A restaurant owner gives tech companies advice on how to retain staff

Is there anything tech companies can learn from little restaurants? Perhaps.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Women at a restaurant clinking their water glasses

 No, that's not the owner having a good time at work.

10'000 Hours / Getty

It was, like so many good conversations, accidental.

My wife and I were having dinner at a small restaurant when the owner came up to chat.

We've been to this restaurant a few times. The staff always seem to be in a decent mood. Not fake-restaurant-decent, but real, actual, human-decent.

I wanted to see if there was some secret at this place. I didn't start by sinking to cliché. (As if I would.) I did mention, however, that people seemed to be moving jobs quite a lot -- or quitting altogether -- yet the staff at this restaurant always seem to be the same people.

Your employees are family. Sure they are.

"Are they all members of your family?" I asked the owner, with as much ingenuousness as I could muster.

"No," she replied. "They're not blood family, anyway. But I see them a lot."

"We've seen the same staff here every time we're here," I said. "Have they worked here a long time?"

The owner explained that all the servers and busboys had been there at least 20 years. The bartender, more than 30 years.

"So this is a money-laundering operation?" I ventured.

"Funny," she replied. "No, they must like it here or something."

"Oh, come on," I pressed. "You pay them really well, don't you?"

"No," she said. "Nothing wild."

Autonomy is money. Autonomoney.

I had to ask, given that many people I know leap from one tech company to another, whether she possessed some management secret that somehow ascended above money.

"Why do they stay here?" I asked.

"Autonomy," she replied.

This couldn't be true. This is a restaurant. There's a boss. There's a head chef. There are rules and ways to do things.

"Come on," I said. "That can't be it. I mean, you decide who's looking after the outside tables and who's dealing with the people inside."

"Nope," she insisted. "They decide for themselves."

"And how do they make those decisions?" I wondered.

"I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?"

"They don't come to me. They just do it. And they all seem happy about it."

Management is a people skill.

At this point, I wanted to ask her what she did in this restaurant. Thankfully, she volunteered before I had the chance.

"The most important thing I do is hire people and then work out who could be lifers," she explained. "It usually takes two weeks."

"You can't possibly know that in two weeks," I said. "No one knows that in two weeks."

"You see how they do their jobs," she insisted. "And it's really important to see what they do when they mess up. Because they're going to mess up."

"They come to you, right?"

"No, they decide among themselves how to deal with it," she said. "The lifers work that out real quick. Then they tell me later what they did."

Let's pause for an update, then.

The secret to keeping good people is, apparently, giving them autonomy. Not a ping-pong table, not free food, not even excessive money.

Naturally, this isn't quite what some experts and the research say. And what was I doing attempting to compare a small restaurant with larger, more complex, more billons-laden businesses anyway?

Yet this restaurant owner's revelations might just offer a clue or two about human nature that is relevant. 

Who enjoys being told what to do all the time? Who doesn't prefer doing things at least a little their own way and hope that it's appreciated? Who wouldn't prefer to have employees who find a certain sort of home at work, where they contribute to a greater good and see the satisfaction they bring to customers?

This did, momentarily, make me think of Facebook employees. Are they given autonomy? Are they able to work in their own ways? Do they really think they're contributing to some greater good? Or is their only greater good lashings of lucre?

It was only a fleeting second of Facebook-thought, as I needed another glass of wine.

I looked down. The server had already brought it.

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