The challenge to hire restaurant workers isn’t fresh to COVID-19. But it’s definitely taken on a different slant of late. In addition to outward concerns, like competing with expanded unemployment, remote opportunities, and personal safety worries, there’s an underlying question of how large the labor pool really is. On the surface, March’s unemployment rate of 6 percent is significantly higher than the five-decades-low 3.5 percent reported consistently before coronavirus.

Yet one thing we don’t know today is how many restaurant workers fled to other sectors over the past year-plus. Those furloughed or laid off amid lockdowns, who haven’t and likely won’t return—people who decided there was too much uncertainty in the space to commit. There’s also the pragmatic possibility these workers didn’t wait for reopenings and recovery. They went back to school. Looked to different careers. To the earlier point, they might also have just elected to collect unemployment instead. In President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a weekly $300 unemployment boost was added until September 6.

According to a report released Thursday by Joblist, More than 50 percent of hospitality employees who worked for a business that closed permanently during the pandemic have been unemployed for more than six months. As a result, 29 percent of hospitality workers said they are seeking to switch out of the industry permanently and into office, retail, or other roles.

So this probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

You also have to factor in immigration scrutiny and younger people prioritizing extra-curricular activities over paid work. College is now considered more of a necessary and natural step than a privileged one, as it was previously. The result is a force of employees with degrees seeking employment beyond entry level from the moment they walk off the stage


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To illustrate this, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics found 1.7 million teens worked in restaurants in 2018—the same number as 2007. This despite the fact, per the BLS, the number of restaurants jumped close to 16 percent in the past decade.

It’s unlikely COVID changed much here.

Plus, there’s the ever-evolving affair of wage rates and the $15 debate. All of this is why you see reports surface of operators like an Auburn Chick-fil-A offering $18 an hour. And Whataburger deciding to pay GMs north of $100,000 per year. Attracting workers and staffing up out of the COVID trough is proving a monumental challenge at this juncture.

As much as things are changing, though, it’s only reinforced some past pain points. Mainly, restaurants need to separate when it comes to frontline benefits. Operators must give hourly employees support needed to be successful, especially given the rotating nature of a cyclical and high-turnover business like running a restaurant. Getting there requires constant reevaluation of the frontline employee experience.

Digital workplace platform YOOBIC, which has aided Domino’s and BurgerFi in the past, conducted a study of 1,000 frontline employees. The goal being to understand what workers need from employers to remain productive, motivated, and empowered—all critically important today, a time when restaurants aren’t just competing against each other and various sectors for workers, but also people afraid of infection or choosing to sit on the sidelines a bit longer.

Challenge No. 1: Frontline employees feel disconnected from their company and peers

When done right, internal communications connect employees to the bigger picture, create community and collaboration, and drive engagement, YOOBIC said.

But the reality is most organizations don’t tailor internal communications for employees who spend the day on the floor, with little to no computer access.

  • 54 percent of frontline employees receive company communications via email
  • 76 percent would feel more connected if they could access communications on a mobile device

In truth, it’s a straightforward disconnect. Email and company intranet has its place, and mostly that’s with people sitting at a desk or at home. Not so much when they’re on the front lines. This can foster disconnect between hourly employees and the rest of an organization—something with the potential to curb growth. At the least, it might blind frontline workers from staying in touch and seeing the rungs of the ladder.

According to the study, “lack of career growth” and “isolated work environment” were both the No. 1 challenges faced by frontline hospitality/restaurant workers, with 43 percent respondents reporting, the highest across all industry sectors polled.  


So how do you solve this? YOOBIC suggests the best way to communicate with workers is through mobile. Create a dedicated mobile platform or app to keep frontline employees in the loop with all the important company news and updates so they remain in touch, even to colleagues they might never meet.

Also, streamline communications. Employees who feel their voices are being heard within a company are 4.6 times more likely to perform their best work. Open feedback like a two-way street. Chipotle, in one example, started hosting “listening sessions” during COVID when racial tensions spiked in the wake of George Floyd’s May death. Executive leadership tuned into a virtual chat and listened to employees air concerns about real-life issues.

Chief diversity, inclusion, and people officer Marissa Andrada also started “The Real Scoop with Marissa,” which were multicultural education events that brought in Black influencers. Any employee who wanted to could sign up and join, with sessions capped at 100 or so people on Zoom.

Forty-eight percent of frontline employees trained once a year or less reported a lack of recognition.

BurgerFi centralized all its communications on a mobile setup. Company news, updates, photos, videos, and success stories were made live through an interactive company newsfeed. Every corporate and franchised location now uses the platform, which came in especially handy this past year as BurgerFi needed to update practices day-to-day, hour-to-hour even, as regulations and mandates shifted.

Lack of communication with headquarters” was the No. 2 challenge faced by frontline hospitality/restaurant workers in YOOBIC’s study.

Challenge No. 2: Frontline employees feel undervalued and insufficiently trained

One of the most familiar misconceptions of frontline workers is that they don’t appreciate training. Studies continue to show employees are more confident, report higher satisfaction, and have a better shot of seeing a future career with the company when they learn on the job.

YOOBIC’s study showed training isn’t keeping up with frontline employee needs, though, many of which have changed drastically during the pandemic. Almost half of employees said they were trained only once a year, an insufficient number considering the rapidly expanding responsibilities tied to COVID life, from cleaning procedures to off-premises execution, etc.

