I really enjoy doing laundry.
My girlfriend likes to tease me about it, but it’s true. I enjoy the routine of it. My favorite part is ironing. It’s almost as good as taking a nap. My mind gets to relax and wander as I go through the motions of pressing the wrinkles out of my clothes for the work week.
But I know that when it comes to enjoying laundry, I’m pretty much alone in that opinion.
At Walt Disney World, that certainly was the case 25 years ago. Trust me, there are few operations as important to the existence of Walt Disney World as the laundry unit, but nobody wanted to work in it back then. Tens of thousands of guests stay at Walt Disney World resorts every day. This makes for many tens of thousands of towels, wash cloths and bed linens, never mind the table cloths and napkins in the park’s many restaurants – all needing to be washed each week .
If the laundry operation should ever cease operating for say, four days in a row, Walt Disney World would have to shut down. It’s a quite important business unit, but in the early 1990’s, nobody wanted to handle the uncomfortable, unappreciated, labor-intensive work. Annual retention rates were in the single digits. The staff turnover only added to the costs of keeping the laundry moving, as new cast members – Disney lingo for employees – were being constantly hired and trained.
Then something changed.
Walt Disney World’s executives realized that even if guests never interacted with the laundry staff nor visited the massive hidden laundry facilities, the laundry department was in need of a cultural makeover. Today, the unit once plagued with single-digit annual retention has become one with single-digit annual turnover with more than 90% of its staff retained year-over-year. Morale is up. Efficiency is up. And costs are down, which has investors focused on Walt Disney World’s bottom line very happy.
How did they do it? Walt Disney World’s laundry division managers used the opening of a new laundry facility as an opportunity for the cultural overhaul of which they dreamed. It started with listening to cast members. Even as the new laundry facility was designed, current laundry division cast members were asked about their favorite parts of work, what they would or would not change, and their worst work nightmares. The survey netted a laundry list of ideas (see what I did there?) shared with design engineers. When the new laundry facility opened two decades ago, work experiences of laundry unit cast members was improved, and the cast members knew management had listened.
But changing the team’s culture didn’t end with simply making the jobs more comfortable. The cast members also were invited to the resort properties to spend time alongside the cleaning staff so they could see exactly how their output – clean laundry – was put to use. Before they wondered how the resort could possibly need so many towels. At the in-person visits, they saw how some towels were folded to look like animals that delighted the young guests rather than just hung on the racks. Gradually, the laundry division understood how it contributed to the purpose of Walt Disney World – creating happy memories. When guests return to clean rooms with fresh linens after long, sweaty days at the park – trust me, it makes them happy.
Laundry unit managers also took care to get to know their cast members, and learn about the dreams and aspirations they held for themselves and their families. Benefits, like access to the parks, were a great perk to laundry division cast members with families. Cast members also were allowed to start taking common lunch breaks, making it easier for them to relax together and form bonds with their colleagues.
The laundry division is still every bit as invisible to Walt Disney World guests today as it was 25 years ago, but the culture has transformed because management realized every part of the company – regardless of proximity to the end user – should exhibit the first-class culture for which Disney is known. At Walt Disney World, the positive returns in efficiency and retention have proven that caring about employees and building an inclusive culture is an idea that rarely fails to pay off.