Customers are constantly complaining about employees bickering with one another, serve times and incorrect orders are growing every day, and three of your best employees have quit in the last month. All of these problems have one thing in common: They can be the result of a staff that isn’t working together as an effective team.
“It’s not just how we serve the customer, but how we service each other. Customers really notice that,” says Bruce Schroder, executive vice president and COO at Jamba Juice.
By creating an environment where teamwork is one of the top priorities, restaurants can retain valued employees, increase customer satisfaction, and exceed sales goals, Schroder says. And most importantly, employees will feel like they’re part of something and be excited to come to work.
Often, the most important part of creating an effective team begins long before problems begin to crop up. Operators should focus on hiring the right people for their restaurant, both in terms of management and team-member positions, experts say.
And since management can set the tone for the entire restaurant, managers should receive training to help them create a team environment that instills an attitude of teamwork throughout the store, starting from the top.
“Having the right leader really is the key to a great team,” says Heather Lane, vice president of training at Moe’s Southwest Grill. “The manager should be willing to work shoulder to shoulder with the employees to understand the employees’ jobs and show that they are willing to do the work.”
Once the right personnel is in place to lead the team, hiring the proper crewmembers is the next step toward ensuring the staff works well together.
“One of the things I saw good managers doing is asking high-performing employees if they had any friends who would like to work there,” says Dr. Jerry Newman, who spent 14 months working in seven quick-service restaurants while writing his book, My Secret Life on the McJob: Lessons in Leadership Guaranteed to Supersize Any Management Style.
“If someone recommends a good friend, then they will most likely fit into the current culture of the store,” adds Newman, who also serves as the chair of the organization and human resources department at the University of Buffalo.
Newman also suggests including questions in the interview process that highlight the prospective employee’s experience and understanding of being a team player.
“A great question is, ‘Tell me an example of a time you excelled as a team player,’” he says. “You are looking for the individual to show a situation where a task was involved, how they worked together with others to complete it, and what the result was.”
Additionally, it’s important to recruit employees who fit with the culture and environment of a brand so they can integrate easily with the existing team.
Lane says an important part of every interview for Moe’s is having the person say the company’s signature greeting to all customers. “If someone isn’t comfortable saying ‘Welcome to Moe’s’ enthusiastically, then Moe’s is not the right fit for them,” she says.
It’s also crucial to stress the importance of teamwork during the training and onboarding process, Schroder says. Many conflicts can be avoided by ensuring that each new employee knows the role of each position in the restaurant.
“We have a lot of experienced employees who are the best ambassadors, and help the newbies through mentorship to encourage them in team work and the overall family work environment at Jamba,” he adds.
Since a large part of team building is organic and not something that can be mandated, operators should provide opportunities for employees to connect with one another, Schroder says. For example, Jamba Juice has an internal social network system that allows employees to share best work practices and get to know each other outside the restaurant.
“It’s not all business on the site, and it takes a life of its own,” Schroder says. “It’s about celebrating with people who have bought their first home and others who have lost 150 pounds.”
Events and outings, such as holiday parties or picnics, can be a great opportunity for employees to get to know each other. In addition, celebrating birthdays, graduations, and other accomplishments, like running their first marathon, can create unique staff-bonding experiences.
Newman says another great way to encourage teamwork is to highlight examples of employees exhibiting positive team behavior, and then put those employees in leadership positions. When Newman was a fast-food employee, he attended only one staff meeting; he encourages managers to hold regular meetings. “Short team meetings are a great place to provide positive feedback and set expectations,” he says. “At the meetings, point out the behaviors that you would like to see more of instead of focusing on what the employees are doing wrong.”
When team issues do arise, it’s best to first get an understanding of exactly what is happening and then address the problem.
Lane says in her experience, management can often solve team issues by either clearly defining roles or providing additional supplies to staff members. “Ask your crew what they need and then honor their answer with a dialogue, even if you can’t fix their complaint,” she says.
Another effective way Moe’s Southwest Grill provides feedback to its staff members is by conducting annual performance reviews that are tied to merit-based pay increases. “While the employees know that this is coming and it is a formal process, you also have to provide continual feedback because feedback can’t only happen once a year,” Lane says.
A strategy that can often unify a team is to create competitions in which employees must work together toward a common goal. For example, larger chains could hold a contest among different locations, while smaller chains or one-store restaurants can encourage their employees to try to break professional goals or last year’s sales numbers.
“There is nothing more unifying than having an external enemy,” Schroder says. “It quickly eliminates the internal enemy.”