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How Can Trending Technology Reduce Restaurant Employee Turnover?

Quick service restaurants (QSRs) are seeking futuristic technology to drive customer loyalty, from self-driving robots, to food and beverage conveyor belts, and in-store scan and pay options. Yet, employee turnover continues to chip away at customer experience. The industry has struggled to re-employ crew members since the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, nearly 1 in 5 restaurants had to turn away customers due to staffing shortages

Traditionally, restaurants have used technology to enhance customer experience with ordering kiosks, digital menu boards and mobile apps, but COVID-19 has elevated the need for cutting-edge automation across the employee experience.  

“The pandemic has heightened the need to effectively manage employee relationships across many industries, but especially within restaurants,” says Kent Asaki, dining industry lead for Publicis Sapient. “While customer experience has always been #1, it falls apart without quality crew experience. A renewed investment in end-to-end employee experience will not only drive revenue in the long term, but it’s also necessary to make it through inflation in the short term.”

In order to address employee turnover, dining brands need to invest in digital capabilities for crew members. Leveraging automation in a simple, efficient manner can create a positive impact for employees and customers at the same time.

Top restaurant technology trends in 2023

Which technology trends can address the needs of both employees and customers?

From self-service technology to interactive table menus, there’s a plethora of new digital capabilities for QSRs to choose from.

These are some of the hottest interactive restaurant technology trends of this year, and how these trends measure up when it comes to employee experience and ROI.


Automated or robotic kitchen assistants

Sometimes referred to as “co-bots,” or collaborative robots, many restaurant chains are experimenting with automated technology to accelerate the cooking process. Miso Robotics, an automation technology company for restaurants, has partnered with various global chains to develop AI cooking robots to make tortilla chips, fry food and dispense drinks. Dexai Robotics recently began its first chain partnership with a U.S.-based fast-casual chain where its robot “Alfred” will fully assemble bowls following brand recipes.

“In the long term, this type of automation may reduce crew size,” says Asaki. “But in the short term, robots will complement the current line activities crew experience. They must be easy to use and maintain. The big question for many of these robots is: what’s the ROI? It’s important to factor crew experience into that metric.”


Robot point-of-service

In addition to making back-end operations more efficient, QSRs are looking at robots to improve front-end employee experience and, therefore, reduce employee turnover. The goal is to give employees more time for fewer,more meaningful face-to-face interactions while reducing stress during rush times.

However, the current landscape with respect to physical robots in the front-of-house is showing more failures than successes due to expensive research and development, difficulty scaling, and a weaker ROI compared to back-end technology.

One American casual dining chain implemented a customer service robot that seats guests, delivers food, and sings happy birthday. However, the robot was soon pulled out of the lineup so the chain could instead turn the focus to its employees. According to the CEO, “operationally, it didn’t do the things we needed it to do,” and the company decided to use “technology to take care of administrative tasks in the back of the house.


Digital menu boards

Digital menu boards behind the counter and in the drive-thru help crew members as well as customers, and recent digital innovations are pushing their capabilities even further. Publicis Sapient’s Premise Solution allows restaurants to run A/B content tests and uses customer data to drive merchandising decisions. Modern digital menu boards integrate with POS to achieve total ROI.

New digital menu boards improve customer experience, as well as employee experience, as crew members can update menu items and promotions digitally in real-time and even automate these changes as technology advances. This makes it easier for employees, especially during inventory shortages, when certain menu items or ingredients aren’t available. 


Natural language processing

Many restaurants are testing natural language processing AI to take orders from customers over the phone or in the drive-thru. While order accuracy and customer comfort are still barriers to widescale adoption, this technology is another investment that prioritizes employee experience. Employees can focus on faster order preparation and better customer service, while AI can take the majority of customer orders.

“Not only does this technology offer franchisees a cost-effective, practical solution to reduce labor costs and drive results, but it provides support to team members,” said Rick Stanbridge, senior vice president and chief information officer for Marco’s Pizza, a U.S.-based chain testing voice-to-text AI in 50 locations.


Autonomous delivery

Another technology moving from hype to reality for some chains is autonomous delivery. A 2022 study found that automated delivery could dramatically reduce delivery costs and positively impact the environment, an alluring prospect for restaurant chains relying on third-party integrators. This would also reduce friction between employees and third-party delivery contractors, as well as decrease delivery-related injuries.

Several U.S.-based chains are partnering with Flytrex, a drone delivery solutions company, to offer restaurant-to-back-door autonomous food delivery. The company recently expanded delivery zones around its two major outposts in North Carolina and Texas. 

Other chains are exploring on-the-ground delivery robots that travel using bike lanes and road margins. Often, the choice between drones, robots or nothing comes down to which partners are available and make the most sense for chain locations. While the future of this technology is exciting, the current options aren’t scalable or viable for most restaurant chains and wouldn’t affect overall employee experience.


Next generation design

As delivery, pickup and fully off-premise dining options become more popular, many restaurant chains are rethinking and redesigning store layouts to improve efficiency, not only for guests but for employees as well.

These redesigns include double lanes for rapid pickup and drive-thru, self-service ordering kiosks, larger and digitally-enabled back-end kitchens, as well as fully “dark” restaurants or ghost kitchens that only service off-premise orders.

This area of investment can drastically improve day-to-day employee experience through small efficiencies in employee movement and operations that add up to a big impact.

Three technology investment approaches to improve employee experience

While every quick service restaurant chain has unique priorities this year, there are three approaches to trending technology investments that can meaningfully reduce employee turnover, improve employee experience and improve customer experience simultaneously.

1. Employee-driven automation use cases

Often, technology investments are led by customer needs, while employee needs are left as a second-choice consideration. Yet, customers across regions also feel the brunt of employee shortages through slower service, occasional closures, or inefficient operations.

AI can automate and simplify many of the manual tasks that employees normally do. This means more time for the crew to focus on providing excellent customer service. By focusing on very specific use cases to support tasks that employees consider burdensome, back-end operations technology and AI ordering software can change the focus of employee work from intensive and repetitive labor to stellar customer interactions and quality assessment. Small, employee-led digital innovations can improve customer experience just as much as customer-led digital innovation.  

2. Simple and scalable technology solutions

The key to sustainable digital transformation is scalable solutions. Often, these solutions may not be cutting edge, but instead long overdue. For restaurant chains looking to build a digital foundation, the first step is modernizing POS systems, omnichannel digital touchpoints including apps, .com and menu boards, and back-end operations.

“Employees struggling to cover staff shortages while working with outdated technology won’t appreciate flashy new robots,” says Asaki. “Begin with the basics.”

3. Employee change management

New technology without change management will oftentimes make the employee experience harder. Positioning technology in a way that enables employees to do their jobs more efficiently and with a sense of purpose is mandatory to a successful deployment.  Employees must feel that technology is a tool provided to them by employers to help them deliver better customer service.

Restaurants that showcase new technology to support employees will see higher employee retention rates and more applicants.

Strategic messaging around why technology is being implemented should be embedded in training programs. Similarly, arming employees with easy opportunities to provide feedback and ask questions will help them adopt new technology faster and quickly address implementation issues.

As food and dining brands invest in the latest technology trends, the players that prioritize technology that improves the employee experience will see the best long-term ROI and a significant reduction in restaurant employee turnover.

Kent Asaki
Kent Asaki
Executive Client Partner, Food & Dining

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