How to elevate your team’s needs and cultivate a positive workplace environment.
By Lisa Bowen
It’s no secret that a positive and consistent workplace culture leads to increased productivity, loyalty and employee retention, but the economic pressures of the past few years have made it clear that there’s no greater competitive advantage than cultivating a people-first culture where team members feel engaged, supported and connected. Not only is it crucial for the health of your employees, but it also is a key ingredient in a restaurant’s success.
When trying to assess the current employee culture at their restaurants, here are the four questions restaurant operators should ask themselves:
1. Do staff members know what my employee value proposition is?
Employees should understand what differentiates the restaurant from its competitors and what makes people want to work there. This should be a combination of factors, not just compensation. Team members also should understand the company’s goals and their role in achieving these goals. This is a topic that should be discussed regularly.
2. How do team members know if they are successful?
It is essential to have a structure in place whereby employees and management can align on expectations and engage in regular feedback sessions. Providing infrequent feedback is actually worse than providing none at all.
While frequency depends on the scope of the team member’s role, at least once a week is appropriate for one-on-one time with managers. I also recommend aiming to have every manager touch base with all other colleagues once a month. It’s very helpful to have front-of-house staff meet with kitchen employees to deepen that understanding. Feedback goes both ways, so managers and operators must also be open to receiving feedback as part of their leadership roles.
Feedback is about alignment, and creating alignment is a critical step in getting anything done. Offering and receiving consistent feedback leads to more meaningful shift meetings and team-building opportunities because everyone knows what to expect.
3. Is the company’s compensation structure consistent with the contributions of employees?
What is each team member’s contribution to the company’s goals? In recruiting, I often get asked what I think a person should be paid, but it’s about the value of the job, not the person. Many times, people don’t think about the compensation structure being consistent with the role.
Restaurants wouldn’t have sales without servers and kitchen staff, so these employees must be paid fairly for their contribution. When it comes to compensation, restaurant operators must find out what motivates their team members to reach the company’s goals. While monetary compensation is an obvious choice, some team members simply like the idea of being accomplished. Some enjoy being part of a team, while others with a competitive nature thrive on meeting goals. Management must work to understand these motivations on an individual basis and offer well-rounded options for rewards.
The largest growing population in the restaurant industry is 16- to 19-year-olds, and they may not care about a 401K, but they’re excited about curating their own benefits to pay back student loans, get a Netflix membership or other meaningful rewards. It’s about meeting people where they are. Among this demographic, there’s already a level of hopelessness about being financially stable enough to purchase a home, but restaurant owners who can offer employees the opportunity to select their own incentives through services like Fringe will be an employer of choice.
4. Do your employees have opportunities to grow?
This doesn’t just have to mean growth into a management position; growth opportunities can mean the chance to explore areas of interest. For example, servers who also are accounting students might be interested in helping with costing or inventory while artists can make the restaurant’s bulletin and menu boards beautiful. Allowing team members to be themselves, whatever that may be, will encourage growth and take some things off a manager’s plate at the same time — a win-win.
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” there is certainly work to be done. The foundation for a positive culture is laid by caring about employees’ professional and personal development, which builds trust and leads staff members to feel safe in the workplace.
There are a variety of ways to build this trust. Here are examples of what that might look like in a restaurant setting:
- Choosing team members who will thrive in a positive culture. In the hiring process, prospective team members will ask questions about company culture and will show their excitement in interviews, during onboarding and throughout training.
- Prioritizing accountability and setting clear expectations. The best way to lose a great performer is by continuing to employ non-performers. Enabling those who aren’t performing in the role they were hired to do lowers staff morale and leads to conflict.
- Making resources available to those who are interested in learning more and growing, such as offering online classes. Full Course and the National Restaurant Association are great places to start for learning center programs.
- Engaging with employees in a transparent way about what’s happening within the company and why. People want to be in the know, and this can be done by hanging a newsletter on the office door or hosting a powerful shift meeting to educate staff on what’s happening in the business.
- Providing stability so people can come to work as their authentic selves and feel psychologically safe. Team members must be able to ask questions, challenge the status quo, make suggestions and come up with their own ideas. The feedback circle I referred to earlier is a huge part of this. I strongly recommend utilizing employee surveys and an open-door policy for making suggestions to give employees a voice. However, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to report back to employees on survey findings, which goes back to transparency and reliability. Management must make it clear to employees that their concerns have been heard and specify how the concerns are being addressed (or the reasons why they can’t be addressed at this time).
- Modeling a culture of kindness, respect and fun from the top down. For example, if management claims they’re guest-focused but complain under their breath about diners, then there is no real positive culture. Leadership teams must walk the walk. The key to showing kindness is to catch team members doing things correctly instead of incorrectly. Recognize team members who are helping others and thank them for it. Make sure employees are having appropriate fun at work. The restaurant industry should be fun and exciting. After all, we get to help people celebrate the biggest moments in their lives!
- Showing appreciation for team members who care about one another. Don’t take positive employee culture for granted; an element of gratitude goes a long way. Employee culture is a living thing that requires nurturing and constant attention.
Understanding your team’s developmental needs and reviewing their performance comes down to listening before responding. When leaders have genuine intentions of helping employees become the best versions of themselves, and team members know this, a positive outcome is sure to follow.
A 30-year restaurant industry veteran and corporate executive, Lissa Bowen has led operations, HR, recruiting, training, marketing and leadership development in companies like Applebee’s, O’Charley’s and FOCUS Brands. She is currently the Chief People & Culture Officer at Full Course and also serves as the Executive Director at the Full Course Foundation Learning Center (501c3).