Investing in Your Health Club’s Staff Pays Off

Happy and engaged employees can reap benefits for your club in many ways. Here’s how to build a foundation for staffers’ success.

It’s a fact of business life. Nearly everything in your club depreciates in one way or another as soon as it comes through your door. Equipment wears out from day one; technology evolves at lightning speed and must be updated; and your facility demands constant attention and repairs.

However, you do have an asset—the most valuable and costly one—that will appreciate over time with the right investment: your staff.

Happy, engaged, well-trained, motivated employees will grow with you, increase in value, and potentially pay for themselves several times over by helping to attract and retain members and keep your operation running smoothly.

It’s a fact worth considering. According to the 2017 IHRSA Profiles of Success report, which is based on results from the Industry Data Survey, the typical respondent reported that in 2016, payroll, as a percentage of revenue, was a heady 44.5%. And in 2017, it decreased slightly to 43.4%, according to the 2018 IHRSA Profiles of Success.

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Source: IHRSA 2018 Profiles of Success

In more concrete terms, the recruiting firm Glassdoor found the average salary for a health club manager is just north of $55,000 per year.

That’s the average. At the high end, according to Glassdoor, club manager pay is about $76,000, while compensation consultant PayScale pegs it at more than $85,000.

As for trainers and instructors, figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that their median pay was more than $39,000 per year, or $18.85 per hour, in 2017.

So, how do you make the most of your people, while keeping them satisfied? How do you help each staff member to be as productive and effective as they can be, regardless of the role they play in your club?

Experts say that it comes down to these important steps: making expectations clear, which will help keep employees engaged; onboarding them in a thoughtful, caring, and strategic manner; and establishing trust, while you help them grow and develop as your company, as well as the industry, continues to evolve and move forward.

Research shows that clear expectations and engagement are important from the very beginning, and they seem to go hand in hand.

The Gallup 2017 State of the American Workplace report—based on a nationwide employee survey—ranks 12 key benchmarks necessary to keeping an employee’s attention.

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First on the list: “I know what’s expected of me at work.” Six in 10 people surveyed strongly agreed with that statement.

The report also notes that moving this ratio to 8 in 10 employees gives organizations the opportunity to realize a 14% reduction in turnover, a 20% reduction in safety incidents, and a 7% increase in productivity. “Clear expectations are the most basic and fundamental employee need,” its authors assert.

Setting expectations should begin before an employee sets foot in your club—during recruiting and hiring—and through onboarding. In the unique environment of successful IHRSA clubs, detailing the required skillsets up front is critical to finding the individuals who are most likely to thrive.

Give the Power of Self-selection to the Applicant

Doing so also helps people self-select, to decide whether a job is right for them, points out Meredith DePersia, the vice president of human resources at Active Wellness LLC, a San Francisco-based company specializing in fitness and wellness services that manages 55 facilities across the country.

“Applications for positions can be submitted through our company website, which allows candidates, before they apply, to view job descriptions to ensure that their skills, experience, and abilities meet the requirements,” she says.

Beyond technical job skills, ensuring that any candidate is prepared to work in a service-intensive club environment is another factor that’s key to bringing in the right people, agrees Janine Williams, the vice president of human resources at Leisure Sports Hospitality, headquartered in Pleasanton, CA, which operates high-end clubs and hotel fitness facilities under the ClubSport and The Studio brands. Leisure Sports utilizes a dedicated talent-acquisition firm, Talent Plus, which supports the company’s HR directors in their efforts to recruit and onboard new associates.

“We want to identify candidates with the innate ability to serve others with an optimistic outlook and problem-resolution approach. That’s not to say that skills aren’t important; but, for most positions, we can teach people who have the right talent and outlook on life.”

Janine Williams, Vice President of Human Resources

Leisure Sports Hospitality​ - Pleasanton, CA

“In addition, we use an online assessment tool that identifies applicants with the potential to perform well in a customer-centric environment,” Williams says. “We want to identify candidates with the innate ability to serve others with an optimistic outlook and problem-resolution approach. That’s not to say that skills aren’t important; but, for most positions, we can teach people who have the right talent and outlook on life. Such individuals will be easy to cross-train to work in other departments, and take on more responsibility.”

Keep Work Relationships in Tip-top Shape

Also keep in mind that building a good relationship is a two-way street.

You want to make a good first impression, as does the candidate. And while the hiring process can give a new hire some sense of your business, the onboarding experience—good or bad—can set the tone for that employee’s entire tenure at your club.

It’s your first—and best—opportunity to set expectations regarding job performance, to educate the person about your company’s systems, and to indicate their place in the organization. For these and other reasons, the right onboarding approach sets an important baseline, says Allison Flatley, the CEO of Washington, D.C.–based Allison Flatley Consulting, and IHRSA’s director of industry relations.

