When it comes to basic definitions of work, I’ve found great comfort in Lester DeKoster’s prescient view of work as “service to others and thus to God” — otherwise construed as “creative service” in For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles.
Our primary focus should be service to our fellow man in obedience to God, whether we’re doing manual labor in the field or factory, designing new technology in an office or laboratory, or delivering a range of “intangible” services and solutions.
But alas, in an economy as gigantic, complex, and information-driven as ours, it can be all too easy to feel like robotic worker bees or petty consumer fleas, isolated and atomized as we toil and consume in a big, blurry economic order. The layers of the modern economy tend to conceal this basic orientation, and thus, many of us could use some reminders.
In his latest profile for Christianity Today, Chris Horst highlights an area where work’s universal ethos of service is abundantly evident: the hospitality industry.
Focusing on Dave Collins, a 57-year-old housekeeper at the Denver Marriot hotel, Horst shows how our basic attitude and orientation can transform the arc of our economic engagement. “I wake up pumped that I get to go to work,” Collins says. “It’s a perfect fit for me.”
Well beyond the basic function or line-item job description, Collins devotes his efforts to “serving others,” the core of work’s design, and in doing so finds meaning in what many in modern society would construe as meaningless or “undignifying” toil. Much of this springs from his personal journey and a reimagination of sacrifice and value in his own life:
His joy in serving Marriott guests starts with his own journey. Two years ago, Collins reached a low in his battle with alcohol abuse. He lost his job, then his home, before checking into the Denver Rescue Mission, a large faith-based nonprofit… As someone who has known life without a place to live, he understands others wanting a place to call home, even if for one night…
Generating delight and reducing suffering is at the center of Collins’s work. Hospitality is an industry, but for Collins it’s also a posture. Sharing the Latin root word as hospital and shelter, hospitality defined simply is caring for people. Collins cites God’s admonitions to Israel to provide for sojourners and travelers as the primary source of motivation for his own work. Throughout the Old Testament, he notes, we read countless examples of God instructing his people to make provisions for sojourners. For those on the path from one place to another.
Collins serves guests in the ways he has experienced Christ serving him on the cross and in the ways fellow Christians have demonstrated hospitality. The community at Denver Rescue Mission helped him rekindle his faith and gave him shelter when he had none. Their aptly named Work Therapy program introduced Collins to housekeeping.
Whether keeping the lobby clean, answering phone calls, or cleaning up after rowdy or intoxicated guests, Collins retains this basic posture and outlook. The average salaries for housekeepers are also notoriously low, a reality that many Americans now seem to view as a basic disqualifier for “dignifying work.” “According to Collins, though,” Horst writes, “his salary and benefits exceed his expectations and are sufficient for his needs. It is the culture, he says, not the compensation, that makes his job meaningful.”
And the story doesn’t end with Collins. Although we can surely pursue service and meaning in our work regardless of our employer’s commitments, Marriot promotes a vision similar to Collins’, reinforcing and promoting his above-and-beyond approach.
Marriott and its Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel chain are considered by analysts to be the industry standard bearer for customer service, regularly topping charts from bothemployees and guests. The secret to these hoteliers ensuring housekeeping work is meaningful, not menial, lies in the way they frame housekeeping. For these companies, purpose starts with elevating the dignity of service. Ritz-Carlton refers to all their staff members as “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”
…In these companies, autonomy is emphasized. Managers empower housekeepers to be decision-makers. They entrust housekeepers to figure out how to best serve guests. Housekeepers respond to requests and predict needs based on what they believe will best fulfill the hotel’s mission.
Housekeepers also develop mastery of their craft. Many of Collins’s colleagues are expanding their expertise and breadth of abilities, resulting in little turnover among the 40 members of the housekeeping staff in the past year. The staff who left have taken jobs at other Marriotts.
“I’ve never had a job where I’ve been treated like this, where I’ve been treated this well, where I wasn’t treated like a piece of meat,” says Collins.
Marriot and folks like Collins are bringing a spirit of hospitality and “serving the stranger” to the hospitality industry. But it’s the same spirit we should be assuming and exuding across the economic order, no matter how disconnected we may feel from our customers or how uncertain we may be of the end products of our labor.
Whether writing for the masses, doing quality control in a widget factory, or performing endless R&D for the next hair-brained innovation, the nature of our work is much clearer and more certain than we think. The meaning is already there, and it’s up to us to be the servants.