When the pandemic hit last March, Emilie Starr, Jay Peak’s ticketing and admissions project manager, had a predicament. With three school-aged daughters transitioning to online learning, Starr, a long-time Jay Peak employee who typically puts in 60-hour work weeks, couldn’t imagine how she could get her job done while also caring for her girls.
“In this business, it’s how many hats you can wear, not how you can perform your duties without being there at all,” says Starr. “It really felt like I had to make a choice—keep my longstanding relationship with the resort, or become what I never wanted to be, which was a stay-at-home mom or a homeschooling teacher.”
Jay Peak president and GM Steve Wright didn’t want to force Starr into the latter choice. The two came up with a plan that enabled her to work primarily from home, periodically reassessing the arrangement and tweaking it as needed.
“Emilie’s got a hell of a lot of institutional knowledge, and it made a lot of sense to figure out a solution for her,” Wright recalls. “As an industry, we have so few women working in leadership positions. We cannot afford to lose the ones that we have.”
Starr certainly wasn’t alone in having her work-life balance upended by Covid. The entire workplace has undergone a seismic shift. Like Starr, employees with children faced daycare and school closures and found themselves chasing toddlers or managing older kids’ remote learning while simultaneously juggling work responsibilities. Others, concerned about their health or the health of someone in their household, determined that coming to work on the mountain was too risky.
In response, resort management had to reevaluate what it meant to work in the ski industry, where operations traditionally revolve around a boots-on-the-ground mentality that applies to everyone from lift attendants to guest services representatives to payroll supervisors.
Customizing the job. Sugarbush, Vt., was one of many resorts that confronted the challenge. “Until last March, we didn’t have a lot of flexibility for contemplating remote work,” says Amber Broadaway, vice president of guest services. But the Covid crisis pushed Sugarbush and other resorts around the country to reconsider that mindset. Many resorts plotted with their employees to craft individualized work arrangements that would help them navigate the myriad challenges delivered by the pandemic.
“It’s always made sense for businesses to work with their best employees to find a work-life balance that makes sense for them,” says Wright. “Valuing the employee has been something we’ve focused on for years. If you’re gonna have a company that gets through this sort of thing and thrives on the other end of it, boy, the only way that’s gonna happen is with employees that feel valued.”
An unplanned experiment. Throughout the past year, this unplanned workplace experiment has revealed unexpected insights. “This has been a great shake-up for the industry,” Broadaway says. “We can operate with people working from home, and for some people, that’s better. They’re happier, they don’t have to commute, they have more time with their families—I love seeing how this resort can still do exactly what it did before, but with the flexibility of people being able to work remotely.”
The pandemic has also transformed employee expectations about where they can, and should, perform their jobs. Additionally, resort management has been driven to rethink recruitment strategies and incentive offerings and refine job descriptions. Managers also face the new task of mitigating feelings of resentment that, in some cases, have emerged among staff whose work requires them to be on-site.
All of this means that working in the ski industry in a post-pandemic world will likely look different than it has in the past. And resorts must decide if they’re going to apply lessons learned during the past year to the next-generation workplace that has gained a foothold—and is poised to be the new normal going forward.
It Pays to Be Flexible
For some resorts, the Covid crisis revolutionized attitudes about job flexibility. For others, being open to helping employees curate a healthy work-life balance was already baked into the company culture.
Take Taos Ski Valley, for instance. Pre-Covid, full-time administrative supervisor Ashley Padilla told her boss, office manager and human resources benefits administrator Cheryl Romero, that she needed to take a step back from her job. Padilla was struggling to manage her time as an employee, student, and mother.
“The pressure was taking a toll on her and she needed to focus on her kids and her schooling,” Romero recalls. “She threw it all out there.”
Accommodating personal needs. Romero suggested an alternative. “I didn’t take a second thought. I said, ‘I’m not going to hire somebody else. I want to keep you in your position. We can figure this out.’” Romero allowed Padilla to work part-time, and to keep her full-time status. “I didn’t want her to be in a position where she worked her butt off in school and then she didn’t have a job later on,” Romero says.
That mentality made it less of a struggle for Taos to pivot when Covid happened. “Since the shutdown, there’s a lot of staff that needed to take extra time off to take care of their kids,” says Romero. “Across the board we made sure that everybody was being treated fairly regardless of what situation they were in.”
Maintaining relationships. Resorts also found ways to work with seasonal employees who didn’t feel comfortable being on the mountain. In some cases, staff who opted out this season kept their seniority levels for when they return next season. Affordable pass rates were offered to staff that hoped to ski despite not working at the mountain.
These efforts help maintain strong relationships between a resort and its employees. “I think managers have done a really good job of trying to keep their talent and working with them in any way they can,” says Annemarie Todd, vice president of human resources at Sugarbush.
Making Remote Work …Work
One of the biggest concerns with the work-from-home model was that people wouldn’t get work done if they weren’t in the office. But in one study, 94 percent of employers reported that productivity was the same or higher than it was before the pandemic—even with employees working remotely.
“I’ve had people say they are working so much harder remotely—and I’m not talking about distractions of having to deal with kids or other things,” says Todd. “You’re in front of your computer sometimes 10, 12 hours a day,” so people are accessible and very responsive.
