Edmund Weil says the industry needs to rethink how it rewards its staff if it is to survive the current challenges – and that goes beyond monetary compensation.

The gravest crisis facing the hospitality industry right now isn’t Covid-19. It’s not the mountain of debt that most businesses have taken on. Neither is it the delay in England to full reopening. It isn’t even the cancellations driven by residual fear that still appears to grip large sectors of the population – exacerbated by the blunders and mixed messages from our dear leaders. Hospitality is nothing if not optimistic and resilient, and anyone who has butched it out to survive the past 16 months has to believe that time will heal these ills. These are all complications we could do without, but they are also problems of the past.

The biggest problem facing hospitality is one for the future; a potentially catastrophic impediment to our industry’s revival. As is so often the case with hospitality, at the heart of the matter is people – or rather the lack of them. Put simply, even at this early stage, there are many more roles available than there are skilled professionals to fill them. People are the lifeblood of this industry, and at present we’re bleeding out. Without a skilled workforce, there can be no recovery, and we risk the contraction and dumbing down of the wonderfully vibrant, varied and exciting bar and restaurant scene that has grown into one of the nation’s greatest assets.

This crisis is down to various factors. Brexit’s chickens have, of course, come home to roost with a vengeance. Freedom of movement is over – a stark reality that is only really hitting home now that new jobs are becoming available that would have been filled by enthusiastic European professionals. This is further exacerbated by the fact that any potential last-minute influx of EU workers keen to secure the right to work in a post-Brexit UK at the back end of 2020 was strangled by the pandemic.

In fact, during a period when hospitality should have been drawing deeply one last time on Europe’s rich tapestry of skills and knowledge, the flow went largely in the opposite direction. A significant proportion of the staff we lost over the course of the pandemic were Europeans who simply decided to go back home. And who can blame them? Why grind out the long months in a poky London flat on the short commons of troncless furlough when you could be at home on a beach in Greece, or a hill town in Italy, close to family and loved ones?

Our European brethren are not the only ones to have re-evaluated their priorities in the past 15 months. Numerous British hospitality workers took on other employment to get them through the long fallow periods, and some have found that the more regular schedule and sociable hours of alternative careers suit them better than the frantic whirligig that represents many hospitality jobs.

Many of those who remain in hospitality – the hard core, you might say – sniff opportunity in this crisis. The stock of a skilled bartender, chef, or front of house has never been higher, as bar and restaurant businesses emerging from hibernation vie with the many much-delayed new openings for their services. There’s a febrile, almost revolutionary vibe on industry forums – a feeling of a shift in the balance of power. Better pay, better conditions and a shift in culture are all firmly on the agenda – and quite rightly so. However, it’s important that such ambitions are tempered with realism. Positive changes to the way the industry treats its workers need to be sustainable.

Precarious position

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Some of the ‘hot takes’ currently in circulation are pretty frustrating for owners and operators to see at a time when most of hospitality is in an extremely precarious financial position. Take, for example, the return of the ‘abolish service charge, raise prices and basic wages’ brigade. Under the current UK tax regime, such an approach would leave everybody but the taxman worse off. The guest pays more for their drink (in a post-pandemic environment where price pressure is bound to be a factor); the bar loses margin through VAT on the higher price; and both employer and employee pay more in payroll tax on the wage hike. If you want a radical but pragmatic approach to tronc, better to reduce prices, and increase service charge, thus transferring more into the pockets of employees at a lower rate of tax. Don’t get me wrong. This crisis does present a great opportunity to improve the industry in the long term. Any operators who want to attract and retain the best and brightest will be taking a long, hard look at their culture, pay policies and working conditions to see where they can do better. But what does this look like?

First, minimum wage should be a thing of the past. We need to make hospitality an aspirational career choice, and to do so means showing even entry-level employees that they are valued. Second, service charge should be overseen by employees and distributed transparently and in full with every payroll, with a maximum deduction cap of 10%. It’s no secret that tronc schemes have been abused for years by employers hiding behind third-party ‘troncmasters’, and a voluntary code of conduct on tronc would go a long way towards restoring faith in the system. Third, we should do away with zero- hours contracts, which are an affront to the financial security of those who are forced to accept them. Adopting these practices would go a long way towards removing money as a concern to those who choose hospitality as a career.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, we as employers need to prioritise quality of life. Company policies should promote work-life balance, and limit the maximum number of hours an employee works in a week. If shifts are long, then a four-day working week should be standard. Company culture should mandate respectful communication alongside high standards, and provide clear and personalised progression plans for valued employees. This might sound like dreamland, but I firmly believe that all this is achievable. If we strive toward these ambitions, then hospitality in the UK can look forward to a brighter future than ever. If we bury our heads in the sand, we face decline.