Cultivating Positive Workplace Culture

Cultivating Positive Workplace Culture
October 16, 2023 Susan Diepen

10 Must-haves to Cultivate a Positive Workplace Culture

Lisa Marovec

Senior Director of Marketing, CHART


Is it possible we’ve finally gone beyond the need to make the business case for training in the hospitality industry? While it’s still important to prove return on investment, it’s apparent that Learning and Development (L&D) is now viewed as mission-critical by top operators.

This conversation was front-and-center at the inaugural QSR Evolution and FSR NextGen conference, held in Atlanta in September 2023. Two panels, in particular, were so rich in their practical takeaways, that we at CHART were scribbling notes to take home. The culture-sharing  discussion quickly turned to training and development as the bedrock in shaping a positive workplace that values employees’ well-being and growth, and in turn, drives retention.

Here are 10 themes that emerged from the panels that contribute to a thriving workplace culture.

“Culture = What You Inspire + What You Allow” – Aaron Noveshen

1. Training as the Foundation (Recognize that “It’s Everything”)

The hospitality workplace may be changing at light speed, yet one thing remains constant: the significance of training and development in shaping a positive and productive culture. It’s certain that the way organizations approach training can greatly influence their employees’ experiences and overall success. Training is the way new employees feel comfortable, valued, and prepared for their roles.

Nothing communicates care for employees more than providing them with good training. Conversely, nothing says “I care about you less” than throwing someone into a situation unprepared.

The onboarding process is the first step in establishing a positive culture. It sets the tone for the employee’s entire journey within the organization. When done right, it tells employees that their presence is not just valued, but essential to the company’s success.

Imagine starting a new job, walking into a workplace, and feeling instantly welcomed. That sense of belonging and value is what a great first day should embody. An over-the-top warm welcome, assigning peers for support, and ensuring the new team member’s comfort – these actions create an atmosphere where employees feel appreciated from day one.

I like to say that we don’t have trainers, we have storytellers. We tell the story about how the tools we give you will help “you be a better you.” We find that the more we tell the stories about how we are impacting personal development, professional development, our communities, and our planet, the more retention we have. – Jeremy Edmonds

Instead of positioning training as educational, which can sometimes be off-putting, we ask "What is the one question you have?" A common question is “How do I open a bank account?” If they take this course with our LMS, one hour later they have the paperwork to do this through our partnership with a local financial institution. We then fund their new account with $25, and the bank matches it. So now they have $50. This is a win-win-win because the employee is now delighted to have money in a new bank account, we got them engaged with our LMS to answer their question, and the bank now has a new customer. – Sam Caucci

2. An Environment of Development (Show Them a Career Path)

A high-performing workforce is not taught at. The focus should be on creating a developmental environment rather than a traditional school-like approach. This means helping employees grow and progress in their roles, possibly extending beyond the company to later roles with vendor or franchisee partnerships.

When employees see a clear trajectory for their development, they are more likely to feel motivated and engaged. We need to help people achieve their dreams – in and out of your company. Guiding employees toward future possibilities not only benefits them individually, but also bolsters the organization’s reputation as one that cares about its employees’ growth. It creates a culture of continuous learning and advancement.

A holistic approach to employee development encompasses not only job-related skills but also personal growth. This includes teaching time management, promoting wellness, and even providing education on topics like financial literacy. Balance is key to ensuring that employees feel supported in all aspects of their lives.

Instead of thinking of team members as “unskilled,” think of what they need. We balance content where one-third is positional, one-third is skill building like time management, and the rest is personal growth, such as meditation, hydration, and wellness. We do development beyond the job, such as information on voting during voting season. – Sam Caucci

3. Great Communication (Recognize the Power of Words)

All discussion kept coming back to the power of the spoken word, and clear and frequent communication. Overcommunication of values and transparency of progress is key. Keeping employees informed about the organization’s direction and sharing successes and challenges fosters trust and engagement.

I wish I would have known the power that your words can have on people. – Chris Tomasso, CEO, First Watch – when asked during his keynote, “What leadership lesson would you like to have known early on in your career?”

Effective communication extends to broader messages conveyed by the organization. For example, sending an email specifying how much time off employees should take during the year speaks volumes about the company’s commitment to employee well-being. It reinforces that employees are not just workers, but individuals with lives outside of work.

It’s up to us to make the environment and the working hours of our teams “feel better.” We send an email in January reminding how much time our team members should take off during the year, and encouraging them to do this. It is important to speak this out loud and send that message to them. – Steve Palmer

Our managers are not allowed to work more than 45 hours per week. This demonstrates that we care. – Jeremy Edmonds

4. A Focus on Work-Life Balance (Prioritize Well-being)

Prioritizing employee well-being, work-life balance, and mental wellness are key elements of a positive culture. Measures like limiting work hours and supporting personal goals contribute to a healthier work environment. This can be particularly challenging in an industry with demanding schedules.

