Technology alone will not fix the labor crisis.

“The Great Resignation” is far from over, although pundits have started giving it other colorful names, including the Great Reshuffle and the Great Reprioritization (that last one’s a mouthful). Anyone who thought that this was a passing fad got a rude awakening when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its most recent numbers, showing that 4.3 million Americans had left their jobs in December—down just slightly from a record high of 4.5 million the previous month.

Here’s another record-setting number from last November: one million American hospitality workers quit their jobs. Between pandemic-related layoffs and unsatisfied employees seeking greener pastures, the past couple of years have seen a serious labor shortage emerge in hospitality. In fact, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, roughly 50 percent of restaurant operators in the full-service, quick-service, and fast-casual segments expect recruiting and retaining employees to be their top challenge this year.

Fewer people, more machines?

At the same time, we have seen a rapid widespread implementation of automation and customer-facing contactless technology in restaurants. A lot of that tech would appear to remove the need for full teams of human workers—and indeed, we’re seeing a lot of headlines about robotic kitchens and even fully automated restaurants. Does this mean that restaurants are planning to ditch people in favor of more machines? Hardly. According to the National Restaurant Association, 75 percent of operators say they plan to devote more resources to recruiting and retaining employees in 2022.

The industry has come to lean more and more on technology, but it still needs people—even if those people are proving harder to find. That won’t stop restaurants from trying, of course. According to another recent report, the majority (82 percent) of U.S. restaurant operators surveyed say they intend to increase compensation in various ways in hopes of attracting workers, from raising wages and offering bonuses to implementing new tipping options for kitchen staff.

Technology alone will not fix the labor crisis in hospitality. What it can do, however, is make things a little easier for both restaurant operators and their employees. The reality of smaller crew sizes need not place an extra burden on individual crew members. Automation and contactless technologies have put much of the business of running a restaurant into the hands of guests, who can now scan a QR code with their own smartphones to access a menu, order, and pay without the need to flag down their server. As a result, a reduced number of servers can cover more tables.

Seeking a human connection

While technology can increase a venue’s operational efficiency, it also has the potential to elevate the role of the server. Surveys have shown that diners are generally in favor of restaurants implementing more technology, especially if it makes their experience a safer and more efficient one. However, that doesn’t mean that guests are looking for a completely server-free experience. (Well, not most guests, at any rate; there are no doubt a few who look forward eagerly to a future of robot waiters and, presumably, self-driving cars—preferably ones that can fly.)

Those seeking out a human connection along with their meal will still find it, even as automation and artificial intelligence become more commonplace. Even in fine dining, customer-facing tech can free front-of-house staff from having to manually place orders or take individual guests’ payments (the transactional engagements), giving them more bandwidth to elevate the dining experience through more meaningful interactions. 

This can be a boon to both the operation as a whole—happier guests tend to translate to higher average order value—and to individual servers, whose attention can unlock increased generosity on the part of customers. Restaurants with guest-focused technology in place have been shown to consistently see tips up to 26 percent higher (or more) than those relying on traditional service models.

This is not a question of human versus machine or hospitality versus automation. It’s more accurate to say automation is making hospitality experiences more human. When implemented with an eye toward balancing the demands of customers and the needs of staff, technology can provide a better overall experience for all parties, even making the experience of dining out richer, more immediate, and more responsive to our needs—it might be just the thing that gets the industry through the most challenging of times.

Laurent May is the CEO of Ready, a fully integrated mobile self-ordering, payment and loyalty technology solution that’s defining the next generation of hospitality venues. He has over 20 years of product management expertise in the electronic payments space leading high-performance teams.

Expert Takes, Feature, Labor & Employees, Technology