Hastily torn from a scrap of old receipt tape, the handwritten paper sign telegraphed exasperation – or possibly surrender – from across the room. Wholly out of place in the nicest restaurant of a mid-sized coastal Carolina city, it stood in stark contrast to the reclaimed shiplap, heavy crystal glassware, and trendy boat-to-plate menu. “Short staffed. Sorry.” The message was unmistakable, “Lower your expectations now…we’ll accept your card, but this is going to be a rough ride.”
Except…this sign wasn’t responding to a peak-pandemic emergency or even the idyllic reopening days where customers were so relieved to be outside that service and quality were hardly a thought. Smack in the middle of a “robust” recovery that would make everything better than pre-pandemic, nothing was better – and the workforce which represented 34% of pandemic-related job losses remained in shambles. From the closed doors of beloved independent restaurants to prominent national chains that couldn’t maintain normal hours of operation, paper signs became a part of the everyday hospitality experience.
State of the Workforce
While staffing concerns and labor shortages are hardly unique to the hospitality workforce, the combination of low pay, long hours, irregular schedules, limited prospects, and poor work/life balance drove a disproportionate abandonment of industry roles. More than just a lagging indicator of economic recovery, this was a philosophical fissure – foodservice employees took the forced hiatus of the pandemic to realize they wanted something more: committed roles with growth, recognition, engagement, and advancement opportunities. Worse yet – these conditions caused a destructive cycle where previous staff remained unwilling to return to their old jobs due to short-staffing/overwork while potential prospects were scared off by the same.
Bleak as this sounds, there is plenty of cause for optimism – the foodservice sector is anticipated to grow almost 12% in 2023, with non-commercial business and on/off-premise catering easily exceeding 2019 benchmarks. While the workforce hurdle is real, innovative technology-based approaches to talent management, frontline engagement, and employee experience offer unprecedented opportunities for forward-looking operators.
Technology as the Answer
Just as the pandemic forever changed the importance of innovation in how consumers select and purchase food, it also shifted the expectation of how tech should empower the workplace – over 90% of job prospects born after 1997 cite this as a major consideration in their choice of employer. As a part of the recruiting process, well-coordinated technology sets an immediate tone of investment in employee welfare. Ideally the opposite of an archaic form-based tool to automate HR workflow (“uploading my resume so I can type the info again on the next page” is meme-worthy at this point), the goal is to create an initial foundation of clarity, respect, efficiency, and human-focus. Thoughtful technology that makes critical resources easily available elevates HR as a strategic business partner while removing barriers and distrust:
- Onboarding Materials
- Benefits Information
- Payroll/Tax Dashboard
- Communications Portal
- Training Opportunities and Assets
Particularly in foodservice, technology is also the gateway to alternate/non-traditional talent pools that can help to manage unanticipated labor needs. Far from calling the temp agency at the last minute and begging for staff, this represents a balanced approach for leveraging modern labor influences (gig economy, etc.) to construct a balanced workforce strategy.
Connection with the Frontline
It is nearly impossible to overstate how often the disconnect between frontline employees – those who interact directly with guests – and management surfaces as a primary cause of dissatisfaction in the hospitality workforce. Mediocre relationship with a direct boss, misalignment with corporate goals, and lack of advancement opportunity rank among the most frequent exit interview responses for departing employees – a fact that can’t be overlooked as nearly 45% of job openings remain unfilled. Although no technology can substitute for effective management, the inclusion of frontline technology provides a clear roadmap for improving employee satisfaction:
- Employee engagement monitoring to drive informed/meaningful dialogue.
- Communication tools to drive timely resolution of critical issues.
- Recognition (peer or traditional) approach and ability to target retention efforts towards high performers.
- Targeted AI to improve efficiency, clarify goals, and empower frontline staff.
Technology used in this way is the opposite of the “big brother” trope that drives suspicion and alienates employees. Instead, effective management tools reduce the daily frustration and management miscommunication that drive staff to seek employment elsewhere.
Freedom to Perform
While improving each employee’s organizational experience is an important therapy for unprecedented hospitality workforce challenges, the true purpose of technology should be to reduce the friction of daily work activities and improve quality of life. While nothing in hospitality is more fatiguing than the constant apologies, workarounds, and emergencies that result from a lack of organization, purpose-built foodservice management systems empower staff through consistent and reliable processes. Moving forward, increasing emphasis must be placed on data-driven insights that serve as additional leverage for meeting – and increasingly anticipating – guest/customer needs.
From initial onboarding through growth within an organization and daily delivery of a role, technology that factors each employee as a primary constituent/partner in the success of the business will drive results. The goal is simple: give each staff member the tools to apply, train, and deliver their role so they can focus on what inspires them about hospitality – the opportunity to delight guests, exceed expectations, and create indelible experiences.