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COVID-19 forces changes to franchise hiring, engagement


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As unprecedented unemployment mounts and scores of restaurants close, will that mean an equally unprecedented return to work for many restaurant employees?

At pizza concept Hungry Howie’s, its more than 550 locations weren’t hit as hard by pandemic-related restrictions as other segments, with most units open and a strong delivery infrastructure in place. Sales sank by about 10 percent in the first weeks of the crisis, but it was staffing that became increasingly difficult.

“A lot of our employee base is 16 to 22, those who do a lot of the prepping, dough making, box folding,” said Hungry Howie’s CEO Steve Jackson. “Most of that age group still lives at home, and I think a lot of moms and dads said, ‘You’re not working.’ The staff dwindled to assistant managers and managers—it’s been a serious challenge.”

He said sales would probably be flat with last year if typical promotions were running, but the company slowed its marketing to keep from overwhelming the remaining staff. Across the system operators reduced hours to essentially one shift to cover an entire day, but communicating with those busy staffers required some tweaks.

“We always sent out memos and we tracked the open rate. And it’s not always great,” said Jackson, a common refrain from franchisors trying to reach workers at various levels in their systems. Now, it’s even more difficult.

Hungry Howie’s still sends those memos, but with an addition.

“Now, we sent out some correspondence where I send an audio clip. For 3 or 5 minutes I’m just giving them the update. And accompany that with a written document. We’ve had great feedback on the audio, it’s personal, they hear something they need to know,” said Jackson. “And a couple franchisees have said it’s comforting to hear a voice of reason.”

That clarity is necessary. Caribou Coffee got a taste of what can happen without it. The company faced a protest at one location over its response to the pandemic and a lack of personal protective equipment. CEO John Butcher said in a statement that information necessary for employees just could not move fast enough with the “antiquated” communication path.

“Under normal circumstances, cascading general manager to team member communication works fine, but a couple of weeks into the pandemic, we started to communicate bi-weekly and by email to all team members because employees were saying they were not hearing from us,” said Butcher. “It’s very fair for many of them to feel like they do not have the latest information—our antiquated communications methods were fragmented and simply couldn’t keep pace with the rapid amount of change taking place in our business.”

Desmond Lim

Desmond Lim, CEO of Workstream, says mobile-first hiring is what employees want.

Many franchises, including emerging fast-casual burger and kebab concept Pincho, turned to technology to enhance communication. “When everything happened, I got on a Zoom call with all my managers and said here’s what we’re going to do, here’s what is happening,” said Otto Othman, co-founder and CEO of the Florida-based brand.

While he’s visiting some locations in person, to quickly disseminate information he’s using WhatsApp to talk with managers in real time and HotSchedules to communicate across the system at once.

“It’s a combination of a lot of tools. HotSchedules is amazing for us, it’s our little mini Facebook, our own social platform. We constantly post videos there. We think that’s the best, videos and images. If I want to communicate with the whole company, I just flip my phone and say, ‘This is what’s going on,’ and post it,” said Othman.

Employee scheduling apps such as HotSchedules have proven useful to help keep operations running smooth.

David Cantu, co-founder and chief customer officer at HotSchedules, said employee scheduling platforms also help keep businesses open by keeping COVID-19 out. In one instance, after an employee at a client location came in sick and had contact with the rest of the staff, they “had to shut down for several weeks, place all the team members and managers on a 14-day quarantine while they brought in other managers to open up,” said Cantu.

“So, they instituted a questionnaire so employees could work without putting others in jeopardy,” he continued, referring to a health questionnaire feature in the system that asks employees if they’re symptomatic or have come into contact with people who are sick. “I think it’s a new norm, that people are filling out a questionnaire before clocking in. Especially when there’s a small group of people staying on, you want to keep them safe.”

Such platforms also help field support staff, many working remotely, ensure standard operations aren’t forgotten.

