will invariably transform them into a combustible ball of rage.
Attempts to have a ‘normal’ life away from nights means having a perpetual cycle of tiredness. On a day off your body is still in night mode, but to stay in this realm means sitting at home until 07:00 going slightly crazy over late-night television and social media. So instead, the night worker will stay up for as long as possible during their day off – venturing out to a café, a cinema, a beach – anywhere that will help them feel like they are part of society, even if it means sitting there in a state of complete exhaustion.
Because of their hours of work, our saints of the night can be easily forgotten. By the time most of the HR team and managers arrive for work, the night crew has either gone, or are close to being out the door. So for management, it is up to you to actively, and sincerely recognize your night team. Let them know on a regular basis how appreciated they are; how valuable their role is; and choose recognition events at times that are engaging for the overnight team – not for HR or management. For example, hosting a ‘thank you’ morning tea for overnight employees at 10:00 is punishment rather than intended recognition.
Recognise your overnight team not because you have to, but because it is the right thing to do. Because at 3 o’clock in the morning when you are fast asleep, there is a small unit of your employees who are sacrificing part of themselves to oversee the safety, comfort, and satisfaction of every single guest you have.