Keeping crewmembers happy may not be on the top of an operator’s mind when he’s dealing with distribution issues and sales problems brought about by the recession, but new research suggests that it probably should be.

A new survey by hourly employment website found that 61 percent of American workers are generally happy when they clock in, which is 3 percent higher than last year’s survey results. That’s good news for most employers, especially those in the quick-serve industry, who spend a great deal of time and capital on employee training. But the same survey shows that 30 percent of the workforce is looking to change jobs in the near future, which reflects a growing confidence that the overall economy will improve and the labor market will tighten up.

For quick serves, this could signal a coming change in the staffing department.

“The quick-service segment has always had a kind of ‘recession-proof’ image,” says Simone Kirlew, a restaurant industry human resources consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. “When the economy is down, people will go to quick serves over a regular restaurant to save money. They still get business, which is why it’s one of the last resorts for the unemployed. They figure that they can get a job flipping burgers.”

During the Great Recession, many quick-serve operations picked up strong hourly and managerial employees with experience in other industries. But some might have been overqualified for the job, and for others, the novelty of their position may be starting to wear off. It’s these employees who will be keeping their eyes open for other opportunities—and these employees whom employers will want to keep.

“It’s important to start paying attention now to what motivates your staff and be aware that it’s not necessarily a bigger paycheck,” Kirlew says.

The survey found that the biggest factor in job happiness was personal satisfaction, followed by relief at having a job, the job’s flexibility, and then, lastly, pay. “It doesn’t mean that money isn’t important, but it does show that employers set the tone for what’s important,” says Cori Maedel, CEO of Jouta, a Vancouver, British Columbia–based HR consulting firm. “If your organization is geared toward allowing staff to feel a personal satisfaction with their work, you’re building the kind of loyalty you need.”

But getting that loyalty can take time. “How is your management training? How much time do you listen in meetings and how much time do you lecture?” Maedel asks. “Are you giving some one-on-one time with key staff, observing and saying ‘thank you’ when you see a job being done well? It’s these little things that mean so much.”

Though creating job satisfaction may seem difficult to some operators, experts say it can be easy.

“Flexible schedules are a big issue in the workplace, and this is where quick serves shine,” Kirlew says. “Because of the long operating hours, there’s a larger window for managerial and hourly staff to work around. People say they need variable hours to meet their family or education obligations, and quick serves deliver this.”

“It’s important to start paying attention now to what motivates your staff, and be aware that it's not necessarily a bigger paycheck.”

Workers surveyed by also said their top concern was taking care of their families, another area that some employers are addressing. “In place of raises, I’ve seen many restaurants offer managers a decrease in the contributions they make to cover their families under their health insurance,” Kirlew says. “This shows appreciation not just for the individual, but for their family.”

Keeping good employees when the economy turns upward may not be easy, but some employers are taking a realistic approach. “We realize that some people have joined our company as an interim step,” says Alan Hixon, CEO of Mooyah, a 16-unit burger chain based in Dallas. “When the economy turns around, they’re going to be interested in moving on from us. I feel it’s our job to make sure they enjoy what they do so that changing jobs will be a hard decision for them.”

Recognizing good staff, though seemingly an obvious task for operators, is not always apparent in the daily hustle of the quick-serve world. “I was at a restaurant recently, and I watched one of the employees handle a series of issues beautifully. You could tell this person was really on top of her job and could possibly be headed for better things,” Maedel says. “I called the manager over and told him what a great job that person was doing, and he didn’t really get it. He was busy with other things, and I wondered if that person who made things run is going to be there much longer.”

Maedel says the average quick-serve employee works with an operation for two years. “But what would happen in your company if the average stay was three years?” she says. “Think of the savings in training and productivity you’d achieve by making recognition and satisfaction a primary goal.”

The quick-serve industry also suffers from an image problem. Being a store manager or hourly employee isn’t a glamour position, and in society it is often the subject of jokes and ridicule. In reality, these spots could use some PR. “There is so much offered by the quick-serve industry that the public doesn’t know about,” says Maria Rodriguez, a partner with the Los Angeles–based employment law firm Winston & Strawn. “In two years, you can move quickly into management and get a practical education that can serve you very well in many other industries. It’s amazing how many managers and executives in the industry have started as hourly employees who worked their way up the ladder. That’s a success story that companies should publicize more often.”

Ultimately, experts say operators should help employees turn their quick-serve jobs into quick-serve careers. “Maybe they won’t be with your company long, but don’t treat them like that,” Kirlew says. “Keeping your people informed about the industry and your business, it goes a long way to help people, even in the hourly positions, feel secure about where they are. If you treat your staff like they’re a valuable part of the team, they’ll feel that and respond.”

Employee Management, Story, Mooyah