This isn’t an easy time for owners or staff, but a willingness to be flexible can help everyone to navigate the situation.

The past year has been rough for everyone. However, the restaurant industry has been expected to weather the struggles of COVID-19 while also continuing to provide essential food delivery services. Needless to say, the sector has been hit hard. Yet, as a return to normality slowly approaches, another challenge has become clear. Restaurants are experiencing a significant labor shortage.

There are mixed opinions surrounding this problem. Many are seeking to frame it as a consequence of COVID-19—staff is reluctant to engage with the public. Yet, the most accurate insights tend to come from restaurant workers themselves. They have concluded the income they receive in the foodservice industry is far lower than is reasonable for the labor, skill, and commitment they provide. It’s a difficult perspective to argue against. But this leaves restaurant owners with a quandary. Many small businesses can’t provide the higher rates of pay to attract and retain staff.

There are no easy solutions here. But it’s worth exploring whether there are ways owners can show their appreciation for workers other than just giving higher wages. Let’s delve a little further into the issue.

Supportive Benefits

Benefits are some of a business’s best ways to show it cares about its employees’ happiness and wellbeing. Therefore, restaurants should be considering what challenges their employees face and build benefits packages to suit. As established, finances are an issue. So a profit-sharing scheme can be a positive way forward. Workers also need to have space for their personal interests, so paid time off is an important aspect. If workers have young children, teaming up with local childcare organizations to provide subsidized resources might be an option.  

Flexibility practices are also an increasingly important benefit to offer if restaurants want to show their appreciation. It demonstrates business owners appreciate workers have lives outside of the restaurant. Flexibility shouldn’t be limited to scheduling, though. While restaurants are brick-and-mortar businesses, they can make serious gains by being flexible with digital tools. This begins with the hiring process. Restaurants should already have an online presence to stay relevant in today’s world, but they must advertise positions and receive applications here, too. Candidates may not always find it convenient to attend physical interviews, so remote video calls can be a practical option to offer. Indeed, if workers’ are involved with marketing or administration, giving them opportunities to occasionally work from home can be an attractive benefit.  

Talent Development

It’s important to acknowledge the reasons for the labor shortage come down to a variety of factors. Even before the pandemic, there was a slow-down due to not just lower wages, but also Boomers retiring, and businesses relying too much on outdated hiring practices. As such, the strategies to treat the issue have to be agile enough to address as many of these as possible. This should include investing in new technology to boost efficiency and revamping recruitment techniques. But many of the problems can be addressed by supporting employee growth. It also shows appreciation to employees through making efforts to provide them with viable long term career paths.

This means the addition of a talent development program is a must. Management should create protocols for regular one-on-one meetings where workers’ ambitions and opportunities for gaining experience are discussed. Educational resources should be provided—whether this is course-based management training or colleague shadowing. Where courses require study and exams, restaurants need to make sure they are providing support through paid time off. This also shows business owners have an appreciation for the time, effort, and commitment workers are applying to upskilling.

In order to have a real impact on the labor shortage, such talent development programs also need to be accessible. By making it clear paths to leadership are available for all employees, restaurants can communicate there are meaningful career opportunities for everyone—not just transient jobs. This is also a route to encouraging a more diverse workforce. As such, restaurants need to take time to design their programs with a cognizance of the various challenges their workers might face. Socioeconomic factors, family duties, neurodivergent traits can all play a role in development. Ensuring processes are flexible enough to accommodate these factors can be key to retention.

Emotional Connection

The emotional element of any job is fundamental to not just attracting new employees, but keeping them engaged with the business in the long term. As such, it’s important for managers and owners to be emotionally communicative with employees. Talk about what aspects of the environment tend to make workers anxious. Establish which elements of the job they enjoy.

This isn’t just a route to find solutions to problems, but also to make certain there is a genuine, open emotional dialogue. Indeed, if restaurant owners and managers aren’t entirely comfortable with this, it’s important to reassess and build their leadership skills. Staff is, in essence, a group in need of someone they can rely on to lead and nurture them. Effective leaders exhibit clear communication, integrity, and self-confidence. But managers also have to be able to show they value their workers and are willing to stand up for the interests of those in their care. By working on communication and relationships here, leaders can develop strong bonds with their employees. 

This emotional development needs to extend to how the team interacts with one another, too. Studies have shown that Millennials, who are the largest portion of the current workforce, tend to be happier in their jobs when they feel emotionally connected to their colleagues. Restaurants need to therefore make certain they build teams that help each other thrive. Recruitment must be geared toward not just skills but also cultural fit. Managers need to cultivate a team that shows mutual appreciation by celebrating one another each day.

The labor shortage is not going to resolve itself, but not all restaurants are able to raise wages significantly. As such, it can be helpful to lean into other methods of appreciation—benefits, commitment to development, and building emotional connections. This isn’t an easy time for owners or staff, but a willingness to be flexible can help everyone to navigate the situation positively. 

Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer from the Northwestern U.S. She covers a wide range of topics and, because she spent over six years in the restaurant business before writing full-time, takes a particular interest in covering topics related to the food and beverage industry. To learn more about Jori, you can follow her on Twitter.

Expert Takes, Feature, Labor & Employees