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Power to the people: Businesses must reckon with new workforce realities

The labor market pendulum has swung hard against employers. But it’s not a forever turn. Nimble, forward-thinking companies, beyond pay raises, can adapt and adjust.

  • By Brian Hartz
  • | 1:00 p.m. May 26, 2022
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Mark Wemple. Employee engagement consultant Tony Johnson at the headquarters of one of his clients, Lakeland Aircraft Maintenance in Lakeland.
Mark Wemple. Employee engagement consultant Tony Johnson at the headquarters of one of his clients, Lakeland Aircraft Maintenance in Lakeland.
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The Great Resignation has brought far-reaching changes to the U.S. economy, including a radical shift in the balance of power between employers and job applicants. While the federal minimum wage remains $7.25/hour, for all intents and purposes it has risen to $15, even $20/hour in some cases, as companies pull out all the stops to fill open positions.

It's in that context where experts such as Lakeland-based employee engagement consultant Tony Johnson have seen a dramatic rise in demand for services, for good reason: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 48 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021, and the trend has continued this year, with 4.3 million workers putting in their notices in January alone. The lion’s share of those resignations have come in service industries such as hospitality, retail and tourism, as well as manual labor-intensive sectors such as manufacturing.

“Employers had the best of it for a decade, but they got into some really bad habits,” says Johnson, 49, who spent 20 years working in entertainment, hospitality and restaurant roles, including a stint as a top executive at Aramark, a multibillion-dollar foodservice company that supplies hospitals, universities and sports and entertainment venues. The Great Resignation, he says, “is starting to shine a light on where employers need to do better when it comes to recruiting, and also once they have people on the job.”

So what are employers to do? Roll over and acquiesce to job applicants’ every demand?

Johnson, who owns and operates Ignite Your Service Training and Consulting, which he founded in 2014, says there’s plenty of middle ground in the new employer-employee paradigm if you know where to look for it. For hospitality jobs that can’t be done from home, for example, take some time to rethink work schedules and shifts.

“A cashier in a restaurant isn't going to be able to work from home — that's not a reasonable request,” Johnson says. “But it is a reasonable request for them to say, ‘Can we be more flexible with my schedule? Do we have to have five eight-hour days?’ You can take a page out of the health care playbook where you have a lot of nurses who might work three 12-hour shifts or something like that. Find ways to turn flexibility into a benefit to your business.”

In addition to scheduling, for service industry jobs, Johnson says, the devil is in details such as break times, tips and too much tolerance of rude customers.

“I’m a restaurant guy,” he says, “but I've seen a lot of bad behavior [on the part of restaurateurs] out there … people not getting their breaks, not getting trained adequately, having to work stupid hours, not being well taken care of and recognized and customers with their bad behavior,” he says. “All together, that makes for an environment where it's not a nice place to work sometimes.”

And then there’s the thorny issue of compensation. With inflation raising costs of living across the board, it’s no surprise, Johnson says, service industry workers are departing for greener pastures.

“When we're talking about frontline associates, like line cooks, cashiers, servers, custodians, pay matters,” he says. “Be competitive with pay.”

Johnson also believes the U.S. economy has crossed the Rubicon in terms of remote and hybrid work, and, since there’s no going back, employers should accept and adapt.

“If you can have a workforce that can work from home, let them, if you can manage that,” he says. “If you’ve found that [remote work] has been productive, don't just bring employees back because you think you have to or because you’ve got an office — that's not a good enough reason.”


Communication breakdown

While it’s true the widespread shift to remote and hybrid work has brought challenges to communication in the workplace, Johnson says many employers struggled with effective communication prior to the pandemic. The main culprits? Too many meetings, overly long meetings or ineffective meeting structure and management. Shoddy communication, he adds, is one of the biggest drags on employee engagement, and disengaged employees, it should go without saying, are more likely to quit their jobs.

Ironically, Johnson says, meetings are one area where restaurants tend to excel and can serve as an example to companies in other industries.

“Restaurants have always had kind of a silver bullet for communication,” he says. “It's called the pre-shift huddle.”

That kind of meeting, he explains, is short and to the point — 10 minutes, ideally, with key characteristics such as employee recognition, a micro-training segment and a brief overview of what to expect that day. And it should be high energy.

“This is the one meeting that has high value, because it's only 10 minutes, it's very focused and it makes sure everybody's on the same page,” Johnson says. “Most industries can take something out of the restaurant playbook and have a daily morning meeting, but just don't let it be terrible. Make sure that it's short and impactful.”


Take off

Shaun Slade, founder and director of maintenance at Lakeland Aircraft Maintenance, has been a client of Johnson’s for the past two years and says the consultant opened his eyes to the importance of improving how he communicates with employees.

“I’m not necessarily the best communicator, and I didn’t come from a business background,” says Slade, an airplane pilot and mechanic by training who launched Lakeland Aircraft Maintenance,  based at a 6,000-square-foot hangar at Lakeland Linder International Airport, in 2011. “I had the skill set to do the mechanical and pilot side of the business. But Tony has been key to providing resources to help me on the employee side of the house.”

Slade oversees a small but highly skilled and specialized team that includes shop manager Jason Warner and four full-time employees. In addition to private aircraft maintenance, the company also handles aircraft and pilot management services and is planning to launch a charter flight spinoff company called Aerial Logistics in the near future. Most of their clients are corporations or private citizens who own aircraft, so it’s a demanding profession with high expectations.

With Johnson’s help, Slade has been able to better “sync up” staff meetings and clarify “which topics that need to be discussed with employees, which topics need to be discussed among management and which topics need to be discussed with customers. He's very good at organizing thoughts in a good, clear, concise format.”

Slade has been working with Johnson for the past couple of years and says employee engagement is on the rise. Staff members have provided positive feedback, saying they feel their “thoughts matter” and they’re welcome to suggest ways to make operations more effective and efficient. Also, he’s acted on Johnson’s suggestion to  shorten and simplify meetings by adhering to highly specific topics and goals.

“We have an outline going into the meeting,” Slade says. “What’s going on in the shop, what’s the schedule and, if anybody needs resources, what those are and if anybody has any thoughts on what we what we're doing right, what we're doing wrong, and if we need to change anything.”

Slade says he was lucky in that no one quit during the pandemic. But, like, many other business owners, he’s concerned about the effects of inflation on employees’ financial well-being.

“Everything is costing more,” he says. “So I do anticipate, due to the need to keep good people, we're going to have to continually reevaluate the pay schedule, as well as our shop costs … those are going to have to change accordingly.”


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