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Critical Post-Pandemic Questions Restaurant Owners Need to Answer as They Reopen

Andrea Lekushoff is president of Broad Reach Communications, a full-service PR firm and marketing communications agency based in Toronto. As foodservice operations across the country begin to reopen, our industry is still riddled with uncertainty and we try to navigate this new way of working. Andrea has put together this guest post to identify some of the imperative questions for a post-COVID world.

As vaccination rates climb and pandemic restrictions are beginning to lift, restaurants are finally beginning to reopen, much to the relief of owners, employees and patrons alike.

But it’s not as simple as just picking up where you left off. We’re living—and working—in a new world, and restaurant employees have a whole new set of expectations. Given this new complex reality, employers are faced with tough decisions – now more than ever.

The key to getting it right is to be deliberate about answering some key questions. Don’t try to make things up as you go. The more directly you can think through your answers to these questions, and the sooner you communicate those decisions to your employees, the more smoothly your reopening will go, with a strong, motivated team that’s proud to be a part of your business.

Here are some of the questions and considerations as you reopen your business:

Will I Have to Require my Employees to be Vaccinated?

What are the rules around it and how will you navigate this question from a legal and HR perspective?

Restaurant owners need to be very clear about what they’re expecting of employees when it comes to vaccinations and communicates it sooner rather than later. It’s critical that you get the best legal/HR advice you can on this.

Can you require vaccinations? Will you require employees to show some kind of vaccine passport? Would it constitute discrimination if you did? What kinds of exceptions would you consider? What is the legal risk surrounding employees or customers who are exposed to an unvaccinated worker?

For a recent white paper I wrote on this topic, I spoke with Dan Black, an employment lawyer at Caravel Law and vice-president of Legal with Closing the Gap Healthcare. He said, “Under health and safety law, employers have a legal duty to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of their employees. It’s difficult to reconcile not requiring employees to be vaccinated with that duty. At the same time, if someone is contraindicated for the vaccine, the employer has a legal responsibility to accommodate them, and privacy law prohibits them from disclosing the reasons for that accommodation.”

But that will leave you other questions that demand to be resolved. How will you handle it if an employee refuses to work with someone unvaccinated? Or if a customer insists on knowing the vaccination status of your staff? Talk to your legal team about your responsibilities. In all cases, consider how you will communicate your decisions in a way that shows respect for all of your employees’ personal positions and wishes.

How Will You Assure Your Employees’ Safety? 

No matter what your vaccination policy is, how will you protect employees?

No matter how eager your employees are to get back to work, each of them will have differing levels of comfort about working with each other and with customers. In the restaurant business, there’s no way to avoid dealing with unmasked customers face-to-face. Your employees know that, but they will also want to stay as safe as possible.

So it’s important to have a safety plan, incorporating your local legal guidelines but also going further if you deem it appropriate and necessary. How will you keep wait staff protected while they serve customers? Will you have specified areas where masks are required in your space, or specific points during a visit when customers can remove their masks?

How Can I Attract New Employees and Retain my Top Talent?

What will be your framework for employee flexibility and other benefits/perks?

It’s an employee’s world. It’s important to figure out how you’re going to differentiate your restaurant in order to attract new employees and retain the top performers you already have.

Many industries are moving to more flexible employment models. Restaurant employees don’t have the luxury of working from home, but there are lots of ways to accommodate your employees’ desire for flexibility. Consider adding more choice in scheduling, or building in special accommodations for those who need it—whether it’s for caregiving, health, and wellbeing, or whatever else life is throwing at them.

Mental-health policies are particularly important now. How will you approach employees who need to take time to deal with their mental health or that of their loved ones? Will you allow employees to determine their own needs (as opposed to having strict requirements for things like doctor’s notes)? Maybe most importantly, now is a great time to put supports in place to help employees maintain good mental health.

It’s Important to Set the Tone

Whatever models you put in place for vaccinations, safety, flexibility and perks, it’s critical that, as the employer, you set the tone from the top. That means you embrace the same rules and follow the same procedures as your team, but it also means letting them clearly see that you support them in using whatever accommodations they need.

At the core of these questions are the concepts of respect and humanity. At Broad Reach, we have a podcast that dives deep into this topic—it’s called On Point: Bringing Humanity to Leadership Communications, and I encourage you to look for it wherever you get your podcasts.

I can’t offer answers to these questions, because every restaurant has its own needs and culture. But I hope I’ve helped get you started on your thinking about how to best communicate with your people. A well-thought-out communications strategy will enable you to keep employee engagement levels high, retain top talent, avoid costly and damaging lawsuits, and keep customers coming back.

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