The simple way to look at this sort of interaction is from the
perspective of the startup optimizing the customer experience.
Instead, try to see it from the driver's point of view. A job that
was once simple and almost insulated from criticism -- I dare you
to lodge a complaint with the bureaucratic nightmare of New York's
Taxi & Limousine Commission or a grumpy dispatcher at an
old-school car service -- is now subject to a real-time,
technology-enabled response with serious stakes.
Welcome to the future of menial jobs. Feedback loops,
uber-informed shoppers, productivity pressures and ubiquitous
technological disruption are changing life on the job for millions
of rank-and-file workers whose know-how -- or lack thereof -- is
crucial to how brands lodge themselves in consumers' minds and
Despite all the talk of these workers being the frontline of the
brand experience, too much of corporate America hasn't come to
grips with this, preferring instead to treat that labor as a
disposable commodity: bought in good times, slashed mercilessly in
bad. Training is an afterthought, as is the kind of good treatment
that makes workers valuable brand ambassadors willing to stick
Retail is a great example. An analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor
statistics by The Business Journals' On Numbers released last month
found that retail employment in 45 states was still below 2008
levels. A 2010 McKinsey study of frontline managers found that only
11% fancied themselves a "coach," while 36 % thought "firefighter"
best described their role.
There's been mounting evidence that having robust sales forces
and treating those workers well pays off. A recent Harvard Business
Review article, "Why Good Jobs Are Good for Retailers," offered a
scathing critique of common, unproductive human-resources practices
that keep costs down but harm sales and brand perception.
Even as menial workers are being treated worse, more is being
asked of them in terms of education, knowledge and tech skills in a
world where store clerks are starting to tote iPads in the aisles.
A recent retail study from Deloitte queried executives on the most
important employee traits in the near future. Their answer:
tech-savvy, brand ambassadorship and specialized product knowledge.
A far cry from working a folding board or swiping a credit
Another, very different kind of organization came up with
similar findings. A few years back, the Ontario Literacy Coalition
realized that something had changed among low-end jobs. Baristas
were fixing Wi-Fi, hotel-cleaning staffs were using digital devices
and factory-equipment upgrades were being slowed because of a lack
of tech literacy among workers.
"Once we went in to work with employees in the workplaces, it
was harder to figure out the types of skills they needed because
they were using all sorts of basic-to-complex technology, whether
PDA devices, computers, etc.," said Allison Mullin, manager of
communications and marketing for the coalition. "Basically the jobs
we assumed were "low skilled' weren't so low skilled after all --
they now require digital savvy and complex problem-solving."
This gave the coalition a name for a discussion paper and an
educational program, "Menial No More." It's a wholly different way
of framing the disjunction between job requirements and educational
reality. Usually the focus is either on how the workforce is light
on certain kinds of skilled jobs (think of the shortage of
engineers that Steve Jobs famously complained about to President
Barack Obama) or how many college graduates are languishing in
unfulfilling jobs that don't put their education to work. What gets
short shrift is how this "Reality Bites" reality could be improved
to the benefit of both the employee and the company.
Mr. Dignan, CEO of Undercurrent and author of the book "Game
Frame," has spent a lot of time thinking about how low-level
employees can be better engaged. He posits that games can be used
to keep employees motivated and inspired, especially once the
30-day learning window that begins when someone starts a job lapses
and boredom sets in.
"For menial jobs, too often the career path isn't clear, or
linear, or even existent," Mr. Dignan said in an interview.
"Companies don't tell you what you need to do to move up." He
recommends that companies begin "building a staircase that leads to
For a drugstore cashier, for example, that might mean spending
the first three months doing the core job, then working to
understand store traffic, then maybe, at month nine, folding in
some customer-satisfaction responsibilities. Most retailers just
send workers home during lulls in business and constantly fidget
with schedules based on demand, disrupting home life and destroying
morale. To Mr. Dignan, a good employee with nothing to do shouldn't
be sent home, but put to work doing something else -- maybe
updating the store Facebook page.
Think this is pie-in-the-sky? Think again. The successful
Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona demands employee flexibility:
Cleaners might work the registers, cashiers shelve items and
department specialists deal with customers one minute and order
merchandise the next. Refusing to cut workers' hours at the hint of
a slowdown yields regular schedules that , coupled with
above-average pay, instills employee loyalty.
But flexible staffs are only achieved through serious
investment: According to a Harvard Business School case study, as
of 2008 Mercadona's cost per employee was more than $9,000, and the
training period was four weeks. In the U.S., by contrast, the
average training period is seven hours.
Yet for all this investment, Mercadona stores offer low prices,
possible in part because of a relatively limited product selection.
Not stocking everything may sound like a deal-breaker to many
consumers. But the business strategy is explained to patrons by --
you guessed it -- its employees on the floor, who are trained to do
In other words, Mercadona doesn't treat its menial employees as
menial, which might just be the key to the company's success.