Two facts: It has been pouring rain in Southern California for three days.
I can be an incredibly stubborn person.
Added together, they created the scenario in which I refused to drive to work and instead literally waded down sidewalks covered in a foot and a half of water. One mile and thirty minutes later, I was sloshing through the lobby to the back.
I spotted my store manager Bruce in the office. “Hi Bruce! Hey, do we have any spare socks around here?”
“Socks?” He looked at me inquisitively. “Why would we have socks? Hey—you’re wet!”
An astute observation. “Yes, Bruce,” I said wryly. “I am very, very wet. My socks are very, very wet.”
Resigned to developing incredibly wrinkled and fusty feet over the next six hours, I clocked in. Fifteen minutes into my shift, Bruce walked up and threw a plastic bag at me. Inside were two brand new pairs of socks. He had gone out into the pouring rain to buy me dry socks.
I was still slightly shocked and whelmed with gratitude when Maria, an assistant manager, came over to say hello. “You’re wet!” she observed.
“That’s because I swam to work.” She laughed, shot a ‘you-crazy-kid’ look my way, then told me to go drink some tea or coffee while she covered register for me. Which I did…after changing my socks.
In a free-market economy, businesses are often criticized for treating employees like commodities instead of people. In response, companies argue that competitive markets don’t allow certain luxuries: labor is expensive–eight dollars an hour doesn’t include ‘chat’ time. Have fun off the clock. Efficiency is a necessity.
Hopping through the breakroom on one shod foot to retrieve a towel, I realized something: Efficiency may be necessary, but it isn’t only found within a two-dimensional definition.
My part-time job is at a Panera Bread bakery/café. Our store is profitable and creates quality product, but also, all the workers (managers included) hug each other hello and goodbye. Everyone genuinely cares about each other, and asks about school and work, relationships and history. Of course, like any group of people who spend many hours together, there’s also drama and intrigue, quarrels and alliances. At quarterly full-store meetings, there’s sometimes yelling and maybe a little cursing—but there’s a lot more laughter and even greater teasing.
I call that capitalism done correctly.
There are alternative ways to pursue success. Machiavelli offers some advice for the ambitious in his ‘how-to’ political guide, The Prince:
…it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both…Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. For love is secured by a bond of gratitude which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so; but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective.
Applied to business, perhaps Machiavelli would suggest that a company will achieve maximum employee production by being feared by its workers, extracting labor through the threat of suspension or lay off. In Capital, Karl Marx describes economic ambition along the same lines. “Capital is dead labor,” he writes, “which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.
I’ve worked at cut-throat businesses where employees complete tasks under fear of management. They do the bare minimum, getting away with everything they can, and are generally unhappy. Any conversation between co-workers is almost exclusively complaints about management. Who wants to make a profit that way? What a miserable manifestation of free-market economics.
Companies functioning under the belief that efficiency requires fear should think again. My co-workers and I work hard—not because we are afraid of being fired, but because we respect and have affection for our managers. Everyone—manager or hourly—is allowed to make mistakes without fear of punishment. We’re human. Does that detract from the store’s ability to compete in a fierce capitalistic economy? No. Profit/People isn’t an Either/Or.
The amount of ‘regulars’ at our store astounds me. I’ve worked in other restaurants, and none compare. I believe that the general rambunctious joy of the employees has a lot to do with that: I know that I, for one, actually look forward to work, and that cheerfulness is expressed in playful banter and sprightliness between myself and the customers. I thought the ‘whistle while you work’ song was merely Disney optimism. And then I started whistling while I worked. I’ve convinced a customer to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with me. I’ve, after closing, smacked a co-worker with a baguette while singing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
Maybe–probably–‘corporate’ would disapprove of these antics. I actually don’t know much about the ‘corporate’ office, other than that they are the creators of regulations and paperwork. Their view of employees might differ from that of the managers I see every day, but it really doesn’t matter. Profit is made at the grassroots, made in the interactions between company and consumer. A business that wants this level maximally effective should adopt a broader perspective than what can be seen on paper, and encourage their management to establish community with employees.
Labor expense might go up a little, and maybe there will be an occasional dry socks expense. Bruce probably spent around $10 for those socks–included with them, though, he also got one fiercely loyal and hardworking employee. ‘