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The C-Suite: Gasping for Air

If you’re like me, COVID has felt like being caught in an undertow on the beach. Being pulled into the ocean, coming up for gasps of air between waves before being repeatedly slammed back onto the beach and pulled out again. The waves seem to just keep coming. It has taken a toll on our companies, leaving us battered, beaten, weary, and in some cases a shell of what we used to be.

We are in the people business and it’s personally been very trying for me to see the impact it has had on the people who have chosen a career in catering and dedicated their lives to this industry. After talking to dozens of catering and special event companies, I believe staff retention is in a fragile spot. What companies and leaders choose to do now will have a lasting impact on their future success. Here are some of my takeaways from my experience and the conversations I’ve had.

Engagement is a priority…for some

The companies and employees I’ve talked to seem to be split on their approach to employee engagement. Many have acknowledged that they have more important things to worry about now or don’t feel right about bringing people together. On the flip side, there are a lot of companies that are doubling down on their engagement efforts with their current team members and those that are on furlough. Through newsletters, virtual happy hours, and informal meetups, companies are finding creative ways to engage with team members they don’t currently have work for—but hope to, soon. Some companies are also using this time to invest resources in training for their teams and making it a point to bring them together in new ways through both virtual and in-person platforms.

Swiss Army knives are in high demand

While companies previously had the luxury of paying specialists to fine tune a particular aspect of a company, they are now turning their attention to generalists who can make an impact via two or three skillsets. People who can contribute in a variety of ways have made themselves extremely valuable to many of the organizations I’ve spoken with. At Footers, for example, our décor manager used her previous culinary experience to help in the kitchen, took over photography responsibilities for the marketing department, and has been willing to work as an event lead. Team members are setting themselves apart from others with their ability and willingness to work outside of their normal responsibilities.

Burnout is a real concern

Cost cutting measures have led to people being asked to do more with fewer resources. They have had to deal with playing a game where the rules keep changing. The exhaustion from constantly trying to reinvent a business is taking its toll on owners and employees. When I asked one leader within a large off-premise catering company what the best part of their company culture was, she told me “honestly at this point in COVID, I’m not entirely sure. To be completely transparent, I’m very burnt out and not able to fully see the positivity or excitement.” As leaders, we must be aware of our own state of mind and take care of ourselves so that we are better able to respond to the needs of our teams. Failure to do so will result in good people walking out the door on their own accord. 

The shared experience

Author and happiness researcher, Shawn Achor, created a documentary called “State of Play: Happiness.” In the film, he explored how to create a positive culture in organizations where the culture or conditions (like the military, police departments and the National Football League) make it difficult to talk about “happiness.” One of the conclusions they found was that stress made people feel more bonded with their organizations.

The team members that are left standing in our companies have been through a traumatic experience. They’ve had to say goodbye to friends they worked with and many have experienced survivor guilt. Layoffs and terminations have not been restricted to the lowest salaries. Many senior executives are no longer with their employers. The companies that are doing a reset with their core employees and seeing stress through a motivational lens are building stronger and more resilient organizations. Their teams are more bonded and committed than ever. Those companies are talking about vision, the path toward 2021 and beyond. They are acknowledging the challenges ahead without being irresponsibly optimistic. And they understand that stress needs to be a burden carried by the group, not an individual. 

Street cred

The dust is far from settling and there will still be companies that won’t survive. Many talented people have been furloughed, laid off, or were part of companies that have gone out of business. There is also a decade worth of college graduates that are learning what it means to want a job and not automatically be able to secure one. The labor market has swung in favor of employers in the hospitality industry and as unemployment benefits wind down, it will continue to move further in that direction. While I don’t know of many companies currently hiring again, there are some that are starting to strategize and prepare for that process. One company I talked with has revamped their company structure and the positions in their organizational chart, they have job ads already written, and a timeline with benchmarks for when they will hire those positions.

No one knows how long COVID will last, but if we believe it will eventually come to an end, then we have a responsibility to do our best to position our companies and teams to be ready for the day when it ceases to be a challenge. Despite the obstacles we continue to face, if we take this time to grow as leaders and lead with our hearts, we can create awesome places to work for our teams and build better organizations for the future.  

Anthony Lambatos

Anthony Lambatos

Owner/CEO, Footers Catering, Denver, CO