Instead of driving or flying to visit one of his seven Outback Steakhouse outlets in New South Wales and Queensland, Operating Partner Mike Palmer simply takes out his laptop and logs onto Skype. In addition to face-to-face meetings, he holds regular teleconferences with restaurant managers to talk about new menu items, operational issues, upcoming projects, and research and development. He also uses Skype to discuss procurement with suppliers in the US and China.
“Ten to twenty years ago it was hugely time-consuming being a restaurant or area manager,” says Palmer. “You were chained to the restaurant or your car, but nowadays with advances in technology you can certainly turn up the heat via remote control, as I call it.”
Palmer is one of thousands of managers who are embracing teleworking to manage their business. They are using laptops, tablets, mobile phones and technologies such as Skype and web-based management applications to stay in touch with colleagues, customers, suppliers and head office from anywhere in the world.
Teleworking offers many benefits for employers and their staff. In its 2013 Trans-Tasman Telework Survey, the Auckland University of Technology found teleworkers are up to 12 per cent more productive than those who only worked in an office. Other teleworking benefits include lower operational costs, improved job satisfaction, increased workforce participation and a better work-life balance.
These benefits are reasons why the Australian Government wants more companies to take up teleworking. Its National Digital Economy Strategy aims to double Australia’s level of telework by 2020, so that at least 12 per cent of Australian employees have a teleworking arrangement with their employers. The National Broadband Network (NBN) will be critical in increasing the take-up.
Following the Government’s lead, the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association has released a Digital Business Kit that highlights the benefits of teleworking for the industry and its customers. It wants restaurateurs and caterers to adopt teleworking practices in their business, as well as make more use of technology to increase trade, for example, by providing free WiFi so customers can work and do business in a café or restaurant.
In addition to Skype and videoconferencing technologies, there is a plethora of software that allows restaurant managers to keep tabs on their operations remotely. Palmer uses Asana, a free collaborative task management application. The program allows him to assign tasks such as repairs and maintenance to managers, and check their status during Skype meetings.
Advances in point-of-sale technology also let Palmer ‘dial in’ to a particular restaurant during service and monitor orders in real time.
“The program provides a snapshot of each restaurant’s business performance,” explains Palmer. “It shows me whether they are hitting their benchmarks. If one restaurant is performing well in a certain service area and another needs assistance, I can put the managers in touch so one can help the other. The program helps me make informed decisions based on real-time numbers.”
Like Outback Steakhouse, Mizuya – a buzzing Japanese restaurant and karaoke bar in Sydney – uses teleworking technologies to manage its business. Managers and staff members rely on mobile text and voice messaging communication services WeChat and Whatsapp to share information and stay in touch.
“For example, after I discuss a new procedure with the owner, I then pass on the information via WeChat to our three managers and one supervisor,” explains Hin Ng, Mizuya’s Marketing Manager. “They in turn will use the group chat function of WeChat and Whatsapp to brief floor staff on the procedure.”
Posting information on WeChat and Whatsapp means employees don’t have to come into the restaurant to attend meetings if they are not rostered to work. As many of Mizuya’s staff are casual workers who are paid an hourly wage, the restaurant saves on labour costs while ensuring employees are kept updated on new developments.
“We still have face-to-face meetings to discuss important issues, but WeChat and Whatsapp are ideal for dealing with day-to-day issues,” says Ng. “We’ve skipped the waiting time to communicate information; as soon as it’s available it will be on WeChat and Whatsapp.”
Mizuya was one of the first restaurants in the industry to use innovative cloud-based technology to enable teleworking. In 2009, it installed VNC Viewer and Team Viewer, a remote access and control software, to give managers access to the restaurant’s systems from their home or another location. Managers can monitor the performance of karaoke machines, view room bookings and watch footage from surveillance cameras.
“They can check all our systems at any time and from anywhere, and deal with any problems before they affect the business,” says Ng. “As a result, managers are more productive and can make better use of their time.”
Ng believes teleworking in the restaurant industry is starting to take off. When Mizuya started using VNC Viewer and Team Viewer in 2009, the concept of controlling systems remotely was new. Ng says he knows of two competitors that are now using cloud-based technologies in a similar way to Mizuya.
For organisations that want to implement teleworking, Ng has this advice. “First, you need to know your restaurant and its unique requirements. Second, find out what you need and understand how the system or application works. Finally, maintain the infrastructure and have a plan B in case the technology fails for any reason.
“Teleworking is only unreliable if you don’t understand how it works,” Ng says. “If you know what you’re doing, teleworking can increase productivity and reduce costs.”
Palmer also encourages other restaurateurs to trial teleworking. The six hours a week he saves in travel time means he can focus on growing the Outback Steakhouse franchise, and spend more time with his family.
“The restaurant industry is not a nine-to-five business,” says Palmer. “Anything that gives you more quality time and a better work–life balance is a good thing.”