‘Hi, I’m after a pair of shoes. Preferably in black.’ I’d heard this one a few times. I was, of course, surrounded by black shoes in one of my first part-time jobs at Myer.
There were also many times when a customer would explain how his feet were different sizes…like almost every customer who came in. I also lost count of how many people asked me about the perils of foot odour. Fortunately, 99 per cent of the feet that walked through the department were odourless.
Although I did not realise it at the time, I had learned more than how to convert a US into a UK size. It was five years of workplace boot camp. Here are a few memories:
Corporate programs are not usually very good
Too often I sat in training and corporate programs highlighting impressive new changes on the way. There was the time I was instructed to look longingly into my colleague’s eyes for exactly one minute. We were being taught about the importance of eye contact. Unfortunately, my colleague was deeply uncomfortable with this activity and literally spent the awkward minute staring off to the side.
We were then instructed about the new ‘three metre’ rule where you must offer a customer assistance if they come within your radius of three metres. My fellow employees scoffed at this behind closed doors, saying it would make serving one customer impossible if they were stopping to offer every other customer help on the way back to the shoe reserve.
I kind of liked the idea of these activities but always found them a bit patronising and forced. In the past, I’d always preferred to work with leaders who got to know you and took to the floor with you rather than the ones educating you from a distance with elaborate programs.
Workplace protocols almost always end up getting in the way
One of the most annoying times in any workplace is where office protocols fly in the face of logic. We had one new Christmas casual rock up for work a few times and then completely disappear. HR called him and he’d say he was on his way in and then he’d never show up. He had decided to simply have a bit of fun with them, leaving us in the lurch.
The protocols and processes within the organisation kept him on the roster, even though it meant we’d be guaranteed to be a person down on our busiest days. It seems the rosters were automated and because this employee had technically never resigned, the roster would continue to allocate him hours.
Workplaces make innovation too hard
It’s the mantra of most organisations these days. Innovate! Disrupt! All ideas are good ideas! However, most organisations constrain new ideas by removing any kind of freedom to be innovative. In our trusty shoe department we were not allowed to touch the displays. This was the role of a ‘visual merchandiser’.
The chaos in organising and administering the shoes reserve during peak periods often resulted in large boxes of odd shoes every few months. Often, the different styles were differentiated by tiny graphics or codes, which meant they got mixed up and were harder to find.
On one particular day, I had an idea to colour code all the different styles in the shoes reserve so it was easier to tell the shoes apart. When shoes supplier arrived one day she was so impressed with how easy it was to find a style, making her job easier as well.
I took the idea further and renamed the shoes with long codes after Seinfeld characters. A ‘Kramer’ in a size 10 was easier to find than shoe 22034527728 when shoe 22034527732 was sitting right next to it.
Meanwhile, my own manager simply pulled me aside and said, ‘Can you stop scribbling on the boxes?’.
It’s not all about the customer
After another corporate training program, we were shown a video of a fishmonger’s shop where every employee was dancing, motivated and happy. The message wasn’t exactly clear but I guess management were trying to say, ‘Why can’t you be more like them?’
I’m not sure what inspired the fishmongers. I also agree it would be great to work somewhere with that kind of buzz (but perhaps not the smell). I remember the union loyalist muttering quietly under his moustache, ‘They just don’t get it do they?’ regarding the middle managers.
Another of my colleagues worked full time and after several years of Christmas ‘muzak’, like Jazz in the House, he had enough, asking management to turn the music down. They counselled him and suggested that maybe there was a deeper issue that needed to be addressed.
What my colleagues were trying to express was that they found the environment demotivating. Corporate programs were all about delighting customers but never about improving the morale of staff.
Choose recognition rewards wisely
In many ways, the old pat on the back is the best reward. If you try to provide a tangible reward it may simply draw attention to how much an organisation is willing to spend on its employees.
In one particular year we had made some huge profit. I believe it was about $1million in one weekend. No doubt, this was across all stores in Australia.
As I exited the store that evening, the managers were standing there with party hats and handing out our prize: a mint lolly we could take from a basket. I think it was great to recognise and involve staff but the appearance of cheap mints being handed out was hardly a major motivational tool.
Next thing I knew staff were grumbling about how a $1million profit translated into a few dollars for mints.
Workplaces are filled with characters
I worked with a lot of characters. There was that union loyalist who stood cross-armed at the back of the shoe reserve only occasionally serving a customer. He knew his rights as an employee, always encouraging staff to avoid wearing the standard dress attire (‘They can’t make you.’) and to dob in managers who would state otherwise.
There was the quirky, long-time employee who had worked in shoes for what must have been well over a decade. He’d wander about laughing hysterically at his homophobic, sexist and racist remarks, sometimes occurring all at once or in combination.
One Christmas we had two trainee doctors sign up for the extra cash. One was easy-going, funny and a hard worker. The other thought the work was beneath him and was quick to cut people down with an arrogant comment. These attitudes probably told me much about the kind of doctor each would become.
As with all first jobs the most memorable things were the friends and the memories of working alongside them during the Christmas periods and over a few hundred weekends. Today many of us still stay in touch. The best man at my wedding was a guy I met at Myer.
The shoe department also supported many on their journey to their next careers, including two registered psychologists, a surgeon, a talented arts and craft entrepreneur, and a weatherman.
These days when I am working to improve organisations I always start at the point of the person who actually has to do the real work. If you can’t motivate the frontline everything else falls in a heap.
Oh, and I can easily convert a US size into a UK size.
Please forward this blog to anyone who passes by within three metres. And don’t forget the eye contact!
Dr Nicholas Duck is a blogger and founder of Opposite