Workforce management technology had already been widely adopted by hospitality businesses before the pandemic, but now, with rapidly changing staff availability and the need for increased support, it's coming into its own, says Elly Earls.
Uncertainty generated by opening constraints and trading restrictions have led to a unique set of workforce management challenges for hospitality operators. Not only are they struggling to forecast customer demand due to rapidly changing regulations, it's also much more difficult to predict when staff will be available, whether that's because they are self-isolating or have Covid-19.
Even when employees can make it into work, the mental health impacts of the current situation can be devastating, making it more important than ever for employers to listen and respond sensitively to how their teams are feeling. Clearly, this is all set against an incredibly challenging economic backdrop, with many operators introducing new revenue streams, such as e-commerce, click and collect and delivery, in order to survive.
Workforce management systems, the most advanced of which can help operators forecast their staffing needs, communicate with their workforce and integrate with payroll, electronic point of sale and other business systems, have already been widely adopted in the hospitality industry. But with so many new and fast-changing variables for operators to consider, their value has started to become even clearer this year.
We have also seen tweaks and upgrades to many workforce management systems that might normally have taken much longer to progress and implement. While these developments were designed to help operators through the pandemic, they could also prove beneficial to businesses in the longer term.
One of the biggest benefits of advanced workforce management software is that it can provide operators with an insight into both future and historical sales and scheduling. "Using a digital solution to expose illogical manual practices prevents poor decision-making, as it removes some of the inevitable oversight that occurs with manual forecasting and scheduling," explains Dave Ellmer, senior productivity consultant at Fourth, which provides next-generation workforce planning and labour scheduling software to hospitality businesses.
"Workforce management software can provide clear guidance on where and when to deploy team members, and most solutions have the configuration to allow adjustment based on real data feeds."
Henry Seddon is managing director at Access Hospitality. Its cloud-based business management suite features more than 20 integrated software solutions, including workforce management. As he explains, the adjustment part of that equation has become more important than ever this year.
"From a business perspective, it has been impossible to rely on historical data for forecasting as a series of social distancing measures, curfews, closures and limits on household interaction combined with fluctuating consumer confidence has disrupted established records on which workforce management is based."
Because of this, Access Hospitality has introduced a technology upgrade that enables forecasts to be amended when facing sudden or unexpected changes, giving operators flexibility with staffing schedules by quickly triggering adjustments to react to uplifts or downturns as required.
Ellmer says there has never been a more crucial time to get staffing levels as close to optimum as is realistically possible. "Loyalty is more important than ever, with many consumers pre-booking and planning visits to restaurants and bars, rather than walking in," he explains. "As such, if an operator has under-forecasted its labour requirements, then it will have an impact on the customer experience, which will affect loyalty and future sales. It's imperative this remains a focus as we move into the challenging winter months."
Clear communication channels
Another challenge the pandemic has brought the hospitality sector is looking after the health and wellbeing of staff – from keeping in contact when they were working from home or furloughed and helping them adjust to new ways of working to offering assurance about their safety and supporting them if shifts were reduced or removed completely.
As Seddon points out, this is not just a moral imperative for businesses, but a practical one, particularly if staff members' health and financial concerns lead to anxiety and absences. "Giving employees a voice, listening to what they say and responding, keeping them in touch with what's happening as honestly as possible and giving them more control over their working commitments will help reduce absences, increase engagement and motivation to create an agile and mutually supportive team environment," he says.
Fourth and Access both report that the communication features of their workforce management systems have been used much more heavily this year than previously. They've also added new ones, most notably mobile health surveys, which ask employees a series of questions on their current health so employers can establish if they're fit to work ahead of their shift.
Access has also improved its mobile feedback campaigns, giving employees more options to communicate about issues they may not be comfortable bringing up face to face. "The configuration of improved surveys and questionnaires, visible via sign-in or time-tracker portals, allows employers to raise the subject of health and wellbeing in an approachable way, giving the opportunity for a more meaningful dialogue when the staff member is ready to talk," Seddon says.
"A range of questions can be asked, targeted to all staff or specific groups in a user-friendly format, which identifies sentiment, potential trouble spots or safety concerns that may not be aired otherwise." As Ellmer points out: "Recent events have made employee engagement and welfare a top priority, so a clear channel of communication throughout the entire structure of a business has become almost essential."
Considering employees' preferences
Another way technology can help employees feel valued and listened to is by giving them some level of control over their own schedules.
"Challenges being faced vary and are deeply personal and situational, including caring for extended family members, facilitating childcare, or emerging from total isolation," says Neil Pickering, industry and customer insights expert at HR and workforce management technology provider Ultimate Kronos Group (UKG). "Emotions are high, and schedules are thin, so there needs to be an even more flexible attitude to scheduling than previously.
"Employees across all sectors have been and continue to give their all right now, under stressful and unprecedented circumstances, as the massive uncertainty over the future of work and major disruptions to jobs has taken its toll. It's consequently crucial that employers now consider each and every employees' needs and preferences wherever and whenever appropriate. Accurate forecasting has a pivotal role to play in this, alongside scheduling that considers employee preferences."
