Thursday, April 22, 2010

What management tech can do for employees

Enough with all the talk about technology’s payback for restaurants. How about the benefits it’s delivering to the employees?Like leaving them less time-starved, more valuable on the job market, and more aware of the big picture? In short, how it’s leaving them more satisfied and engaged while distinguishing their restaurant as a superior place to work.

I, probably like you, have attended plenty of industry events where the pay-off from high-tech management tools was explored solely from the perspective of the restaurant operator. The panel discussion I was fortunate to moderate at the Restaurant Leadership Conference went beyond that viewpoint to look at the considerable advantages for the business’ changing workforce.

As the panelists stressed, the foodservice labor pool has been remixed considerably by the economic downturn. No longer is it a pack of youngsters looking to earn a few fast bucks before heading off to something else. High unemployment has put more heads of households on the payroll, including a number of economic casualties from other fields. Turnover has braked dramatically, and workers are thinking in longer-range terms.

Technology is helping restaurateurs manage that new workforce more adeptly and cost-consciously, the panelists agreed. They cited such capabilities as being able to gather more information from job applicants, or to coordinate scheduling more astutely with the labor needs of any given shift.

But the technology is also helping restaurants address the sensibilities and preferences of their changed workforce. Values have shifted, with staffers showing more appreciation for variables like how much time is left for their families, or even the caliber of the technology they wield on the job. If the restaurant industry was once a haven for techno-phobes, the panelists stressed, it’s done an about-face, with young people now picking a position in part because of the technology education it affords. They don’t want to fall behind the rest of the job market in their familiarity with the latest HR software and equipment.

Free time and the more enjoyable life it affords are particularly important, and will be even more prized as the economy recovers, the panelists stressed. The families of restaurant employees will have discretionary dollars again, and managers and hourlies will want the time to indulge and enjoy.

“Being an employer of choice will be all about giving the team the best quality of life, and the time to be with their families,” said Jeff Maier, the former restaurant operator who now heads retail and hospitality marketing for Kronos, the panel’s sponsor.
He cited the trend of using technology to provide more information to restaurant employees while they’re on the go. Instead of calling or stopping by the restaurant to see when they’re scheduled or what vacancies they might be able to fill, staffer can look at their smart phones or laptops.

Jacqueline O’Rourke-Smith, senior manager of payroll operations for Red Robin, spoke of her chain’s use of technology to provide employees “a gift of time.” Recently, for instance, it rolled out a streamlined, paperless payroll system “to make the payment process as quick as possible,” she said.

The company also strives to hold the line on administrative work. For every HR initiative that’s added, “we try to simplify the business process by two or three steps,” she explained. Technology has to deliver that benefit to the employee, along with a return to the company.

Employees will challenge a new technology-based responsibility to ensure it’s not been casually dropped on them, noted Andrew Van Ermen, director of information systems for Levy Restaurants. “They will ask you, ‘Why am I doing that? What’s the purpose?’” he said.

He noted how the restaurant operator and sports feeder uses technology to shave time and aggravation off employees’ non-work time. The 750 employees who work at Dodger Stadium, for instance, are now given explicit communications about when and precisely where to report for work on a game day, he explained. They don’t have to scurry anxiously to find their outpost for that shift.

Having them punch in at stations close to where they’ll be working also averts the cost of paying an employee to walk halfway around the stadium because he or she used a distant time clock.

Van Ermen observed that employees are demanding that sort of additional, more precise information. They want their employers’ technology to provide them with the intelligence to make informed decisions, instead of relying on intuition and possibly being faulted for a bad call.

The panelists agreed that new HR technology can generate that sort of information. Indeed, they noted, it can provide data in reams if an employer wanted it. Smart users work with their vendors to provide intelligence, not numbers or unnecessary information.

“You have to get the right data in the right hands at the right time,” said Maier.
“It’s all about trying to make their lives easier,” said O’Rourke-Smith.

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