If there is one thing the forced acceleration of the 4th Industrial Revolution under COVID-19 has given many of us, it is the fact that we can work differently. We can work for more than one company. We can work from anywhere. We can more easily be our own boss.
I, too, work differently these days. I do not, as a rule, go into the office. I conduct most of my meetings via any of several virtual platforms. Though many of my staff work from the office, we have proven that we can all work remotely, should the need arise. We could scale down in terms of physical space, even as we added a new service offering. We no longer need large meeting venues. Even training happens online. Our office telephone can be answered from anywhere and transferred to staff who are not necessarily present in the office as long as there is Internet available. We said our (not so) tearful goodbyes to Telkom and embraced VOIP technology. (Please see the textbox at the end of this blog for our new contact information.)
Coffeeshop freedom, but for whom?
On the occasion that I do need to meet with people, I chose to do so in public spaces with great ventilation and even better coffee. I am writing this blog based, in part, on an observation I made on a day that I had two meetings, four hours apart, on the same day at the same coffee shop.
I had my first meeting bright and early. As I entered, I saw that there were fever tables inside the establishment, in compliance with COVID-19 protocols. Other than myself, there were three individuals in the coffeeshop. Each was sitting at a separate table. Each had their laptop out. Each had a cup of coffee. It reminded me of an open plan office! Nobody made eye contact, not even with the waitrons. I took no further notice as my meeting was about to start.
Fast forward to 13h00
It is now lunchtime. The coffee shop is busy. As I wait to have my temperature checked, I see a waitron speaking to would-be patrons at the door. They were turned away – COVID restrictions on sit-down patrons and all that.
I found a seat and see the same three coffee shop comrades still hard at work. It seems they have not touched their coffee! I asked the server if patrons hogging a table for hours on end is a common issue and if so, how does this affect business. The answer was more complex than I had anticipated.
Waitron blues – when you must smile regardless
The waitron tells me that, yes, it affects turn-over for the owner. However, it does not stop there. Since there are fewer patrons allowed inside, there are fewer waitrons required. The owners do not know for how long these restrictions will last. They do not want to lose competent staff. They divide the shifts amongst all the staff on a rotation basis. This means that the waitrons earn less in terms of the standard, basic wages (calculated by shift). That is not the end of their woes though. Due to people who linger longer and ordering the bare minimum, their tips are correspondingly less. As they must turn away lunchtime visitors (who would most likely have ordered food) they lose out even more.
They went on to say that the owners put quite a lot of pressure on them to remain cheerful and helpful, even though these serial seat occupiers do not even look up from their computers and seem irritated by their presence! However, some income is better than none, so …
Karen and Ken go out to dinner
I took the family out to dinner one night. Across from us a generic Karen and Ken sat down. They ordered. The food came. After a while, they called the waitron over. They began to complain loudly that the food smelt ‘funny’. They demanded an audience with the Manager.
The Manager came, listened, and replaced the food. Again, they proclaimed that the food smelt strange, but that they are by now starving and will do their best to stomach it. From where I sat, they did not seem to find it too hard to do!
The waitron did what was expected, quietly, efficiently. And then presented them with the bill. Immediately they were unhappy! They claimed that they were being overcharged. They said that the prices did not correspond with what was advertised on the board outside the front door.
When you would rather choose a root canal procedure
They did their best to explain that there was a timeslot, as indicated on the board, during which meals were offered at a lower cost. Karen and Ken became abusive. Again, they demanded to see the Manager. When he appeared, they demanded to receive a heavy discount, since the food was below-par. They threatened the Manager with a poor review on social media and all the platforms they could think of!
It is at this point that I decided to get up. I went to the Manager. I told him that the customers were abusing his staff. He looked deflated. He said that the customer is always right, so there is not much that he could do. I think not!
Abuse of power
The consumer act and the various Ombuds does safeguard the rights of customers, rightly so. We all know of instances where companies have exploited customers. However, not all customers play by the rules. The fact that some will try to get away with bad behaviour is part of the human condition, unfortunately. In the current economic climate, it can be difficult to deal decisively with rogue clients. There are competing priorities between owners and managers on the one hand and frontline staff on the other
How do we recognise the abuse of power?
There are three indicators:
- Insisting I am right, and you are wrong, regardless of the facts
- Coercing others with ‘might is right’
- Getting your way through the threat of punishing anyone who disagrees
What can you do?
I want to address this in two parts:
- Look inwards – become aware of your own social and economic power and sense of entitlement. We all have blind spots. These situations are new to all of us. Consider how your actions impact others.
- Look outwards – it is not enough NOT to be a Ken or a Karen! When you see abuse happening, use your power! You do not need to be aggressive or confrontational. It is only likely to make things worse. Consider the following actions:
- Speak to the Manager – they may only hear one side of the story
- Leave a review – say what you saw and commend the good
- Tip and tip well! – work your tip into your budget beforehand and think about the extra effort staff took or any additional time you spent at the establishment.
- Managers and owners
- Look inwards – do you understand the new challenges and pressures your staff are facing at present? Are you so caught up in keeping your business afloat that you neglect the wellbeing of your staff? Play open cards with them and allow them to do the same.
- Look outwards – make sure that you actively supervise your staff – not to catch them out but so that you can proactively support them.
- Make sure that everyone knows what is acceptable and what is not – for both staff AND clients.
- Provide on-the-spot support and pro-active training – this applies to both internal conflict resolution as well as dealing with difficult clients
- Make sure that there are clear communication and work-flow structures in place – you need to discuss these regularly. This will help everyone to feel secure and equipped. Timeous adjustments can do much to protect both your business and staff.