  • 48 percent of those trained once a year or less reported a lack of recognition, versus 32 percent overall
  • 58 percent of frontline employees said they think the most important thing about training is that it’s engaging and fun
  • 40 percent (as mentioned) of frontline employees said they’re being trained only once a year or less

Training is how employers invest in their employees, YOOBIC said. When that happens only once, it’s no surprise workers feel unrecognized and undervalued. And since frontline staff have far less time for training than office-based staff, more than half said they prefer training that’s enjoyable to complete.

The overarching sentiment: Successful training is something employees actually want to make time for.

Think of it this way, too: If somebody goes through regular training sessions, educating themselves and working toward a broader goal, chances are they’re more likely to stick around simply because they put the investment in. It’s a lot easier to leave a job you know nothing about (and don’t care for) than one you’ve spent ample time growing in. You’ll second guess abandoning something you’ve poured energy into. Like making it 400 pages into a 1,000-page book versus never getting past the foreword.

YOOBIC suggests reformatting training. Make it frequent, engaging, and accessible—whenever and wherever employees need it. And yes, this means making it mobile. Deliver training via mobile learning, keep it short and sweet with micro-learning, and make it fun, engaging, and social with gamification, the company said.

YOOBIC offered an example from men’s fashion retailer Jules. When the company decided to revamp its brand image (across 550 stores in four countries) it had to continuously train 3,000 employees on the fresh strategy. It did so from the bottom up. The company moved to a mobile learning platform with short, interactive courses, and molded its workplace learning around the frontline employee experience. The result was some 7,500 hours of training completed and 175,000 lessons.

Challenge No. 3: Frontline employees need digitized tasks to be more productive

The truth about frontline work is it’s typically task and process-driven. Run this drink to the table. Clean up after each guest leaves the kiosk. And so forth.

Many of these tasks, though, involve a significant amount of administrative work that, while important, can detract from higher-value activities, YOOBIC said. Productive employees have more time for impactful work, such as interacting with customers, conducting table checks, or just focusing on delivering quality service through whatever channel that might be, like the drive thru.

Frontline employees are aware, per YOOBIC’s study, that outdated, non-digital task management tools are damaging productivity.

  • 73 percent of frontline employees are still using paper forms (for specifically the hospitality/restaurant industry, this number was 66 percent)
  • 71 percent think digitized processes and tasks would make them more productive (it was even higher for hospitality/restaurants at 76 percent)

While the world appears to have gone digital—and there’s no going back—many frontline employees’ task management tools are stuck in the 90s. Almost three-quarters said they are still using error-prone paper forms.

YOOBIC said restaurants can digitize tasks and processes in an effort to refocus frontline employees on core revenue-driving activities. Not to mention, the stuff guests actually give restaurants credit for.

Eliminate not just paper, but also the use of multiple tools like email, Excel, and PowerPoint by consolidating everything into a mobile platform.

“Not only do digitized tasks and processes make frontline employees more productive—they also make their roles more fulfilling, increasing job satisfaction,” the company said.

Challenge No. 4: Mobile devices—underused tools for frontline employee empowerment

We all know how this unfolds. Frontline employees probably don’t have access to a work computer or anything like it (you might not even want them to). But the chance they don’t have a phone nearby is next to zero.

Despite this, YOOBIC’s study found just a touch over half of frontline staff use them for work. Mobile devices aren’t being leveraged to their full potential.

  • 70 percent of frontline employees said app-based training would be easier
  • 76 percent would feel more connected if they could access company communications on a mobile device
  • 59 percent of frontline employees use a mobile device at work

Frontline employees are already using apps that make virtually every other area of their lives faster and easier. Restaurants consider this often when it comes to guests and a frictionless ordering experience. Perhaps it’s time to think of it through an employee engagement lens, too.

“Make it even easier for
 your frontline teams to stay connected, well trained and productive by combining each of these three functions in the same mobile digital workplace,” YOOBIC said. “Not only does this cut down on productivity that gets lost when switching between different tools, but it also drives high adoption rates.”

Challenge No. 5: Millennial frontline employees are the most dissatisfied

Ernst & Young and Accenture previously reported millennials make up over two thirds of their entire employee base. And broader studies suggest the generation will comprise 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025. In turn, employers continue to chase millennial needs and preferences.

Millennials value progression, recognition, and growth most highly in their career. YOOBIC’s study suggested the same was true in the trenches.

  • 28 percent of millennial frontline employees don’t feel empowered on the job versus 17 percent for other age groups
  • Only 28 percent of millennials said they find it easy to understand whether their work meets company expectations versus 41 percent of workers over 54
  • 34 percent of millennial frontline employees reported a lack of career growth, versus 17 percent for other age groups

But what do we know for sure about millennials? They’re digital natives. And increasingly, they have the same expectations for the tech they use in the workplace as the tech they use in their personal lives.

So workplace tools should provide clarity and give frontline staff everything they need to perform their best on the job. “And as more and more of the global frontline workforce is comprised of millennials and even Gen Z, organizations who don’t think it’s necessary to provide the right tech will see motivation levels plummet and turnover sky,” YOOBIC said.

How do millennials often gather information? From scrolling and swiping. Thus, a digital workplace is probably going to be more engaging than a classroom setting. It pays to present information in a visual way, one that’s easy to digest and interactive.

Business Advice, Employee Management, Story