Seddon agrees. "While regularly being scheduled for inconvenient shifts could lead to resentment and apathy, opening the rota up for self-selection empowers staff to take control, feel trusted and able to impact their work-life balance in a positive way," he says.
The latest workforce management solutions enable staff to manage all aspects of their work interaction themselves – from shifts to training and holiday planning, as well as drawing down pay when it has been earned.
"It's clear that when a team and their management have good communication around the schedule, with clear guidance on requests, holidays, upcoming events and expectations as far in advance as possible, business runs more smoothly for all parties," Ellmer stresses. "Keeping teams engaged, enthusiastic, safe and up-to-date with training and guidelines can't be underestimated."
The future of workforce management
Workforce management solutions are already very widely adopted, according to Ellmer, with almost all hospitality businesses having a form of one installed, or in the process of implementing one. "How they are used and what for are the big questions," he says. "Who can afford not to have data-led insight right now?"
Looking ahead, he likes to think we aren't a million miles away from real-time data feeding, deploying live graphs and algorithms that refresh frequently enough for operators to make decisions in the here and now, rather than the 24-hour cycle of ‘plan, review, do' that is so widely adopted now.
Something else that's on the horizon is auto scheduling. "While there are solutions that already do this to some extent, they are currently not robust enough to be considered as a main WFM solution," he says. He also loves the idea that we could soon be using historical sales, labour and performance data alongside current, predetermined parameters and capacity triggers to generate sales and labour budgets. "After all, accurate and realistic budgets motivate good managers," he notes.
Seddon believes the role of technology in the workforce marketplace will continue to improve the experience of staff as its functionality is extended.
"Use in the agency market will allow employers to recruit contract labour, assess their potential and give feedback before opening the option to select their own shifts, where appropriate," he says. "Employees would then have the freedom to work across different employers without the constraints of being allocated fixed shifts."
Pickering agrees that as companies seek to maximise their flexibility and utilisation of the gig workforce, these systems will become the key link between businesses and the contingent workforce. "The use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics will expand too," he adds. "Already used by the latest generation of cloud-based solutions, the value it delivers through improvements to demand forecast accuracy, scheduling optimisation, compliance and predictive analytics will be widely adopted." In the meantime, Seddon stresses that one of the biggest challenges over the next year will be labour optimisation that works for both the business and the employee.
"Operators must ensure that their business is profitable despite any prevailing restrictions, remaining agile and ready to respond to any significant fluctuations in trading. Yet that pressure cannot impact on the staff, whose commitment and enthusiasm for their job creates a safe and welcoming environment, while they themselves may have health or money worries to deal with," he concludes.
"Although roles may be reduced and shifts may be limited, using technology to communicate clearly and openly will generate a proactive and empowering working environment with everyone working together for a common goal."
UKG research discovers a burnt-out nation of workers
The Workforce Institute at UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group) recently commissioned research into leadership and employee attitudes and opinions on the impact Covid-19 has had on workplace concerns and expectations, as well as contact tracing and trust.
It found that 46% were concerned about being quickly informed about presumed or confirmed positive Covid-19 cases in the workplace and 43% were concerned about their company's ability to react quickly to presumed or confirmed positive Covid-19 cases.
In addition, when looking at operational concerns, workers were most worried about future redundancies due to economic instability (40%), the ability to balance workloads to prevent fatigue/burnout (39%) and the ability to offer necessary learning and development opportunities (30%).
"Taking on board employee preferences feeds into their mental wellbeing, which should be a top priority for any organisation right now, as both physical and mental fatigue and burnout are prevalent," says Neil Pickering, industry and customer insights expert at UKG. "With over half of UK workers stating that they've been working either the same or more hours regularly since the start of the pandemic (51%), it's imperative that organisations recognise this and respond accordingly."
Tips for a great workforce management implementation
Simon Hedaux is the founder of Rethink Productivity, which helps businesses drive efficiency, boost productivity and optimise budgets. He says that over the past year, workforce management has never been more important and will continue to be the foundation for organisations to make sure they are matching changing customer demand to staff, maximising the opportunity to drive sales while minimising wasted hours, paying people accurately, and tracking sickness.
His tips for a great workforce management implementation are:
- Don't try and do everything all at once. Start with colleague engagement or time and attendance and build from there.
- You need a strong productivity data foundation to help make good decisions. That means current time standards for your processes and percentage activity splits for less easily planned tasks, such as telephone calls and ad hoc admin.
- WFM is a change project, not an IT project. Success requires people to change how they work – it's much more than a tech installation.
- Be prepared to face difficult decisions based on issues during the set-up stages. Getting to grips with WFM requires strong leadership and, when done well, delivers benefits for customers, colleagues and your business.
Access Hospitality is a division of leading business software provider the Access Group, which was created to specifically cater for the UK's £73b turnover hospitality sector.
More than 1,300 UK customers use its modular, scalable, cloud-based business management suite, which features 20 integrated Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions and services, including EPoS, reservations, finance, property maintenance, purchase to pay and workforce management.
Access People for Hospitality is a powerful and intuitive cloud-based HR and labour optimisation system that enables busy, multi-site hospitality owners to streamline their HR and workforce management processes.