Restaurants Get Creative to Shrink Staff Shortages

Taking a page from the gig economy playbook, food service teams are using technology-driven tools, flexible scheduling, and surprising incentives to win back workers and reimagine the restaurant work experience.
a woman standing in front of a store

The COVID-19 crisis changed how, where, and when many Americans work. It also pushed some to reconsider their career path altogether.

That’s especially true in hospitality. We’ve seen pandemic furloughs and layoffs impact millions of restaurant, hotel, and event professionals. Now, as the industry recovers, some employees are slow to return. Health and safety concerns, childcare challenges, and tensions over mask and vaccine policies sparked the current staffing shortage. Low pay, a lack of benefits, and long hours also play a role. Professionals aren’t afraid to make a change and in fact, one October 2021report even stated that 58% of hospitality workers plan to quit their jobs before the end of this year. That number would impact the industry strongly during any season, but leading up to the holidays, many business owners are left more concerned about the ability to stay open to the public than ever before.

There are some bright spots in our industry, however. Leisure and hospitality employment increased by 74,000 in September 2021, says theU.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s nearly double the number of jobs gained in August. Still, overall hospitality employment is down by 1.6 million—nearly 10%—since February 2020.

This all adds up to hiring challenges for hospitality businesses. The labor shortage has turned the tables, transitioning the power to frontline workers. Employers are being pushed to offer higher pay and recognizing that hiring bonuses don’t have their usual impact. As a result, companies are rolling out new perks to recruit and retain workers and are implementing non-traditional tech solutions in order to survive the ebbs and flows of the pandemic.

Luckily, for many, there is still time to turn things around. The following steps can help business owners and managers stay profitable while standing out from other employers:

Hospitality Turns to Tech

We’ve seen tech-driven tools are helping hospitality operators navigate many pandemic challenges. Hotels are introducing contactless check-in apps and robots that disinfect rooms with ultraviolet light. On the restaurant side, managers have adopted QR code menus, self-order kiosks, and online ordering options.

More than 1.2 billion people worldwide ordered online food delivery in 2020 and that segment could grow to nearly 2.9 billion usersby 2025. Third-party platforms like DoorDash and Postmates connected restaurants with customers when the pandemic shut down in-person dining. These tools also help businesses scale delivery services and meet demand when they’re short on drivers.

The technologies that let hospitality teams streamline operations and address labor shortages can also improve customer service. And, consumer interest will continue driving the industry’s rapid adoption of these tools. TheNational Restaurant Association reports that 52% of American adults want more tech-based ordering and payment options. Nearly 50% ofhospitality executives say they’re prioritizing tech platforms that help them better serve customers and suppliers.

Technology connects hospitality businesses with potential workers, as well. Some employers are simplifying the application process by placing QR codes on menus, drive-through signs, and advertisements. A quick scan directly links workers to job descriptions and application details. Other restaurants have hired social media influencers to help attract new employees.

Embracing a Gig-Worker Approach

On-demand staffing software offers hotels, restaurants, bars, catering companies, and event venues the option to quickly fill staffing gaps in a way that didn’t used to be possible. Another example of this is platforms tailored to the hospitality industry that review resumes and manage the vetting process. Hiring managers can set background requirements or request individuals with specific qualifications and experience. Algorithms then match qualified candidates with legitimate opportunities, connecting employers and workers with just a few taps on a tablet or phone screen.

An added bonus, these tools have the power to boost worker morale. We know that non-flexible hours are one major reason for industry turnover. For hospitality professionals, on-demand staffing platforms promise gig worker-type freedom, while opening the door to significant new opportunities. We see workers empowered to set their own schedules, selecting shifts on days and times that suit their needs. Some choose to work repeatedly for one business, while others out different employers and work environments. We’ve also watched professionals build specific types of industry experience, forging a direct path toward their own goals.

Some of these tools offer incentives for workers who introduce friends or other businesses to a third-party resource and they also help hospitality professionals earn a livable wage. The pandemic underscored inequalities across industries, and it was a reminder that livable wages should be standard even when operators are not short on labor.

On-demand staffing platforms give workers the flexibility to choose schedules that work for them, while saving businesses time and resources. This speed is crucial in an unpredictable marketplace. Restaurants enjoy the flexibility to test new team members and welcome specialized workers on short notice.

Workers Want More

Flexibility is just one factor that employees consider while evaluating job options. Career advancement opportunities also attract strong candidates. We know that job seekers want positive work environments and respectful employers. Compensation and benefits matter more than ever, too.

Some of the country’s biggest restaurant brands are experimenting with new recruitment and retention incentives. In April, Chipotle announced its plan to offer debt-free degrees in hospitality to employees. Weeks later, the company launched a wellness platform that provides one-on-one coaching and mental health support. McDonald’s outlined emergency childcare benefits as a perk for workers this summer. Other operators have introduced higher pay, same-day paychecks, retirement benefits, paid family leave, parking discounts, transit payments, and referral and signing bonuses.

Redesigning Restaurant Employment

The pandemic forced the hospitality indutry to do more with less, and that pressure will continue to mount as labor shortages continue. While technology can never replace the human touch, these platforms can help reshape the restaurant industry to benefit both employers and workers.

Today’s workers have greater leverage and control over their professional path, making it more difficult for businesses who don’t adopt tech solutions to compete. By transforming business as usual, operators will attract top talent, build stronger teams, and succeed in a shifting hospitality landscape.