Expert’s Voice: The night manager – what happens when the lights go down?

by | 13 Mar 2021 | Opinions, People

The night manager role is often undervalued but it can be the springboard to a successful hotel career, argues Silvia Kirkland Zese, area director of housekeeping at Vail Resorts.

In the summer of 2013, when I was still working for Hyatt in New York City, I found myself facing a pretty tough decision.

I was still employed by the Grand Hyatt, but I was temporarily working at Andaz 5th Avenue, helping the front office team during a maternity leave. When the maternity cover was coming to an end, I realised I had enjoyed working at Andaz very much, and I knew I really wanted to stay. The opportunity came – certainly at the perfect time – however in a form I was not expecting: I was asked to take over the role of the overnight manager.

My first reaction was to say no.

Why would I put myself in that position, having to work at night when the rest of the world was up during the day, missing the team and the guests, giving up my social life? I was having the time of my life in New York, I had a great group of friends and a partner to enjoy my days with, and I was certainly making the most of living in Manhattan. I would have been crazy accepting to turn my life upside down.

But I really wanted to work at that property, I did not want to disappoint my boss, and I convinced myself the offer had enough pros. So in spite of a lot of doubts and fear of regret, I decided to take it.

Eight years later, I can tell you it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Eight years later, I still strongly encourage everybody I interview and mentor to do it, because working the night manager shift is the best thing you can do for your development if you really want to grow in the hotel business.

Let’s look at it point by point.

How to cope with it physically

I find this to be the hardest part for most people, it certainly was for me, so I strongly recommend making a plan on how you will take care of yourself. It will really make a difference.

Your body naturally wants to sleep during the night, and wants to be up during the day, so you need to convince it to behave opposite of its nature. My suggestion is not to get into sleep aid; try instead to train your body into a routine.

Figure out what works for you: some people prefer to go to sleep later in the afternoon, so when they wake up they get ready and go to work, just like they would if they were working in the morning. I did the opposite: I would get home and go right to sleep, wake up mid-afternoon, have breakfast, do yoga, take a shower, run errands, go out and see people, go to work. It doesn’t matter what you choose as long as you get into the best routine for yourself.

It’s extremely important to remember to stay healthy and eat well. If you are not into fitness and into a good diet, this might be the time to start, because working overnight is going to play with your shape.

Your body is not used to digest and burn at that time, so don’t have heavy meals in the middle of the night. A good breakfast when you wake up, daily exercise, and a few healthy snacks will be much lighter on your physique and will give you the right energy to handle the shift.

How to cope with it mentally

I found it important and helpful to continue to have as much of a social life as I could. I made time for my partner and for my friends, even if it was hard to find it.

My husband and I tried to go out for breakfast and brunch dates, instead of dinner dates. Dinner and nights out are still possible, as long as you don’t let yourself be carried away: a glass of wine is ok, but remember you are going to work and you are responsible for yourself and for others.

What really worked for me was planning little getaways here and there: a weekend away, a party, a special day with a friend. Having things to look forward to helped putting things in perspective and breaking the time down.

How long should you do it for

Night management is not something I recommend for the long term. Some people stay in it for a long time, and they benefit from it because of particular life circumstances or because they have another job. That’s ok.

If you are considering it as a career move, however, I suggest a year or two at the most. It is enough time to learn what there is to learn, develop new skills, and bring your knowledge and talent back to the day.

What can you learn that you wouldn’t otherwise?

I always tell people in the business that working the night audit is a learning experience like no other.

When it comes to technical knowledge of hotel operations, really understanding night audit procedures prepares you a lot better for your work. You will understand in full why we do things the way we do them during the day.

We should stop thinking of the night manager as the one who simply covers the front desk and rolls the date. It is much more than that.

You handle reconciliations and accounting procedures, you balance transactions and reports, you are exposed to revenue and financial data, you deal with IT situations, you tackle and fix potential mistakes from all the other shifts and departments. You are the real auditor of everything that happened before you arrived to work.

When there are less people to perform the job, you have to know how to do everything, and so you learn it. You are a front desk agent, a housekeeper, a phone operator, a concierge, an accountant, a fire officer, a security guard, sometimes even an engineer.

The value of the shift is sometimes seriously underrated

An overnight manager role is typically positioned at the same level as an assistant manager, but the responsibilities are much, much higher. There is a lot that can be done with this position, if the right person is in place; it can really make a difference in terms of productivity, communication and consistency.

