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Creating A Great Place To Work: A Tale Of Two Restaurants

After my workout one morning last week, I went to one of my favorite restaurants to grab some breakfast and found it was closed.  The restaurant, part of a well-known national brand (let’s call it Bread and Butter), posted a sign on the front door saying they would not open until 10 am and then only with electronic ordering and payment at their kiosks.  I then headed around the corner to another favorite spot, part of small regional chain of restaurants (let’s call it The Turnaround), and it was open for business and had been since 7 am. 

The Bread Company was sending a clear message that they did not have a sufficient number of employees to staff the first shift.  By contrast, The Turnaround was fully staffed because when I arrived there were clearly more than enough servers and bus people to handle the current patrons in the restaurant. Sitting at the counter I could both see and hear the employees at work.  They seemed to really enjoy each other and their work — even the work that did not involve customer interactions like cleaning the coffee service area and rearranging the cups and glasses — tasks that servers often hate and try to avoid.  

So, what’s going on here and what can we learn to avoid or at least minimize the so-called “Great Resignation?”  People are leaving their job — one 2021 study reported 48 percent of employees are searching for new roles —or not returning to work, especially if it involves returning to traditional offices. In an effort to recruit talent, many employers have increased starting pay for new employees. 

While pay is often a factor in the thinking of employees, it does not get at the most pressing issue for many people — feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions — especially for those employees who worked in industries hardest hit by the pandemic — and went “above and beyond” to treat patients, serve patrons and help customers under very challenging and sometimes, dangerous conditions. 

Employee Empowerment

In research we conducted with leaders in some of the industries hardest hit by the crisis — healthcare, hospitality and real estate — the most successful leaders leaned hard into employee empowerment.  As one company president told us:

We amped up communication to our employees along the lines of ‘you guys know what you need to do; go do it; make it happen.’  We gave them space to do things and . . . people blossomed!

One significant finding from our research is that empowerment of staff enhanced both organizational effectiveness and employee job satisfaction among both frontline workers and remote office employees.  During the coronavirus crisis it was simply not possible for managers to closely supervise their staff.  As a result, trust ramped up in the culture of the organizations we studied.  

Trust is, of course, at the foundation of empowerment which, in turn, is a cornerstone of creativity.  When employees feel trusted, they are more likely to experiment with creative alternatives when the crisis presented challenges to previously established procedures and workplace norms.  For example, at one hospital, the leadership team made it very clear to staff that they could innovate on the floor if, in their judgment, the immediate situation required it.  As a result, “staff made decisions on the fly” to benefit patients and keep everyone safe.  

Employee Recognition

The virus turned the world of work upside down.  Many people were forced to work from home at the same time their school-age children were also at home taking online virtual classes.  Others, including many frontline workers, were required to work in highly stressful and often dangerous environments.  Healthcare workers were fearful of getting sick or perhaps worse, bringing the virus home to their children or elderly parents.  Reports of flight attendants being attacked and injured by irate passengers were all too common.  

As a result, it became even more crucial that leaders appreciate and recognize the hard work and extra effort of their employees.  When asked, even in less stressful times, employees consistently say they want recognition for their efforts from management and their peers.  When employees feel appreciated the company experiences higher customer satisfaction and lower turnover rates — a winning combination.

There are lots of reasons for people seeking new challenges at this time, but clearly lack of appreciation for their efforts during the crisis was one of the big ones.  Yes, they were burned out and sometimes tired and stressed from all the pressures, but they would be more likely to stay if those efforts were appreciated and recognized.  And, by the way, we know that effective recognition may be as simple as “thank you for the extra effort in a challenging situation.”  

During this time, recognition often came in the form of valuing the ideas of employees.  The CEO of a major commercial real estate company whom we interviewed, told us, 

We made a great effort to listen for new ideas from employees for dealing with the fallout from the crisis.  When we heard something workable, we gave them a ‘shout out’ saying something like ‘here’s a great idea by _____.’  Whenever possible, we celebrated small wins. 

So What?

The research seems pretty clear — the most successful leaders ramped up both the quantity and quality of their employee empowerment and recognition.  These leaders discovered or rediscovered the value of empowering their staff to act independently to get the essential work done effectively and to recognize them for their efforts.  Smart organizations saw the results of effective empowerment and recognition in such important areas as:

  • Overall Business Performance 
  • Lower Turnover Rates 
  • Higher Employee Satisfaction 

Having experienced the business value of empowerment and recognition during the pandemic crisis, the challenge going forward will be to make those leadership actions an integral part of the new workplace of the future.  Progressive organizations with positive influence leaders will understand that if these actions were critical during a crisis, they must be embedded leadership traits going forward.

So, what’s the big difference between The Turnaround and Bread and Butter? Employees want to work at The Turnaround because management trusts them to do the right thing for their restaurant patrons (you rarely hear any employee say “I’ll have to ask my manager”) and they are appreciated for their efforts to deliver a memorable customer experience.


Written by Glenn Parker.

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Glenn Parker
Glenn Parker is an internationally recognized organizational development and leadership consultant. He is the author or co-author of some 16 books, including the recent, Positive Influence: The Leader Who Helps People Become Their Best Self (HRD Press). This article is based on research for a new book that focuses on leadership in a time of crisis.


Glenn Parker is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.