It’s a time-worn story in food service—too many job openings and not enough workers to fill them. And since the spring of 2020, the pandemic has exacerbated the already massive labor shortage for restaurants.

As more and more restaurants are returning to normal operations and capacities, many are struggling to find workers. The reasons are myriad: worries about COVID exposure and unvaccinated customers still persist; many U.S. adults are caring full time for a child or loved one; and others have left the restaurant industry for jobs that have boomed during the pandemic, like retail fulfillment. Pandemic-induced immigration restrictions have also made it difficult to find and employ foreign guest workers.

It’s tempting to conclude that the only answer is to offer more wages, but that might seem impossible for many operators coming out of 18 months of low revenues. So what else can you do? Regardless of the reasons for the employment crunch, quick-service and full-service operators can still attract and retain employees during this critical time using one key strategy: adopting an employee-first culture.

Start with empathy

Year over year, studies reveal that empathy plays a role in helping employees decide where to work. During times of upheaval, an empathetic workplace is critical to retaining talent, and it’s becoming an increasingly important factor for younger workers. For example, Business Solver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy found that 83 percent of Gen Z employees would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering slightly higher pay.

In other words, empathy has transformed from a soft skill into a critical element of workforce management. However, the ability to sense other people’s emotions, as well as the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling, only comes naturally to some people. That’s why it’s vital that this skill be inculcated throughout an entire operation—from the CEO to managers to kitchen workers—and that requires discipline and support.

One way to exercise empathy is to simply voice understanding and respect that restaurant employees have personal lives and a variety of competing priorities beyond the job. They may be balancing work with caring for children or an elderly family member. They might have a second job. Or are stressed out because a loved one is sick. The list can be as varied as the people you employ.

Therefore, be considerate. Keep in mind that juggling multiple responsibilities and dealing with new or overwhelming emotions can create weariness and even depression. Talk to your employees. Find out how you can work with them in a given situation. Clarify what you expect, but also let them know what you aren’t demanding of them.

Be flexible

While empathy is a foundational value for any employee-first environment, communication is the mortar holding the bricks together. Try asking employees what would make their jobs more enjoyable. Chances are one of the options they would welcome is a flexible and predictable work schedule.

In a flexible scheduling model, employees choose the shifts they want versus a manager assigning them. Not only does this save a manager time mapping out a schedule, but flexible scheduling also gives workers more control over their work schedules, creating a happier workforce.

A growing body of research bears this out. Berkeley research found that hourly workers with highly unpredictable schedules report higher stress. At the same time, retooling scheduling tacticslike eliminating “clopening” shifts and increasing advanced notice of shifts ― is associated with improved employee wellbeing.

Emphasizing flexible scheduling in a job posting can also be very attractive to potential employees. In a recent MyWorkChoice survey, half of hourly workers reported that job flexibility was important or very important to them.

Monitor mental health

Communication can also play a crucial role in helping restaurant operators take into account the mental wellbeing of their employees. This is particularly important because mental health issues have been declared a pandemic within the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the ongoing stress nearly all of us have experienced for over a year.

Even though it’s illegal for employers to penalize employees based on their mental health, workers might initially be wary about sharing about their mental state. But there are ways to keep employee mental health a priority without being invasive:

Use an anonymous rating system to determine the emotional state of your workforce. The results can help determine where help is needed.

Avoid legal issues or uncomfortable situations by talking about mental health as a group instead of targeting individuals.

Maintain confidentiality whenever an employee comes to you with their concerns.

Teach your employees how to cope with stress. Bring in mental health professionals to teach your team useful techniques, and offer confidential consultations with them.

Recognize good work

Employee-first cultures recognize when workers go above and beyond the call of duty. However, some rewards should exist simply because people matter. Whether it’s a gift card, extra break time, bonus paid vacation hours, or a manager picking up the end of their shift so they can leave early, letting a person know they have value—whether or not they created monetary value—can go a long way toward building loyalty to your business.

Employees who feel recognized and appreciated by their company are often more likely to stick around. Achievers’ 2021 Engagement and Retention Report found that nearly 75 percent of respondents wished they received more recognition for their work. The report also noted that frequent recognition had a direct impact on improving employee engagement and was a predictor for lower intentions to job hunt.

Emphasize employee safety

Finally, in this day and age, it’s nearly impossible to overemphasize the plans and tactics you have in place to keep employees safe, both with current and prospective workers. For instance, do you have a clear protocol for what happens if someone gets sick? Will you allow your employees paid time off to get vaccinated? Is your business going to continue a mask mandate? Have you installed a contactless time clock system, so employees aren’t forced to congregate around and touch a common device? What happens if another health crisis hits?

Making sure your employees understand what you’re doing to keep them safe will help keep them from allowing fear to replace their lack of knowledge. After all, in a tight labor market made even tighter by the pandemic’s challenges, you want current employees to enjoy the peace of mind and reassurance you can provide. Not only will this help retain your valued workers, but it can also put you one step in front of the competition.

Martin Hartshorne is CEO of When I Work, a market leader in hourly workforce management that provides a fully integrated scheduling, time tracking, and team messaging solution to nearly 200,000 workplaces.

Employee Management, Outside Insights, Story