On the Line / Retention / How to Increase Employee Engagement

How to Increase Employee Engagement

A culture focused on engagement keeps staff passionate, committed, and loyal.

Staff engaged

Whether you own, operate, or manage a restaurant, you likely pour yourself into the business — and you do it all with motivation, passion, and grit. And more likely than not, you want your team to feel inspired to do the same. You want them to crack their knuckles and walk into each shift with a sense of excitement and determination.

Sounds nice, right? Well, getting your employees to that dream place is doable, and one way there is by paying attention to employee engagement. 

What is Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement is about more than just making your team happy. It’s about creating a deeper emotional commitment between your staff and the restaurant, through activities you can fold into your operations.

Engagement is more than a fluffy idea. Restaurants with engaged teams tend to experience better hiring, training, and retention results, as well as improved productivity and guest service, and even a positive impact on their bottom line. A Gallup study found that engaged teams show 21% greater profitability than their competitors.

Let’s walk through what, exactly, employee engagement is, and which activities you can implement at your restaurant in order to keep staff passionate, committed, and loyal.

Why is Employee Engagement Important?

Monitoring and increasing employee engagement has become a tried-and-true business strategy. This article from Forbes, written by employee engagement expert Kevin Kruse, provides a helpful definition: “Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. They don't work just for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization's goals.”

Let’s apply this to a quick example. A happy or satisfied employee might show up for their shift on time and get all of their work done with no complaints. No more and no less. But if they see that a restaurant down the block is hiring for the same position, with a bump in pay, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see them jump ship.

An engaged employee is different. Their coworkers are more like friends, rather than just colleagues. They work overtime if the restaurant needs it, without needing to be asked. They share ideas for ways the restaurant could improve operations or better connect with its community. They’ve become attached to your restaurant’s culture, values, and goals. You’ve given them something they can believe in and goals they can work toward. That employee is dedicated, wants to work hard because they believe in the business, and is much less likely to leave than an employee who’s simply satisfied.

Here are four ways you can take your employees from satisfied to engaged, and build a culture of engagement that’ll pay off big time.

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8 Ways to Keep Your Restaurant Staff Engaged

1. Pay Them Well

COVID-19 had a devastating effect on the restaurant industry, with many workers laid off and furloughed due to the pandemic. Restaurant workers often don’t receive adequate compensation, and since the pandemic, the industry has really seen the result of those perennially low wages, with many employees refusing to return to the status quo. Now, a good compensation package is more essential than ever — and is one of the driving factors behind restaurant employee engagement, happiness, and retention.

A benefits package that includes good pay can not only help to attract (and retain) top employees in the long term, but it can also lead to lower turnover and higher staff engagement, which reduces the costs of hiring and training new workers. Well-paid employees are happier ones, too — when your employees don't have to worry about how to stay afloat or being fairly compensated, they can focus on the present, and deliver exceptional service. 

While increasing wages can seem like a daunting task, consider raising menu prices to offset the cost. Be transparent, and explain to your customers that the new prices go toward providing better wages for your employees. More likely than not, they’ll understand and continue to support your restaurant. 

2. Provide Benefits like Health Insurance and Transit Support

A well-rounded benefits package can be the differentiator between your restaurant and that of your competitors, as most restaurants offer little to no benefits. The key here is providing benefits that best fit your employees’ needs. Even if you can’t afford to foot the bill on providing full health insurance for all of your staff, consider offering multiple plan levels that cover basic wellness needs or annual check-ups. Adding dental and vision insurance is fairly inexpensive, and can greatly increase employee satisfaction and retention.

Benefits don’t have to be exclusively relegated to health, either. If possible, consider adding 401(k) plans, employee retention bonuses, tuition reimbursement plans, or even discounts on mass transit if most of your staff commute to work via public transportation. You can consider layering these benefits in over time, especially if employees are there long term. What’s important is that you offer useful benefits to your employees—it’s the right thing to do, considering how vulnerable restaurant workers were during the pandemic, with very little protection. 


