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Food Service Industry Updates

How to Keep People Happy in Crazy Times

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“It’s a people business!” is one of those truths said so often, thrown out so chirpily, its meaning is blunted. But unless you’ve hired a handful of uninspired people to stock an old-fashioned automat or empire of vending machines, you’re in a business of people, people, people.

Especially now.

You might have various reasons for thinking deeply right now about how your employees feel, during this year of momentous change and turbulence. Perhaps you’ve observed that people work harder and more efficiently when they feel respected. Or that customers pick up on a happy, well-adjusted corps — and you’re all about the customers. Or you’ve seen that those with a sense of autonomy are more flexible and responsive when there are issues that require quick-thinking and smart decisions.

Maybe you’re just a good person, who wants to be part of making a better life possible for everyone. We’ll assume the latter for purposes of this discussion.

Change is uncomfortable. Discomfort can make people feel unsettled. Unsettled people may become emotional, at unexpected times.

You can help. You can increase stability in your employees’ lives, simply by considering how they feel. And, just in case “the bottom line” is your secret motivation, providing a positive workplace will help your team do better work and leave customers happier.

Here are a few thoughts about keeping your employees focused, engaged, open-minded and, yeah, happy — most of these ideas apply universally, even when seas are smooth and skies are cloudless, but now’s an especially good time to consider them.

Acknowledge and Communicate

When you’re rethinking how to do business during a pandemic and operating in politically charged times, don’t make like an ostrich. Admit you’re working through The Many Challenges of 2020, in real time, including today. Acknowledge there may be missteps or oversights. It always helps when everyone confronts reality together.

Encourage Autonomy

People get upset when they feel they have no control — this is the first principle to realize when you’re a manager (it applies both to your team and to unhappy customers). It’s difficult to confront this sometimes. When you’re a manager, or an owner, or vice president, or whatever position you’ve risen to, you want people to listen to you — just do what I tell you to do! You want to be the decider when there are important choices.

You can’t always be there, though, and you don’t want a bunch of arm-flappers who feel powerless unless they’re following orders. Down this authoritarian road lies a seized-up, awkward, unscaleable, unpleasant business model. Allow employees to determine the right call themselves. Most people will rise to the occasion if they feel trusted. Years ago, I did work for Target department stores, during “the middle period” as they were creating their incredible brand. Practically every hallway at their Minneapolis headquarters had this sign hanging over it, simple red lettering on white: “If you think it’s right, then do it.”

Maintain Fairness

People who work at restaurants are fundamentally social creatures. Like big families. Do you have siblings? Do you know what siblings are good at picking up on? Favoritism. Inconsistently applied rules. Injustices. Oh, they notice. They notice every little inequity. And everyone seems to agree: Nothing can drive you crazy like family.

Reward with Opportunity

Stick with that family metaphor a minute, only now it’s the royal family, and attending court. You’re queen or king. And you maintain power as long as you provide. In this analogy, do you know what the gems and oxen are? Opportunities. Assignments. New responsibilities — your subjects yearn to prove themselves. Partly to you, partly to their cohorts. Strive, my liege, to be a queen or king who doesn’t slink and lurk and cower in the throne room, devolving into a paranoid, vindictive wreck. No, a noble queen or king keeps people happy by keeping them well-occupied.

If royal subjects think you’re running the kingdom fairly and rewarding each according to his station, they relax. What a relief not to have to be on guard, keeping watch solely over one’s own interests! Your kingdom can go back to functioning as a powerful group of friends and allies trying to one-up the neighboring kingdoms (i.e., Olive Garden, Taco Bell, Domino’s or whoever your neighboring kingdoms are). Instead of one-upping each other. Basically, your whole team just wants to demonstrate to the world how good they personally are. Provide for them, Your Highness.

Address Trouble

OK, new metaphor. People respect firemen. Firemen go toward the fire — they don’t ignore it, hoping it burns itself out and they don’t have to do anything. Firemen reveal themselves to have thought in advance about what might happen, and arrive at the scene confident and prepared: They bring a truck with water in it, some axes and ladders, a sense of urgency and, above it all, concern for human beings. Often there are surprises and emergencies they’ve never imagined, but their training helps them adapt to the new situation.

Be Generous with Training

Does everyone understand what kind of restaurant you are? Do they get what is or isn’t reasonable, to make sure customers leave the premises saying good things about you-all? Clearly establishing guidelines is part of keeping the troops happy, even boosting their pride. Be sure they know what kind of place they’re working for — that they understand how their behavior fits the concept.

Most people don’t study marketing (or they’re young and haven’t gotten a chance to yet, or they got really bad grades in that class). Most of your employees don’t realize their behavior fits within a well-thought-through strategy and reflects your market position. (Right?) Sure, they’ve tossed around the idea of a “personal brand” on their social networks, most of them, but that doesn’t mean they understand the tenets of the enterprise they embody, the branded basis for every decision. Each person working at your restaurant, creating or performing something to be appreciated by customers, is a media outlet. Everything they say or do is an ad.

Maybe, while the world rages on and your systems are stretched and you’re fighting to stay relevant and profitable right now, it seems like luxury to worry about morale. I maintain it’s your best way forward — make your team feel appreciated, provide them opportunities like a good queen or king, and see if you overhear pride in their voice when they talk to their friends about work. It’s good for business. Also, conveniently, it’s the human thing to do.

Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at SellingEating.com, as well as in recently published books “Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs: Selected Restaurant Marketing Columns from Food & Drink International,” and “Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious.”

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