Beyond Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) for mental wellness and support, it’s evident that top hospitality businesses look at mental wellness from a holistic approach, including courses on financial, physical, social, and many more life topics.

We use employee data to identify the gaps in demographics by store location to define and customize our benefits package. – Sue Petersen

Our home loan downpayment program gives our employees the downpayment for a home, payable back over three years at zero interest. When we started this program, others cautioned of defaults. However, in the four years of the program, no one has defaulted yet! – Jeremy Edmonds

This can be a tough business with long hours. However, we find that people will work longer than they need to. We sometimes have to kick them out of the building! – Brian Wright

5. A Sense of Belonging (Build a Supportive Community)

These are troubling times. Help people who may be struggling. Let them know they are not alone, and create a platform for people to safely ask for help. Always in this conversation, let them know that it’s okay to not be okay.

Building a sense of belonging, community, inclusivity, and support is vital. This includes using technology to foster connections, provide resources for personal development, and create an inclusive workplace. Provide access to and education about all of the resources available to them beyond job-related skills.

HR and training is how we communicate our constant community. We tell people, “It’s okay to talk, we are here to listen.” – Brian Wright

The panels recognized that the hospitality industry has long had a culture that tolerates excessive drinking and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Recognizing and addressing issues related to addiction and mental health is necessary. We need to take care of the workers we already have. But, how can we take care of others if we are just now learning to take care of ourselves? Ben’s Friends is helping do just that.

Ben’s Friends

Steve Palmer is a co-founder of Ben’s Friends, a support community for food and beverage professionals who struggle with addiction and substance abuse. Ben’s Friends is now in 29 cities, with more than 20 Zoom meetings per week, and thousands helped.

Drinking is a rite of passage in our industry; the shift drink, the shot out the door. Many people are struggling with addiction. It can be lonely to be in this business, but want to maintain sobriety. People love this industry, AND people want to take care of themselves. We see people full of darkness and shame, and one year later have light in their eyes and are thriving at work. – Steve Palmer

6. A North Star (Live Your Values)

Every member of the organization should know and model the company’s values. Strong company cultures align with their stated values, and this alignment contributes to profitable outcomes.

We take a summer and winter break, where we shut down the restaurant for 4-5 days. This makes a statement to employees that we are living our values. – Steve Palmer

The industry has long tolerated long hours. We don't. Our back of house has a four-day work week, with three days resting. While this may mean staffing is now our number one issue, this action has increased retention. – Tom Foley

7. Equality in Technology (Ensure Access for Every Worker)

Make every piece of technology accessible to every worker, not just the top tier. This inclusivity ensures that all employees have the tools they need to excel.

Portillo's Connect is a new app launching for employees (our “family members”) to foster connections, provide resources, and create a fun and inclusive workplace. – Jill Waite

The role of technology in building community cannot be overstated. Recognition tools and communication platforms within an LMS or app can help foster connections and celebrate achievements. Face-to-face interactions and dialogues, such as team huddles, remain crucial, however, technology can complement these efforts by providing additional avenues for interaction and support.

Balance automation with the personal touch. Robots are here, AI is here. Transform HR and training into a development function, a people pathway function. If you buy a robot, sure you can depreciate it over five years, since it’s an asset. But if you are going to invest in tech to automate repetitive tasks, you have a moral obligation to build the infrastructure to support employees (also assets) in this. Where you spend your money says loads about your culture. – Sam Caucci

8. Supportive Managers (Develop Your Leaders)

Developing your leaders is an investment in the future of your hospitality organization. An effective leadership team is a cornerstone of successful performance and positive culture, while underdeveloped leaders are detrimental to the business.

We have learned from our engagement surveys that the key drivers for engagement and retention are development, feedback, and manager support. – Jeremy Edmonds

9. A Fun Place to Work (Hype the Crew)

Be a fun place to work, where the vibe is a community of people who enjoy being together. Consider having regular family meals where the foods and flavors of different cultures can be enjoyed. Use small moments of success to share positivity.

10. People as Individuals (Encourage Authenticity)

Allow team members to show up at work like they show up at home – as their authentic selves.

I was the guy that wanted people back in the office after the pandemic lockdowns. Now, we don't even really have a corporate office; it's mostly remote. The culture is better. This mindset shift has improved performance. I learned to let workers work how they want to work. – Brian Wright

The Ongoing Effect of Culture

Training and development are not merely functional aspects of running an organization; they are the bedrock upon which a positive workplace culture is built. By prioritizing effective training, showing employees a path forward, communicating openly, supporting well-being, and fostering a supportive community, organizations can create an environment where employees thrive, grow, and contribute to the organization’s success.

Cultivating a positive culture is an ongoing effort that requires commitment and adaptability. However, the rewards are immense, including higher employee engagement, better retention rates, and a more successful and sustainable organization. As leaders, it is our responsibility to recognize the profound impact of training and development on culture and to harness this power to create workplaces where employees can flourish.