7 Steps to Better Holiday Staffing

This article was written by Carol Dunnigan, SVP of People and Culture, for HR Technologist

In order to find success this holiday season and maintain the right balance of customer satisfaction, employee morale and profitability, restaurant operators must work to build a well-rounded employee schedule. But the hectic holiday season often leaves managers struggling to navigate through time off requests, requests for additional hours, extended holiday hours, and early closings.

No matter whether you are continually over or understaffing during the holidays, there are some serious effects caused by both:

Overstaffing can lead to:

  • Low profits. Labor is the second highest expense a restaurant incurs after food and beverage costs, running at about 30% of restaurant sales.  Over staffing can quickly eat into your profitability.
  • Underpaid employees. If you start a shift and find out that it is not as busy as predicted, our first instinct is to start sending employees home.   However, being cut early and not working scheduled hours means that employees will not make their predicted income, potentially causing them to look for employment elsewhere.
  • Unproductive employees. Employees on the clock who have nothing to do not only cost you money, but also leads to bored employees.  You do not want to pay employees for talking about the party last night, flipping through their cell phone, or sitting in a booth staring off into nowhere.

Understaffing can lead to:

  • Poor service. Your customers cannot receive the best possible service if the waiter is stretched too far. In the heat of a busy shift, mistakes can be made by any staff – not just waiters.  Plates go out wrong, food is over or undercooked, tables are pre-bussed too early, making guests feel rushed. Poor service usually means that the customer will not return.
  • Stressed staff. The overwhelming feeling of being in the weeds shift after shift can lead to more than individual stress – it often causes employees to turn on each other when they should be working as a team. The long hours and stressful shifts can lead to resentment, fatigue, and burnout; you may lead employees looking for employment elsewhere.
  • Uncleanliness. Side work simply will not be a priority to an employee who is just trying to keep his/her head above water during their own shift.  Often, if something has to give, employees will skate on their side work, leaving your restaurant unprepared for the following shift.

Creating a schedule that covers your restaurant adequately during this busy season – and keeps your employees happy – can be quite the balancing act.  However, it can be done by following these seven steps:

Forecast based on historical sales trends. Historical sales trends are the best indicators of your future labor needs. Pay attention to peak hours as well as the slowest day parts to see where you need to increase or scale back labor. Additionally, consider the strengths and weaknesses of your staff. For instance, scheduling a member who is speedy and efficient for a hectic lunch shift or someone who excels at upselling to increase revenue during a slower shift.

Set a firm deadline for time off requests. Establishing a firm deadline for all employee requests to be submitted will enable you to provide the schedule in a timely manner.  The more in advance the employees receive their schedules, the less likely they will be to not show, as they have ample time to swap shifts as needed. Having someone on the floor who doesn’t want to be there is not going to make for happy customers, so try to honor as many requests as possible while still ensuring full coverage.

Offer incentives for unpopular shifts. Sometimes small incentives can encourage employees to cover shifts that would prefer not to work. If half of your staff has requested Christmas Eve off, it may take a free meal, bonus pay, or the promise of being off on another holiday to have employees show up and not be visibly disgruntled about serving customers instead of being with their own family and friends.

Stagger shifts to reduce labor costs. In order to increase labor as sales increase throughout the day, consider staggering clock-in times. Overlapping labor allows you to have employees on the clock only when they are needed.

Cross-train employees. It’s not always feasible to call in additional help when unexpected situations arise. Cross-training employees as bussers, servers, and bar tenders will help you navigate these events to help you avoid disappointing customers and keep things running smoothly.

Provide employees some control. We know the holiday season is unpredictable, and that means employees may need to swap, drop, or even pickup extra shifts. An easy way to navigate this might be to consider using a shift trade book or tracking sheet, where your team can manage these activities without involving restaurant operators directly. Of course, you’ll want to first create guidelines and stipulations for time-off or trade requests and make sure your staff understands these details before giving them complete control.

Talk to your employees. Knowing who is eager for more hours and will come in on short notice is extremely helpful on days you find yourself in a pinch.  The ability to get help quickly if someone calls in sick or should a shift be unexpectedly busy helps ease the “fear of the unknown” that leads to overstaffing.

Scheduling during the holiday season no longer has to be a challenge. With these tips in mind, restaurant operators can confidently build the best schedules for their employees while positively affecting customers, employees, and revenue.


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