Helping workers feel appreciated during unprecedented times

Keeping staff engaged, especially when they’re furloughed, can be a particular challenge.
Photograph: Shutterstock

At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), there are typically 30,000 people on campus at any given time, says Geneice Bond, director of marketing and guest experience. However, as at other colleges across the country, that number has dwindled due to the coronavirus outbreak, leaving only about 250 students and others still in residence.

To boost the spirits of those who stayed, the UNCC dining team, which is overseen by Chartwells, launched a “surprise and delight” campaign. When students visit the dining hall that remains open, they may find themselves the recipient of a fancy cupcake, an ice cream bar, a T-shirt or other various giveaways, depending on the day.

“Our hope was to let those students know that we see [them] and … we enjoy serving [them],” Bond says. “We wanted to utilize that to put smiles on our guests’ faces even in this troubling time.” 

However, the dining team’s effort to sustain engagement doesn’t end with students.

Transitioning from as many as 27 foodservice locations on campus to just two forced the team to furlough a large portion of its staff, with only salaried employees remaining at work. The department is working to keep in touch with furloughed workers, communicating with them weekly about resources related to HR, mental health, food donations and other services the city may be providing.

These messages aim “to keep them engaged and really let them know that we care,” Bond says. “We didn’t just send [them] off. We really didn’t want to send [them] to be furloughed.”

The 30 or so salaried employees are likewise being encouraged to connect via activities such as a virtual game night. They also participate in COVID-19-related meetings at least twice weekly to ensure that everyone is up to speed on the latest details.

“We’re still trying to get information out to them and really make them feel OK, because those managers are doing roles that they have done before—they’ve served food, they’ve done dishes—but they probably haven’t done them in a while,” Bond says. “We’re really trying to keep them in high spirits as well.”

Here’s how some other operations are helping staff stay tuned in as the pandemic continues:

  • With some extra time in their days now that most campus eateries are closed, foodservice workers at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., have doubled down on training and drafting plans for the future. “We felt the best thing to do was work on ourselves through training and development,” General Manager Jennifer Curtis noted in a presentation, adding that team members were assigned a number of tasks around topics such as computer skills, customer service and disability awareness.
  • In early April, Northeastern University in Boston announced its plan to provide resources and support to the 364 employees who were temporarily laid off by Chartwells, the university’s foodservice provider. This included access to educational assistance as well as help with potential job opportunities.
  • At Indiana University in Bloomington, foodservice staff will continue to be paid through June 30, regardless of whether they’re able to work. Student employees who returned home are receiving their average pay based on how much they had worked prior in the semester, Rahul Shrivastav, executive director of IU Dining, told FSD in late March. “The staff are in great morale,” he said. “They come to work every day. They know the university is taking care of them, and they are willing to go the distance.”

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