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Barry Skown, Khaled Halabi
February 15, 2021
Foodservice for Thought – The Hybrid Workplace
Foodservice for Thought – The Hybrid Workplace

A tumultuous, and unprecedented, year has passed.  What used to be every employee’s fantasy is now gone.  The part of this country’s workforce who were able to work remotely have now seen and experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of what it is like to work from home.  The impact of a remote environment on company productivity and the wellness of our workforce is finally here for us to analyze by reviewing a company’s key performance indicators (KPI’s) and determining what worked…and to what extent.  A clear picture should emerge of what the new norm will look like as companies choose later this year to either begin going back into the office environment or remain remote.  Or…for some companies… some sort of hybrid work model might become the new norm?

One Size Fits All?

Diverse market segments, as well as varying job roles, mean there is not a one size fits all solution.  Differing needs with regards to the nature of the company, the job role, personal interaction and in-person collaboration muddy the equation and dictate what would best suit the workforce as well as optimize efficiency to find the perfect balance. Flexibility becomes paramount to this new workplace culture, with some studies showing that most workers still prefer to work in an office setting to a certain extent, while also having the flexibility to work remotely some days of the week.  It is important to understand, now more than ever, that each company may implement some type of hybrid system different from other companies.  We also recognize that some work environments…such as the manufacturing or “service” industry sectors…may not have much, or any, flexibility at all when it comes to the choice of working at a company site or remotely. They pretty much have to be “on site” to perform their jobs.

A Deeper Dive

Designing an on-site dining facility that caters to an employee population will require the consultant to take a deeper dive into the new working culture of the client as well as to understand the scheduling aspect of this hybrid office-remote work model.  Understanding these factors is critical to being able to deliver a functional space that accommodates the needs of the workforce while at the same time, allows it to be adaptable and flexible enough to function just as well with the high fluctuations of occupancy during any given week.  With time, there will be some factors that become common, but flexibility and adaptability will always be key to future designs as these hybrid models get tweaked on a constant basis.

As we write this, we realize that some Chefs or F&B professionals might read this and think, “So what’s new?  That’s what we’ve always done.”  The truth is these elements were always at the heart of the F&B industry and its levers for success.  At the core of a profitable operation is a robust, finely-tuned schedule that accounts for peaks and troughs of the week and plans resources accordingly.

Or you might think, “How does this transfer over to designing and planning a corporate dining space?”  Typically, foodservice consultants like us plan and size dining facilities to handle demand from the “peak meal period” for any given day/event/function.  For an employee dining facility, that “peak meal period” is typically the lunch period.  But there is also an old adage in the design industry that says, “Don’t build the church for Easter Sunday.”  So, designers and consultants always strive to balance those two premises.

But in a new hybrid work model…where many or most employees can choose which days they are on-site and which days they work remotely, and that can change from week to week…how do you plan and size a dining facility for a population that is constantly fluctuating day by day?

Much like, historically, Monday is a slow day for retail restaurants and Thursday through Saturday is busy, the same could be estimated for a new hybrid work model.  For example, it could be estimated that the workdays of Tuesday through Thursday of each week will see the largest number of on-site employees at the workplace, with Mondays and Fridays being the lightest populated days.  While no one can predict this work pattern for certain or every hybrid work model, there is one market segment that gives us a historical glimpse into this pattern…the Higher Ed market.

This segment has traditionally built many of their class schedules around having the bulk of classes occur Tuesday through Thursday…with the lighter class days being Monday and Friday.  This may have evolved over time for various reasons, but regardless, a “life schedule” has been created around the busiest days for classes being Tuesday through Thursday.  Why wouldn’t it make some sense that a new hybrid work model might follow this same pattern?

One thing is certain though (in our opinion) …companies adopting a new hybrid work model where employees can choose which days they will be on-site and remote, and who also have an on-site dining program, will need to implement a scheduling model of some sort to give their Foodservice Operator time to accurately plan inventories and menus to meet the demand each week.  Without a scheduling model/system, the Operator could easily have either way too much wasted inventory that translates into a much higher food cost and operating cost transferred to the client or get caught vastly understaffed and without enough food to feed a sudden daily surge of on-site workers, thereby creating a negative service experience.

Having a sufficient understanding of the weekly population trends and fluctuations will help the Operations team, and more importantly, the facilities team to design the right amount of space.

The Crystal Ball Dilemma

During the past 11 months, there has been a great deal of hypothesizing…maybe even pontificating…around various notions that the future of the foodservice industry will be “X” or will see the removal of “Y.” These notions include, among others, an increase in the grab ‘n go share of the pie; or that ‘curbside’ pick-up will become the favored method of food delivery; and a host of other trends dictated by the current pandemic constraints.  In truth, no one really knows what the future of the foodservice industry will look like exactly in the next 2-3 years…especially for the contract foodservice segments of employee dining and university dining. While all the hypotheses may be valid perspectives on the current F&B industry based on what we know from science and the current situation, none are a silver bullet for every situation.  Adaptability and flexibility are the key to design success.  Trends are just that…trends.  They may become a constant, a norm, or they may be replaced by the next best thing.

Some new technologies that have been, and are still being, developed for the contract foodservice industry setting may be innovations that stand the test of time and adaptability.   And that is a good thing.  Innovation questions such as:  How can food be delivered to employees/students at all hours of the day and still maintain as much food quality and safety as possible?; Are large dining spaces still required for every type of food outlet, or is it better to set it up for take-out only?; How can robotic technology help with any of this and yet not sacrifice the true spirit of “hospitality” (or even the number of available jobs) in the process?; are all extremely valid questions to be explored, and will need to be applied on a case-by-case basis.  But, in our opinion, to make sweeping statements like “all self-service stations are gone forever, or we’ll never see that again” is both misleading and short-sighted.

In the end, it is every consultant’s goal to make each employee or Higher Ed facility as flexible and adaptable as possible because, as time and history have proven, consumer tastes and dining trends change.  That’s one of the advantages of engaging a design consulting firm like Cini-Little… so that a new facility is designed to be flexible for any Operator to manage, and not geared towards just one Operator’s menu concepts, service style, or way of doing business.  Can future changes be made in a physical facility to accommodate new dining trends without undergoing a massive, and costly, renovation project?  Absolutely!  For example, menu stations can be modified by incorporating “plug and play” equipment stations, pop-up stations, and/or mobile food units to change the offerings in a dining facility without renovating the entire space.  It is likely that as these innovative technologies evolve further, they too may become permanent fixtures that help the foodservice industry improve and enhance the services they bring to an employee or student population.

Moving Forward

Only time will tell for sure on the latter.  And time will also be a telling factor in how work models evolve for each company…unique to each company and culture.  One thing is for certain though…the proverbial work-from-home Genie has been let out of the bottle and there is no going back to the 1970’s work model.  Now it just comes down to, how does each company make the new model work to maximize their productivity and employee retention at the same time?

By:  Barry Skown | Director of Management Advisory Services

Khaled Halabi | Director of Design, Northeast – Central

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