“Great clubs use onboarding to ensure that the employee’s employment-related needs are met; that everyone knows why they’re on the team; that they feel safe to ask questions, make suggestions, disagree, and ask for help; and that they’ll have a chance to utilize their strengths,” she says. “Acknowledging these issues upfront ultimately helps to avoid turnover, and eliminates the need to recruit, hire, and train all over again.”

Setting the Stage for Success

At Active Wellness, onboarding actually starts before the employee’s first day.

Managers see that new hires have the equipment and tools they need, including business cards, nametags, uniforms, and appropriate access to the company systems (i.e., email, lead-management software, payroll) so they can perform their jobs effectively from the start.

“This not only shows the employee that we’re excited and ready for them to join the team, but also allows them to focus on key onboarding tasks, such as learning the culture, safety procedures, various systems, and specific job tasks immediately,” DePersia says. “All tasks are outlined on our new employee training checklist, which is utilized by the hiring manager to ensure that the process is completed in a timely manner.”

At Active Wellness, every new employee starts their first day by meeting their coworkers, viewing a video that highlights the company’s culture, and is given a list of key contacts and important information on pay dates, wage and hour expectations, and employee benefits. The day also includes safety training.

“I make sure they feel welcome and that—most importantly—they know they’re part of a much bigger entity than their individual department.”

Christine Cate, Human Resources Director

Hampshire Hills Athletic Club - Milford, NH

But not everything is covered at once. Onboarding typically takes a total of 10 days or longer depending on the position. The company invests the time because doing so results in better employees.

Certainly, onboarding helps clarify ground rules and expectations. For Christine Cate, the human resources director at the Hampshire Hills Athletic Club, in Milford, NH, it’s also an opportunity to let people know that they’re not just part of the club. They’re also part of the community.

“I onboard everybody personally to see that they understand our policies, the facility, safety procedures, and related issues,” she says. “Outside of the technical and legal things we cover, I make sure they feel welcome and that—most importantly—they know they’re part of a much bigger entity than their individual department. They represent 200 other employees and a company that’s been in business for 40 years.”

Cultivating Trust: It Pays Off

As you take these steps, remember that establishing trust is vital. It’s the right thing to do, and it pays off.

Not only must your new employee be prepared to do their job, they must feel you have their back, and are committed to helping them develop professionally.

Another engagement benchmark from Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace reads: “There’s someone at work who encourages my development.” Three in 10 employees surveyed strongly agreed with that statement.

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The Gallup report adds that, by moving that ratio to 6 in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 6% improvement in engaged customers, an 11% improvement in profitability, and a 28% reduction in absenteeism.

“Employees want to learn and grow,” Flatley says. “And, when they do, they work harder and more efficiently, which, likewise, helps the business to evolve and expand.”

She adds that staff members can increase their knowledge in a variety of ways, including through additional training; by taking on new responsibilities, roles, or projects; and by mentoring others.

Sophisticated Training Can Boost Engagement

Leisure Sports Hospitality takes its training equally seriously.

It makes use of a learning management system—a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of educational courses or training programs—and employs a dedicated learning and development program designer, and a part-time instructional designer.

The latter two customize the company’s training programs and ensure the completion of training programs required by law, such as those covering discrimination and harassment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Family Leave Act.

“We’re also working on creating learning pathways, by position, to increase our knowledge base, and grow our leaders for the future,” Williams says. “Investment in our associates builds morale and improves retention, which also has a direct correlation to member satisfaction.”

DePersia concurs. “We provide tools through training portals, webinars, and live training, and opportunities to earn more credentials and/or continuing education credits for our service and instructional employees. In doing so, we not only educate and improve our workforce, but also create employee loyalty and commitment to our organization.”

“Employees want to learn and grow. And, when they do, they work harder and more efficiently, which, likewise, helps the business to evolve and expand.”

Allison Flatley, CEO

Allison Flatley Consulting - Washington, D.C.

Another issue worth considering is the value of cross-training, as it benefits both the club and the employee, Flatley says.

“Development doesn’t necessarily need to be linear. Helping employees to grow in new areas is great for them, and can help clubs to move into new areas, too.”

Hampshire Hills, for one, actively encourages cross-training.

“If we have an employee who’s working in one area, and expresses an interest or has a skillset in another, we urge them to explore that,” Cate says. “Right now, for example, I have someone who works at the front desk, in the salon in a reception capacity, and is one of our group fitness instructors—all because she has an interest in those areas. Cross-utilization teaches people more about the club, and creates more engagement with our members. In addition, it offers people personal and professional growth, more compensation, and, most importantly, makes them feel more connected to the entire facility.”

Just think of it. When you shop for equipment, software, or any other resource, you’re hoping to optimize its lifetime for your business. The same should be true with respect to your most critical asset—your team. Investing in them for the long term will pay incalculable dividends.

“The best places to work are those that invest in their people, and allow them to make an impact, experience job security, and build a community,” Flatley says. “Making the effort is worth it. Remember, hiring and training new employees time and again is much costlier than keeping them onboard.”

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Jon Feld

Jon Feld is a contributor to Club Business International.