Tech is transforming restaurant work, and employers must adapt to get and keep staff

Tech is transforming restaurant work, and employers must adapt to get and keep staff
Restaurants are facing an unparalleled shift in the labour market and its impact will completely change the hospitality industry.

In the wake of one of the most disruptive periods in memory for the industry, restaurants are experiencing severe labour shortages, with some struggling to attract staff and others seeing significant employee turnover. Recruitment and retention challenges are an increasingly pressing issue, and restaurants are desperate to find ways to attract workers and stay afloat. Some are reducing their hours, others are offering higher wages. Those who are desperate are offering benefit packages, previously unheard of in the restaurant industry.

Many of the 800,000 Canadian food-service workers who lost their jobs or had their hours cut during the pandemic are tired of the uncertainty brought on by the extended dining closures over the past year. With many still receiving income support from the federal government, some are refusing to go back to a minimum-wage job and — for the many younger staff not yet fully vaccinated — risk their health in the process.

The restaurant industry has seen an exodus of experienced staff, and as a result job postings on Indeed Canada are up 37 per cent from pre-pandemic levels in mid-June. How can restaurants rebuild their workforce in this new and uncharted landscape?

Since the pandemic started, consumer-facing technology has changed the way the hospitality industry operates. From digital menus accessed via QR codes to self-ordering and self-payment on cellphones, the dining experience has undergone a seismic transformation.

Diners have quickly adapted to this new normal, and trends across the globe indicate they want to have as much control over their dining experience as possible, both now and beyond the COVID-19 crisis. But for some diners, a completely server-free dining experience isn’t necessarily what they’re searching for, even if their local restaurant has great contactless options.

For many innovation-focused operators in the industry, the swift implementation of contactless technology alongside a robust digital-first, on-premise guest-experience plan has meant that the role of the server is transforming. While having self-service options are critical, server assistance is still sought out and it’s in this space that the role of the server can be elevated into a more rewarding one for them, as well as a better experience for the guest.

The right technology has the power to free servers from simply ferrying food, manually placing orders and taking payments. It can let them be more present with their tables, add significant value through more meaningful guest interactions, and reap the rewards: improved job satisfaction and increased tips. Recent stats show that when guest-focused technology is implemented, some venues have seen on average up to 26 per cent consistently higher tips, others up to 40 per cent higher than venues still relying on traditional service models. Happier and more satisfied guests deliver more value to servers — and never has this been more critical.

But what does this mean for restaurant operations beyond individual staff members? Across any single venue, more tables can be covered by fewer servers, giving restaurants more operational bandwidth than they’ve ever had before to truly do more with less when they have to, and remain as reactive and nimble as possible in what is still a time of great change. At the same time, operators are better able to retain a core team of staff that can keep working with them to adapt to changes in regulations, workflows and guest expectations as they go.

Alongside this advantage, self-ordering technology has changed the relationship between the guest and the kitchen, putting them in direct contact via always-present menus that give guests the ability to order at their leisure. Given this prime environment for impulse ordering, average cheque sizes increase accordingly, benefiting the entire operation as well as the server. And after prolonged months with no dining-room business, drastically reduced overall capacity and an overreliance on third-party delivery platforms, venues need every incremental increase in orders and tips they can get.

The complexity of the challenges involved in rebuilding the restaurant workforce are only now being fully revealed. Venues need to be conscious of now not only needing a standing contactless solution for health and safety concerns, but a plan to pivot for an unparalleled shift in the labour market. Having a robust strategy to elevate the role of service staff, turn over tables efficiently and increase average order values is now an essential aspect of any restaurant operators’ tool kit.

Just like it was rolled out to address physical touchpoints, technology can be utilized in the labour battle to facilitate exceptional dining experiences on both sides, freeing operators to focus on all of the other factors that let them deliver phenomenal customer service, and keep employees happy. It’s now in the hands of hospitality technology partners across the country to be aware that labour is the next crisis their hospitality clients are facing — and to prepare accordingly.

Laurent May, is head of restaurant tech company Ready, a connected dining platform that offers a contactless dining experience.
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