“This whole idea of remote management is something we’re seeing in a big way now,” said Steven Kramer, CEO of scheduling and engagement platform WorkJam. “We have a very large gas station operator that does not allow managers to visit any locations. So, they’re looking at tasks and being able to communicate with individuals in the location. Remote management, I think that will be the short-term reality, but could also become a long-term reality.”

Many clients are also using the platform to push out new training protocols, said Kramer, and to cross-train staff for small-crew operations and in case an employee gets sick.

Otto Othman

Pincho CEO Otto Othman communicates with staff across multiple platforms.

Engaging after layoffs

Unlike the aftermath of a standard layoff, franchises in many cases hope they’ll be able to rehire much of their workforce when operations stabilize. But as Cantu put it, “those that aren’t connecting with their furloughed workforce are going to have a tough time.”

More than 30 million people have filed unemployment claims since mid-March, and estimates put unemployment at more than 20 percent.

“Typically, we schedule 7.5 million hours on weekdays. On the weekend days, we schedule about 10 million hours. Today, we’re seeing about 1.3 million scheduled on a weekday, and about 1.5 million on a weekend day,” said Cantu, an 80-85 percent decline.

To stay connected, Cantu said one operator in Chicago is posting calendars for family meals as it provides food for furloughed workers and is encouraging them to partake in additional training at home. Another restaurateur is using HotSchedules to share new developments, and to help employees file for unemployment or get other assistance.

Kramer also sees those other uses on WorkJam.

“In some cases, we have employers helping employees find temporary work. We have some customers that are closed that are partnering with grocers and others that are still open,” said Kramer. “The usage of the application is through the roof right now, both for active and non-essential. Employees are looking for information, a lot of benefit information for employees that are furloughed. And a couple partners are paying employees to do training from home. The training is through the roof.”

Getting the band back together

As the country slowly returns to normal, hiring will prove especially tricky as managers seek to maintain efficiency, but also get top talent to return.

At Hungry Howie’s, Jackson said it’s been a matter of general managers staying in touch with their teams and saying, “We’re eager for your return.” But there are still a lot of unknowns for the workforce at large.

“It looks like 100,000 restaurants may never reopen. What is that fallout going to be? That will take time to realize. And when all these restaurants furlough all these people that took years to develop, when you look at some of these locations and all these people, when the lights come back on, what’s to happen? I don’t know if all the employees will come back,” said Jackson.

All the training and continued engagement will help, but companies will have to hire, too. And like food deliveries these days, that hiring may have to be contactless.

“Sourcing, screening and onboarding, those are the three key things,” said Desmond Lim, CEO of Workstream, a staffing automation platform with many hiring tools. He claims a 70 percent reduction in hiring time compared to traditional practices, but the real trick is going right to restaurant and retail workers on their phones.

“Most of the software we see, Workday, Slack, Zoom, most of it is designed for people that work in an office,” said Lim. “Mobile-first helps people get jobs faster and hire faster.”

With scores of locations opening all at once and millions of people in the mix, hiring will be chaotic to say the least. A star employee whose restaurant is shuttered for good will be looking for something new. Experienced workers who were comfortable might use the pandemic to look for bigger and better.

Operators need to be ready to move on those people fast.

“The key thing is you don’t want to meet with a lot of strangers prior to hiring them,” said Lim. “So maybe it’s a series of video, texting and online work that you can do prior to that meeting. …When you choose someone, you can start onboarding them online through software.”

Lim stressed the importance of starting the search process early. “Even if you reopen in the next two to three months, it takes time to prep people and train new employees,” he said. “Typically, we tell clients four to eight weeks ahead of opening is a good time to start working on that.”

Hiring for the new normal also means more preparation. Lim said some clients are creating working groups, so if COVID-19 cases spike again through the summer or fall and someone on the team gets sick, the already fragile operation doesn’t have to shut down. He said the company has been working with clients to create A, B and C groups that are cross trained, with each group sticking together for standard shifts.

Regardless of what the labor landscape looks like, engagement, training and new tools are being pushed to the forefront and are here to stay.

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