Disconnecting vs. connection. On the flip side, working from home has made it tough for folks to disconnect from work at the end of the day. “Whereas normally you’d walk out of the office when you were done for the day to go to the gym or go home and cook dinner,” Todd says, “now it could be seven, eight, nine o’clock at night and you’re getting texts and emails from co-workers. One of the things we have to learn to navigate after Covid is how to set boundaries for those working remotely.”
The impact on collaboration and teamwork was also a concern. But technology such as Zoom has made connecting with coworkers easy—and sometimes even more efficient. “I get tired of these calls,” says Broadaway, “but I used to have hour-long staff meetings and now we’re done in 30 minutes. I love it.”
The mental toll. Still, working remotely or having a chunk of your staff working from home can change the dynamic of the workplace and impact people’s mental health.
Some employees, especially those who either live alone or need a break from sharing space with kids and spouses learning and working remotely, really want to come back to work. They want the camaraderie. They miss having a beer after work. “We have some staff who are at home that I’m worried about,” says Todd. “We have a couple of employees who are living alone and they’ve been alone all day everyday since March. So I think the mental toll for many is tough.”
Company culture. Ski areas need to continue to nurture company culture with their staff spread out between the mountain and their homes. “It’s figuring out a way to stay culturally connected even when people are apart,” says Wright. “How do we make sure those telecommuting still feel like part of our business? How do you stay connected in an environment that wants you to be disconnected? If you’ve got employees that, for whatever reason, are feeling disconnected, then you’ve got an issue.”
Fortunately, once the Covid crisis has passed, resorts won’t have to cap on-site employee numbers or curb their enthusiasm for traditional staff get-togethers.
Although working from home can be great for employees in some departments, the trend can trigger feelings of resentment among staff whose jobs require boots on the ground.
Broadaway recognizes the dichotomy. “Some teams just don’t have to be here,” she says. “They’re still working hard but they don’t have to be customer-facing. For those of us who are here day in and day out in the trenches, there’s a level of intensity. Sure, there are days I wish I could be working from home. Instead, I’m outside everyday telling people to put their damn mask on, or cleaning a port-a-potty.”
Ski resorts that traditionally operate with lean teams often need all hands on deck during peak times, and call on folks from the back of the house to help scan tickets or bump chairs. But when a cluster of that staff is working remotely, they can’t just run outside and dive into the fray—and that’s when the green-eyed monster may rear its head.
On deck at peak times. Refining job descriptions is one way management can head off feelings of jealousy. “I’m starting to think about how to communicate to potential candidates in terms of the ability to work remotely in this new landscape, but also in terms of being here to pitch in on weekends and holidays throughout the core of the season,” says Broadaway. “That will also send the message to the people who are here every day that there is accountability in other departments, and that remote staff will be here when they need to be here.”
Attracting and Retaining Talent
Pandemic travel restrictions impacted resorts’ ability to recruit for the 2020-21 season—and may have paved the way for a new approach to attracting folks to work on the mountain in the future. “We really focused on our local community and the surrounding New Mexico area,” says Romero. “That was a huge change for us.”
Tapping that local market for fresh talent is something that Taos Ski Valley hopes to continue going forward. “We want to go back to the basics,” says HR manager Lori Rangel. “I think that’s what Covid has done for a lot of industries. Getting the word out to the local community about who we are and letting them know that we want them here—that’s going to help with recruiting.”
Employee expectations about working from home have changed over the past year, so weaving remote work options into job offerings may help in recruiting and retention. Says Wright, “To the extent that we want to bring in a wider scope of employee—and that would certainly include women—having flexible options will make Jay a more interesting and realistic place for women to get into the ski industry.”
Hiring for remote positions. Sugarbush’s success with work-from-home this past year has led managers to rethink recruitment as well. “We’re now hiring for some positions that will be totally remote. A year and a half ago, we never would have done that,” says Todd. “It’s an opportunity to cast a broader net for great talent to enrich the company.”
Casting that broader net and enabling staff to work remotely also helps offset the cost of living in many mountain communities. “The real estate market in the Mad River Valley is insane,” says Broadaway. “Creating an opportunity to bring in new talent that can live somewhere else and still provide value to us? That’s going to be a great thing.”
The Post-Pandemic Work Landscape
What will working for the mountain look like in the future? It’s won’t be business as usual when the pandemic is finally over.
A more flexible future. “It’s an interesting time but I think the precedent’s been set,” says Todd. “I don’t think our senior leadership can turn the clock back and say, ‘We want you here 100 percent of the time.’”
Broadaway agrees. “I think there’s going to be some kind of hybrid that comes from this whole experience that will be wonderful for the industry. I think the conversation has to happen between employees and their supervisors about what’s going to work for the department, but also, ‘what’s going to work for me?’”
Not all departments can be equally flexible. Remote work naturally suits some jobs and departments better than others. But the pandemic gave ski industry employees a glimpse at having a work-life balance that they may not have envisioned in the past—and will likely want to keep, at least in some capacity, going forward.
“I enjoy dropping my kids off for school versus sending them on the bus an hour before they have to be there,” says Starr. “There are things I didn’t really appreciate prior to Covid—or really even consider as an option. It was always just, ‘You’re getting on the bus and you’re going to school and that’s that.’ So there are some new perspectives and priorities that have come to light in all of this. And I don’t know if I want to go back to the old way.”