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Juanita Dickson, president of Gusto 54, one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies, doubled down on her company’s welcoming culture to ensure employees stuck around.Kailee Mandel/Handout

THE PROBLEM

After two years of pandemonium, like many of its industry counterparts, Gusto 54—a Toronto-based restaurant group—faces a staffing shortage. The pandemic forced the company to lay off the vast majority of its 700-plus workforce; when restrictions began to ease last fall, many of those workers had moved on to other industries. “It became very apparent that attracting and hiring the quality of employees we had pre-pandemic was going to be a challenge,” says Juanita Dickson, president of Gusto 54.

THE SOLUTION

“We’ve always had a focus on attracting and retaining the best talent,” says Dickson. “But we had to take it to a whole other level, upping the ante on how we were going to attract people to not just the company but the industry as a whole. First, we took a really hard look at what we call the team member experience.” Gusto 54 sent out a survey to past and current employees, with questions like, “How satisfied are you with the company culture?” One question asked employees to rank a list of factors—health and wellness benefits, training opportunities, hiring practices, and so on—in order of importance.

According to the survey, managing finances was a major pain point for restaurant workers battered by the pandemic. In response, the company introduced workshops that guide employees along the path of better financial well-being. The program falls under Gusto 54′s broader benefits package, which underwent other major changes following the survey: Health benefits were extended to all full-time staff (only managers received them before) and expanded to include fully funded therapy for the leadership team. “Health and wellness problems besides COVID-19 itself became a pandemic of their own during lockdown,” says Dickson. “As employers, we wanted to embrace the responsibility to help.” Managers underwent training on how to recognize when an employee’s well-being might be compromised, and how to offer options for help without stepping into the role of a counsellor or therapist.

The survey also pointed to the importance of expanding training and career advancement options. Pre-pandemic, Gusto 54 invested in an online system that allowed employees to do part of their training virtually. It ramped up this system, adding curriculum on customer experience, pandemic safety measures, diversity and inclusion and, of course, food and wine knowledge.

It also reinstated a pre-pandemic coaching program, which paired new recruits with knowledgeable staff in a given role. “That’s made a big difference in retaining good talent,” says Dickson. “It helps make sure our people don’t get overwhelmed and have all the tools they need to do their job.” Employees the company identified as “high-potential” were provided with development plans designed to help them ladder up, whether toward a more senior position or enhanced performance in their current role.

Internal company policies aside, Gusto 54 doubled down its role as an industry thought leader in an effort to attract more workers to the industry. “Working with educational institutions like Ryerson University and George Brown College, we were involved in recruitment fairs, developed online curriculums, and did lots of guest lecturing. I did about a dozen guest lectures at various colleges and universities,” says Dickson.

The above have made a difference in hiring—according to Dickson, the company is shaping up to have a strong spring and summer, though it’s still early days. Understaffing is still a problem, and in a somewhat controversial move, Gusto 54 is exploring programs to bring in foreign workers. “There’s no perfect solution to a once-in-a-century crisis like COVID-19, but when I think of Gusto 54, what comes to mind is their resilience, solutions-focused policies, and how good they are to their people,” says Chinmaya Thakore, Deloitte partner and Gusto 54′s coach for the consultant firm’s Canada’s Best Managed Companies program. “They’re transparent, communicative and anchored to their values. And that was true well before the pandemic.”

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