Setting boundaries: what hotel work taught me about professional relationships

May 25, 2021

4 mins

Setting boundaries: what hotel work taught me about professional relationships
Lara Bullens


In this two-part personal essay, our writer talks about how working in the hospitality industry taught them the delicate dance of maintaining healthy relationships with colleagues.

There’s a post-it note that I keep tacked up on a bookshelf in my apartment. It reads: “Stories are everywhere, just not yet compiled in narrative form.” I remember feeling relieved when I wrote those words down for the first time, despite not knowing who they came from.

The year was 2016. I was about to leave Amsterdam, the city I had called home for the past 5 years, to move to Paris where I would try my luck as a journalist. For over a year, I had been working at a boutique hotel at Amsterdam Schiphol airport called citizenM. I had jotted those words down to free myself of my impending impostor’s syndrome, hopeful that my experience in hospitality would someday serve me as a journalist. Turns out the job taught me a lot more than I had bargained for.

The importance of a close-knit team in a fast-paced environment

The citizenM hotel chain’s unique selling point is what it calls “affordable luxury”. Clients have access to a 24/7 canteen, enormous beds with fluffy pillows, unlimited Wi-Fi, and great service without having to pay a fortune. Each hotel is conveniently located, equipped with a touchscreen self-check-in system, a lobby polluted with designer Vitra furniture, and an aggressively kind staff. Since it was founded in 2008, the company has prided itself on “disrupting” the traditional hotel scene and offering a home away from home to the modern traveler.

When I found out they were hiring, I was thrilled. Landing a job in journalism with limited Dutch language skills and a philosophy degree hadn’t exactly been a piece of cake. My previous jobs in cafés and restaurants hadn’t worked out either. I was tired of managers shouting at me for spreading cream cheese the wrong way and ready to take on a new position in hospitality. I needed money too and citizens were my way out. I handed in my application as a multifunctional hotel “ambassador” and got the job in March 2015.

Unlike ordinary job roles in a hotel where everyone is stationed based on their competencies, being an ambassador at citizenM means doing everything. We were about 14 daytime team members working in groups of four per shift, which either started at 7 am or 3 pm. Our floor managers would take turns surveilling the shifts and ensure a smooth handover. They assigned our roles for each day: reception, kitchen, bar, or ‘all-around’. Reception meant being a concierge, a porter, and a front desk manager all at once, welcoming each client with that citizen’s smile. For the morning shifts, working the bar meant making a million coffees for the breakfast run, cleaning, and taking stock of what needed to be ordered for the coming days. At night, that same person became a bartender. The all-around role included helping colleagues if their tasks became overwhelming, most often at the bar or reception, and cleaning up the lobby.

Given the long hours and hard work, it felt good to be part of a clique. It made things more bearable. But I could no longer tell my opinions from those of my colleagues.

I quickly learned how physically demanding and emotionally draining the job could be. I also learned how an intense, fast-paced work environment can easily fire up relationships. But that’s hospitality. The hotel couldn’t function without a close-knit team, and it would excel in terms of service when that team worked together harmoniously, in synchronicity. It was rare but when it happened, we felt invincible.

Maintaining a healthy distance and staying true to yourself

My colleagues came from all walks of life. In my first weeks there I befriended Ruby from Sunderland, who had never taken an airplane before her interview. She felt safe to me and while we observed how the team was structured, we held on to each other for support.

After working for a few weeks, we noticed a clear divide between the “new meat” and the seasoned ambassadors. Drawing on my high school experience, I realized that the ‘cool’ employees were hard-working, outgoing, and sassy towards guests, while the ‘outsiders’ were kind but less committed, and generally kept a healthy distance from their jobs. To become part of the inner circle, it was necessary to engage in gossip and get drunk together after work. Ruby and I held our ground timidly at first, but quickly got swept up in the social dynamics.

Six months in, a few colleagues quit, leaving us understaffed and overworked. Carol, who had been working in the hotel for years and was the alpha female, stayed behind. She terrified me, but I knew that if I got on her good side my shifts would become easier and she would lend me a hand. This was the case for so many of the ‘popular’ staff. They didn’t like you? Too bad, they wouldn’t support you in your shift. So I played the part, gossipped about our colleagues, complained openly about our working conditions and dragged my feet until I no longer recognized myself. Given the long hours and hard work, it felt good to be part of a clique. It made things more bearable. But I could no longer tell my opinions from those of my colleagues.

When a former ambassador came to visit us in September 2015, she gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me since: “This job could become your entire life or it could become a small part of it, like a train stopping at a station and then riding away. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to get off.” Her words woke me up to the reality that I needed to take some distance from my job.

There is a fine line between being close with teammates, creating healthy interpersonal workplace relationships, and engaging in workplace drama or conflict. I had to start holding my own emotional space. I needed to establish what I wanted from the job and what it meant to me, but in my own time, away from the influence of my teammates. The drama and political in-fighting became contagious and left me feeling unfulfilled. Setting boundaries allowed me to re-engage with my team from a healthier perspective. I stopped responding to gossip, I didn’t give in to peer pressure to go party every night after work, I decided to strive for compassionate accountability, slowly detached myself socially and I began to feel much better.

Today, when I start having negative thoughts about a workplace, I stop and ask myself: “Are these your emotions? Or are these your colleague’s emotions?” It’s difficult to do great work in a negative work environment. It’s important to look inward and check our confirmation biases.

To be continued

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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