A lot of properties make the mistake – in my opinion – of having a simple night auditor versus a manager, thinking ‘do we really need a night manager?’. My answer to this is ABSOLUTELY! No doubt a night auditor can do the audit, but the audit is just a small part of what goes on after dark.

There is still a team to manage, to hold accountable and to inspire. There is still a guest relations component, and situations – sometimes really problematic – to handle, even when the amount of guests who walk through the lobby is limited.

There is a much smaller group of workers, so flexibility, expertise and versatility are needed to cover where necessary. There are emergencies to handle and security procedures to follow promptly and professionally.

An auditor is a front desk slash accounting clerk, and cannot be held accountable for such high responsibilities. The role requires a senior leader who will manage all the different ingredients of a shift according to expectations. That’s why you need a night manager.

During the night, productivity is higher

With less workers and less guests to manage, fewer things are happening, and therefore less distractions. As a result, focus is higher and overall productivity increases. This is definitely a benefit of working overnight. However, because of this and because the audit part takes no more than two to three hours, the downside is that some nights you really have a lot of time on your hands.

This is where – as a night manager – you have an opportunity to impress and be valuable. What you do with that downtime makes a huge difference between someone who is there just to collect a paycheck and someone who is passionate about making the shift as successful as possible.

Ask for projects, request tasks to make your own, come up with initiatives for yourself and for the team, offer to help the day shift. Do frequent rounds to ensure, if there is any awake guest, you have the chance to connect with them. Rounds also help you identify any area of opportunity in terms of maintenance, security, functionality: you can become a real problem-solver for the building and for the guest experience.

Visit the team as much as you can, connect with them and help them wherever necessary. Work on improving the relationship with the day shift: a lot can be done in that area. Think of yourself as the general manager of the night.

Communication and consistency represent a major opportunity

One of the common challenges of the night shift is the inconsistency with the day shift, that comes from a few factors. If you don’t have a good communication between day and night, information can get lost and expectations can become ambiguous.

There is a lot a night manager can do together with the rest of management to ensure knowledge and instructions travel smoothly between shifts, and that the night staff is not excluded from all the things that go on during the day. A difference in quality of service and of operations is absolutely unacceptable, your guest will not care at what time they check in and what shift is handling their needs, they expect the same service at 3pm and at 3am.

Communication was a big part of what I did with my downtime. I created overnight newsletters that I would share with the entire hotel to inform everyone about everything there was to know regarding the night.

People appreciated the clear and consistent correspondence. On the other hand, I made it an expectation of mine to receive the same from the day: smooth and clear pass on, valuable training for myself and my team, involvement in anything that everyone else was involved in.

The team you have at night can and should be managed

The position of the night manager is that of a real department head, and as such the role is responsible for the team’s performance, development and accountability. Building the team spirit is a key point I recommend working on.

Just because the staff that works the shift does not technically report to you, it doesn’t mean you can’t turn it into a team. That’s where you really learn about how to be a leader for others, and where the chance of turning a random group of people into a united front takes shape.

As a night manager, you can build the connection with each staff member and manage the shift as if it was your own department, you are in charge of it. Really put your focus into this task and do anything you can to make people feel part of something.

Create activities, training, moments for the group, make them understand the importance of communicating efficiently between each other and working together. Plan dinner for everybody at the same time and in the same place whenever possible. It’s easy for night workers to feel flat and lonely, so think about how you can lift their spirit and build energy and motivation.

The harmony within the shift – as usual – is not the only one that matters. They should feel part of the entire hotel team as well, and a mistake some properties do is to exclude the night staff – even though involuntarily. That’s where discrepancies and disconnects come from.

Upper management can help ensuring the night team is invited to training, meetings, staff celebrations and activities. Fun initiatives such as overnight teambuilding should not be forgotten. A nice early breakfast or late dinner with the executive team is always a good idea to host every once in a while to boost the relationship and remind them they are a valuable part of the team.

I see these as the major perks and opportunities of the overnight shift, that can happen when you are a successful and valuable overnight manager. What you can do with the shift and with the team is endless, and it’s completely in your hands.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared on the My Heart in Hospitality blog.

Silvia Kirkland Zese
Silvia Kirkland Zese

Area director of housekeeping at Vail Resorts

Silvia Kirkland Zese is the area director of housekeeping at Vail Resorts. She has 15 years of experience in the hospitality market and has worked in guest services, concierge, PBX, housekeeping, VIP operations, revenue and reservations, night audit and more.

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