Four Tactics Restaurant Managers Can Implement Now to Improve Employee Engagement

Today, restaurants’ staggering turnover rates are 70 percent higher than all other sectors. What can restaurant owners and managers do to better engage workers and  increase retention in the long run? 

The current state of employee retention rates can feel dire for restaurant owners, especially after the Covid pandemic. McKinsey research analysts claim that the retail and hospitality employment sector – a segment that includes restaurant employees – is up against “a more serious retention challenge” than any other employment sector, with employee exit rates outpacing all other sectors by more than 70 percent. 

Keeping staff has long been an issue for the food and beverage industry, but many restaurants now feel it is their primary obstacle to running a successful business. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, 50 percent of operators for both full-service and quick-service restaurants said that recruiting and retaining employees was their top challenge. Seven out of 10 restaurant operators reported they do not have enough staff to support current service demands.

These studies underline restaurants’ biggest challenge this year: Retaining high-performing staff. Some of the most common impediments to employee engagement and retention include: insufficient or improper onboarding processes for new staff, ineffective or even chaotic communication with workers, and little or no acknowledgement of great performance at work. These lead to poor employee experience and often frustration among staff. 

To start 2023 on the right foot, here are four tactics restaurant owners can implement now to improve employee engagement at all levels, and subsequently increase long-term retention rates. 

#1: Simplify Communication

The restaurant business can be very demanding and stressful, especially when there are so many guests to serve, and you’re chronically short-staffed. Often, this leads to rushed, poor communication between managers and employees, which in turn creates frustration among staff and even disgruntlement. Instead of breeding trust among workers, frustration builds up and leads to mistrust in management, and therefore, could lead to reduced engagement. 

That’s why a crucial component of managing restaurant personnel is making sure the lines of communication between staff and management are open, transparent, and that the messages are clear, and coherent. When you simplify the communication process, you’ll find your employees are more purpose-driven and engaged. 

Effective communication doesn’t mean sending text messages asking staff to cover an open shift. Instead, it’s a two-way street that allows both managers and restaurant staff to interact in real-time. One of the ways to achieve this is to utilize technology, possibly a mobile platform designed for communicating with restaurant employees – hourly workers, some temporary, who are usually all working different shifts and never at a desk. Some digital platforms will even allow you to conduct quick surveys or polls to gather employee feedback so you can identify and respond to concerns in real time. 

#2: Improve the Onboarding Experience for New Employees

Onboarding is the process by which new hires are integrated and brought up to speed. It is crucial the chef, sommelier, and servers are given the tools and knowledge they need during the onboarding process to perform their job well. It’s the onboarding experience itself that fosters trust and connection to the workplace: Well-trained new employees feel more confident in the workplace, they feel that management invests in them and wants them to succeed, and as a result they feel more connected to the workplace. 

In the restaurant business, there are many regulations and procedures to adhere to. How do you make sure new employees are up to speed with the latest safety procedures? How do you make sure all employees – new and veteran – are truly ready for the upcoming food health inspection? And how do you curate and keep these tools and knowledge going forward? 

Such instructions are typically provided during onboarding, with workers expected to remember details throughout their employment. But instead of relying on their memory, consider creating short, instructional videos – on food safety, sanitation, inventory, etc. – and materials that workers can easily reference should they need to review specific protocols and procedures. Some companies harness technology to give employees the knowledge they need from anywhere at any time.

#3: Acknowledge Great Performance, Establish an Employee Rewards Program 

In the demanding food and beverage sector, many managers forget to acknowledge employees and recognize them when they’re doing a great job. But research shows recognition is more important than ever. 

A recent Gallup poll found that the percentage of younger workers who strongly agree that someone encourages their development and gives them opportunities to learn and grow has dropped 10 points since 2019. Another survey found that nearly 50 percent of younger workers were at risk of leaving their jobs. In other words, Gen Z workers – a demographic often associated with restaurant personnel – are seeking more recognition and validation from employers. 

In addition to recognition of staff, consider starting an employee rewards program that incentivizes workers who go above and beyond, and could contribute to increasing retention in the long run. Offering gift cards for bartenders who regularly take on unpopular shifts or giving a night off to the sous-chef who volunteered to work a large dinner party event are effective ways to keep employees motivated and engaged by showing appreciation for hard work. 

By incentivizing staff who regularly exceed expectations, restaurants are not only acknowledging employee performance, but giving their staff a more fulfilling work experience, which overall contributes to customer satisfaction. 

#4: Streamline Daily Operations 

Many restaurants still rely on pen and paper or basic spreadsheets for their day-to-day business operations – to keep track of everything from work schedules and cleaning tasks to bar inventory. 

The list of ongoing operational tasks for running a restaurant is extremely complex. Locally-owned establishments, bars, coffee shops, franchises and all other food and beverage businesses must adhere to strict regulations in addition to their own standards. Ordering inventory, completing daily checklists, implementing safety procedures, managing reservations – the list of tedious and time-consuming tasks for restaurant owners and managers goes on and on. 

One of the common pain points is scheduling restaurant shifts, which gets more complicated the larger your staff gets. Every restaurant manager faces the fear of starting an opening shift without proper headcount,  or worse, having no one available to close. Orchestrating an effective schedule that combines employee requests with critical business needs and daily task lists that must be completed by a specific time is key to running a successful business. 

Most importantly, when managers are well organized with scheduling shifts and prioritizing tasks, employees have more clarity and thus are less frustrated and more confident and engaged. 

Fortunately, there are a number of mobile apps that cater to restaurant industry personnel, offering digital solutions to manage schedules, track employee time and  attendance, approve time-off, review special employee requests, and ensure daily tasks are completed. Some apps will even attach task lists to specific hours in the schedule so that employees assigned to open or close your coffee shop, for example, have an easily accessible checklist to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

Reversing the Downward Trends: Communication, Validation and Mobile-First Solutions

Employee retention has always been an issue for restaurant owners, from locally-owned pubs to quick-service restaurants and Michelin-reviewed establishments. Still reeling from the impact of the pandemic, the restaurant industry has reached an inflection point with many restaurant owners questioning how best to recruit and retain employees. 

Restaurant workers want open communication with their managers and validation for a job well done, just like anyone else. With the right technology tools in place, their expectations can be met. Reversing the downward trends can only be achieved by improving communication, training and engagement, thereby working toward higher employee retention rates.