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3. Honor Time Off Requests

Time off is essential, but Americans don’t take enough of it. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Travel Association, workers left 768 million days of PTO on the table in 2018. That’s over 2 million years!

While honoring time-off requests can be difficult to schedule around—especially when you have a lean team—try to be as flexible as possible. More importantly, encourage employees to take time off. Most employees may feel fear and guilt about taking days off, and don’t want to be perceived as less dedicated or replaceable. No time off leads to disengaged and dissatisfied employees, who will inevitably burn out, and may jump ship to another employer with a better time off package. 

Create a positive culture around taking time off, whether it’s for personal reasons or leisure. Contrary to popular belief, time off increases productivity and improves employee retention and happiness, not to mention creates a space where employees want to show up for work everyday. 

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4. Ask for Feedback Regularly

As human beings, we all appreciate feeling valued and part of a team — and your employees are no exception. From decisions over adding new menu items to addressing internal challenges, consider consulting your employees, who’ll likely have a valuable perspective to offer. They help keep your restaurant running, after all, so create a culture of staff engagement where feedback is not only heard, but used to improve your operations. 

Think of your employees as co-collaborators in helping you build a better restaurant. Every single employee in your kitchen, dining room and bar contributes to your restaurant's success. 

5. Schedule Regular One-on-One Time

There are so many great benefits you can get out of productive one-on-one time with your employees. You’ll increase your restaurant’s employee engagement, and you’ll be able to learn a lot about what’s working and what isn’t.

First things first: You have to decide on a check-in schedule, depending on what makes the most sense. Are weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly check-ins the way to go? During busier weeks and shifts, can you keep your check-in quick and more informal? Every restaurant is different, so figure out what works best for you and your team.

Once you’ve started scheduling these regular one-on-ones with the team, you have to figure out how to keep staff engagement high. Decide what you hope to accomplish in each one-on-one. That could mean providing or soliciting feedback, finding out what obstacles employees are running into, learning about their goals, and simply asking about how they’re doing. You don’t have to stick to a strict schedule, but a meeting agenda will help you stay organized.

Ask your team what they hope to accomplish during one-on-one time. Some might say they’re interested in talking about long-term growth and professional development, while others may be eager to share ideas that help the team and improve the guest experience. Asking your team what would be most valuable to them, and catering to those needs on an individual level, will show them that you care.

You might choose to keep your one-on-ones shorter and less structured, and that’s okay. What matters is that you’re actually carving out time to check in on your staff. You’re working to create a deeper bond between them, yourself, and the restaurant.

One-on-One Meeting Template
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One-on-One Meeting Template

Make weekly, biweekly, or monthly check-ins with employees productive with this customizable Word doc for your one-on-one meeting agendas.

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6. Provide Training and Clear Steps for Growth

To keep employees retention high, give them a clear idea of what opportunities lie ahead. Without a clear path forward, there’s nothing stopping them from detouring and carving out a new path elsewhere.

How can they grow? What new skills can they learn? How will they learn those skills? What actionable steps will it take for them to get promoted? These are all questions you can help answer through a structured employee training program.

When creating an employee training program for your restaurant, think through questions like these:

  • How can I create and promote professional growth opportunities for all of my team members? You might invite subject matter experts like a mixologist or a specialized chef to teach them new skills. Host a restaurant industry networking event one night, or set your team members up with like-minded mentors. Offer access to a hospitality-focused e-learning platform like Typsy. Send them out to visit one of your wine, cheese, or coffee vendors.

  • What kind of training is my team interested in? You don’t have to guess when you can just ask them. Ask your team in person or send out a survey to get their thoughts and share which types of training they’d be interested in pursuing. You might find your front-of-house team is looking for more detailed customer service-based training, or that some employees are seeking clear paths to promotion.

  • How often should I provide on-the-job training? That’ll depend on your restaurant, but the more often you provide training, the better. Maintaining a regular training calendar will help. You can choose to require staff to individually partake in training at different points in their tenure, based on their roles and skill levels, or you can have the whole team come together for training you feel would benefit the group as a whole. Blend those two systems together, and play around with it to see what works best.

