As operators in the quick-service space hope to solve the industry-wide labor shortage, the best solution might just be to focus on who’s already in restaurants. It costs at least $1,500 to hire and train a new employee, so finding a retention solution is a financial game-changer. But how can you keep employees happy and motivated, with the table stakes for those seemingly shifts by the hour?

As someone who worked more than a dozen hourly jobs while making ends meet and supporting my family, I learned that what motivates hourly employees differs person to person. There is tremendous value in learning the preferences of your staff and adjusting your management to motivate and incentivize in line with those ticks. This early life experience shaped the way I approach work, and has fueled a lifelong passion to help transform and improve the lives of hourly workers and revolutionize what it means to work in the fast-food industry.

Based on data and conversations with individual franchise owners who are seeing lower turnover rates and higher employee engagement, here are three ways to increase retention of your top talent this year.

1. Facilitate ongoing communication with employees

The restaurant industry is an incredibly people-centric one, and the quick-service vertical is no exception. With numerous competing demands, focus on the hourly worker often gets outcompeted. This leads to a breakdown in communication between employers and employees that can leave workers feeling unheard, unappreciated, and unengaged, which is especially critical in the first 90 days of employment, according to data.

The solution is surprisingly simple: create a means of communication that is ongoing, purposeful, and provides an open forum for employees to voice their preferences, concerns, and questions. Facilitating two-way communication is a sure way to show employees they are cared for and valued. Expressing interest in their work as well as their personal lives helps humanize corporate culture and create more of a sense of belonging in the workplace. When companies prioritize communication, actively listening and quickly addressing feedback, they will see retention, engagement, and overall happiness of their employees increase.

2. Increase flexibility for employees to create preference-based, on-demand and accommodating schedules

A driving force in “The Great Resignation” and concurrent labor shortage was an increase in people taking more control of their lives by quitting roles that weren’t fulfilling to them. It’s not that people don’t want to work, it’s that they want to work with purpose, feel valued, and have more work flexibility to offer more of a work-life balance. The gig economy is proof. During the pandemic, many restaurant workers left the industry to pursue gig work, finding the flexibility they were looking for while driving for Uber or delivering for GrubHub, where they could work on-demand, at their own pace.

Despite promises of better wages and more flexible hours, many people who left the fast-food space for rideshare work have been let down by their new jobs. Quick-service owners need to focus on recruiting former employees and enticing them back to work. Returning employees bring along previous training and knowledge that speeds up or even eliminates the onboarding process. Creating a revolving door can ensure that your brand’s investment in training does not go to waste and that “new” hires get up to speed quickly.

Additionally, the number of hours employees are receiving can serve as a motivator. A top complaint from workers is that they don’t receive enough and are then less engaged in the limited time they spend in-store. Employees are looking to maximize their income, and often will take lower wages at places that can guarantee more hours. Understanding the number of hours front-line people want to work and then being able to provide them will go a long way to lift engagement.

Employers can accommodate these sentiments by allowing employees to create preference-based or on-demand schedules to work as many or as little hours as they like. Many hourly workers are also parents or students, and need a schedule that can accommodate their responsibilities outside of the workplace. Employers who understand this and offer flexibility will see increased employee satisfaction, engagement, and overall retention.

3. Bolster your onboarding process to better set employees up for success

As I said earlier, the first 90 days of employment are essential. According to HourWork’s data, employees are five times more likely to quit within the first 90 days due to lack of training, miscommunication, and not feeling prepared for the role. A new employee who is not properly onboarded and engaged within that time is likely to walk away. Create a clear training program that sets expectations with new employees and provides them with resources to overcome the challenges of adapting to a new environment. Help them to develop the skills needed to succeed within your organization, communicate with them regularly to understand their needs, and actively listen to their feedback. Ensure the training program has a clear ending, and celebrate its completion with employees, ideally recording it in some way that allows people to look back on their hard work and be proud of what they accomplished. Engaging employees from day one is key to long-term retention.

Unfortunately, there is a societal stigma around fast-food jobs, even among those who choose to jump in. What happens then is people don’t take the job seriously, leading to high turnover and a vicious cycle that prevents owner-operators from increasing wages. Creating a workplace culture that supports growth, values employees, and provides engaging work opportunities can help to end this approach.

Workplace happiness is not impossible to achieve. It is an attainable goal that all employees and employers should strive for. Ultimately, workers aren’t asking for much. They want to feel valued and appreciated for a job well done. They want flexibility and a leadership team that cares. The difference today compared with five or even two years ago? If they don’t get these things, they are more willing to walk.

Rahkeem Morris is the founder and CEO of HourWork, a Boston-based pioneer in the talent recruitment and retention industry. Before graduating from Cornell University and Harvard Business School, Rahkeem was a high-school dropout who balanced multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet for his family. HourWork was born of his personal experience.

Employee Management, Operations, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story