Providing your staff with regular training and access to resources shows them that you’re invested in their learning and growth — that is, skills and experiences they’ll be able to apply in the restaurant. Plus, you’ll teach them things they may not have learned otherwise, which may inspire them to continue pursuing careers in the industry.

7. Open your Books and Get the Team Involved

Speaking of valuable skills and learning, say hello to open-book management, a powerful business strategy to keep dedicated employees engaged and potentially improve employee happiness and retention .

Open-book management is a system where restaurant managers share the finances of the business with their employees, letting them see how their work contributes to revenue, which gives them a greater understanding of their business impact. This can create a greater sense of ownership among the team.

Doug Marschke is the owner of Underdogs TooThe Taco Shop at Underdogs, and Tacko in San Francisco. And he’s seen a lot of success with open-book management at his restaurants; particularly in terms of staff engagement, employee retention, and employee happiness.

Doug told us, “[Open-book management] keeps everyone involved; everyone acts as a sort of owner. It made all the staff realize how hard the restaurant business is and how pennies really do matter. It also gives them insight into how much money I’m actually making. Our model requires us to be very busy in order to actually make anything, so people always assume that I must be a millionaire. But to see how much money and revenue we have to make in order to generate a small profit per month, I think it goes a long way in changing the mindset of our staff and gives me as an owner a little bit more credibility.”

It works for Doug, and it’s working for a number of other restaurants including JulietMei MeiParis Creperie, and The Rail Trail Flat Bread Co. But open-book management isn’t for everyone and isn’t without its challenges. It requires a retooling of your staff training strategies and techniques. But if you’re up for it, the long-term benefits — from improved restaurant employee engagement to increased job security — are hard to deny. Check out this article to learn more about open-book management and how it impacts employee engagement.

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8. Bring the Team Together as Much as Possible

It might seem obvious, but a surefire way to keep your employees engaged is to forge stronger bonds across the team.

A study by Officevibe found that 70% of employees say having friends at work is the most crucial element to a happy working life. Making friends with coworkers is more than a nice-to-have for employees, too. It leads to a ton of other benefits: open communication and collaboration, sharing of ideas and feedback, peer-to-peer training, higher staff engagement and productivity, and more.

To create a culture where friendships can naturally develop and thrive, start small by celebrating personal events and milestones. Acknowledge employees’ birthdays, work anniversaries, engagements, or other special occasions  in team meetings and dinners. Give them a card signed by staff, and maybe even a personalized gift from the team. It shows that you, and the team, care about them on an individual level.

Also celebrate when team members really succeed at the job. Have a server who’s been outperforming on upsells? Has someone on the back-of-house team really stepped up after a member of the team quit? Give them nice shout-outs in team meetings, in your email newsletter, or on social media.

Start with those smaller individual recognitions, but then go one step further and promote team bonding and activities. 

Pre-shift meetings help break down any divide between front-of-house and back-of-house staff, while getting everyone focused, informed, and pumped up for their shift. Team meals, either before shifts or once a week, cultivate a sense of community among the team in a low-stress environment. They’re also a great way for you to have your staff try out and discuss new dishes as a group.

And speaking of low-stress environments, take the team out of the restaurant once in a while. Is there a local charity the team feels passionate about? Take a morning or afternoon off to volunteer with them, and give back to your community. Another idea? Plan an afternoon or night out for a group activity — such as a trip to the movies, or a rock climbing or yoga class. 

Whether small or large, activities like these help lay the groundwork for better employee engagement, and in turn, foster a high-performing restaurant environment.

Increase Employee Engagement Today

Maintaining a good profit margin, attracting and retaining repeat customers, and creating new and interesting menu items all help keep your restaurant running. Yet none of these things matter without your staff’s engagement and dedication. Increasing employee happiness doesn’t have to be difficult. Engage with your restaurant’s employees in soliciting feedback, provide benefits they actually need (and will use), and remember that your employees are the heart of your restaurant’s operation. 

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