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Curious to know what happens behind the ”employees only” doors of some of America’s biggest companies, business journalist Alex Frankel went undercover to find out how these giants try to win the hearts and minds of their thousands of retail and service employees.

His book, Punching In, is reviewed by the FT here. and recounts his experiences at half-dozen companies including UPS, Gap, Starbucks and the Apple Store. He answered your questions on corporate culture on Wednesday 19 December.

After your experiences, did you admire the people who do those jobs all the time, or think that they were being exploited?
Trudy, London

Alex Frankel: I came away feeling admiration for most of the people with whom I worked. The places where I worked tended to spend a bit more per hour on their employees than other employers and this made them workplaces where the focus on people was higher than in other lower paid places. Also, because of the transient nature of the front-line jobs where I worked, I found that if people were truly unhappy they would often leave for other better offers. (If Gap was not working out, people would leave for H&M.)

Enterprise Rent-A-Car was the one workplace out of the five where I worked where I found the employer to be a bit disingenuous in terms of what it promised employees and what those employees got in return. A lot of the new hires I met seemed to understand this discrepancy so I did not view them as exploited as much as playing along with a less than ideal system with the hopes of eventually profiting from their commitment to the rather long hours and demands of the job.

Isn¹t most of the reason people work hard or not innate? Can a corporate culture really transform a lazy, clockwatcher into employee of the month?
Sergei, France

Alex Frankel: It is probably rare that a corporate culture will transform a lazy person into a shining example of an employee. That said, if a person who might have not applied themselves in other jobs finds a workplace where he or she really feels as if he or she fits in and feels as if the job has meaning and makes life worthwhile, then that person may indeed rise to the occasion and give more to the job than he or she might have elsewhere.

Companies that are in tune with their hiring and development of workers know that selection of workers is key so that the ranks of workers are chiefly filled with people who match the spirit of the organisation. This was a key finding I had in working at five retail companies.

From the outside if might have appeared that places like Gap, The Apple Store, and Starbucks were all hiring from the same talent pool, what I found was that each company had its own criteria for finding people.

If you were creating a retail chain today, what would be the essential elements of the workplace you would have to ensure all your staff worked hard and effectively. Are there examples of companies that already do these things?

Alex Frankel: Great question. I would start by identifying what made my new retail chain new, exciting, and different both in terms of what we were selling, how we were selling it, and who the customers would be. With those key factors defined, I could then communicate these things clearly and effectively to possible applicants. Ideally those applicants would be attracted to my company by the way in which I was going to distinguish myself and do business and they would self-select for my particular retail chain.

I would then have a good way to identify the best people to hire through a creative selection technique. I would then focus on creating a training system (like that seen in the Apple Store) which treated new hires as adults and allowed them to shadow veteran workers while learning the new job.

For a quick example, let’s say my new retail chain will be solar-powered eco-friendly pizza stores that offer incredibly fast service and a high tech computer back end for ordering. Having communicated this message using my branding I will then hope to attract those employees who care about what I am doing and want to get involved. The best applicants will arrive at their interviews very much subscribed to my business approach.

To your question, yes, many companies do a lot of these things right, though they may not get every piece perfect. The Apple Store, Starbucks, Whole Foods (the grocery chain), and Pret a Manger are all good examples.

Do you think that the corporate culture has to be defined around the core values of a single corporation or this is a broad phenomena, which may be cultivated across different industries?
Viktor O. Ledenyov, Ukraine

Alex Frankel: I think that any corporate culture, no matter what industry, simply has to represent some distinguishing characteristic about a given company. This seems basic, but many companies fail by trying to be like their competitors instead of fashioning their own identity.

The most common way I found that corporate cultures are built is by aligning the company with the ideals of a founder. This makes sense, as presumably that founder had a new vision which was articulated and which laid the ground work for the new company.

As a new Starbucks barista, for example, you learn about the values of its chairman Howard Schultz. He is not the founder but is treated as such. Enterprise Rent-A-Car teaches employees about its founder Jack Taylor and Gap tells new hires about founder Don Fisher. So though core values of companies may differ, as long as they are able to isolate what makes them unique, they will be able to design a lasting, strong culture.

My question is about individuality and innovation. Doesn’t the successful introduction of a uniform corporate culture across a big company mean that the employees ability to contribute new ideas is squashed? How can they express the new ideas important to keeping a company moving forward?
Harjit Singh, India

Alex Frankel: In the best cases, a uniform corporate culture will still be one in which organic changes by employees will still be possible. A good example here is UPS. My perception of UPS, as a worker there, was largely shaped by the people I worked with. To me they were the purveyors of the culture as much, or more than, the corporation. As an employee I got messages and information from the company in terms of dress codes and manners of operating but a lot of what I learned was channelled by the people who I worked alongside.

UPS, a 100-year-old company this year, certainly has prescribed ways of operating but I found that though the central tenets of the company were fairly set, the employees had a bit of latitude and could take the culture in new and different directions.

A place with hard and fast rules and regulations can still have a loose, adaptable culture. One thing lacking in most of the front-line workplaces was a feedback loop, however, that allowed employees to share much information with headquarters and in this regard the ability of these workers to share ideas is not promoted as it should be.

With a workforce mobility that now sees employees constantly moving to new employers, because of opportunities or reorganisations, loyalty to employers must be affected. How has this influenced the indoctrination of employees into their corporate cultures?
Charles Kreidl, Chicago, Illinois, US

Alex Frankel: There is no doubt that loyalty and turnover are huge issues in the front-line retail environments where I worked (Starbucks, Gap, et al.) as well as across the board. Those companies which really focus on creating a place where people want to work and which match a workplace culture with an employee style are ahead of the game. Also, companies that offer benefits to even entry level employees that are better than the competition have a major advantage.

A noteworthy example here is Starbucks which is well known for offering solid health insurance benefits to employees who work more than 20 hours per week. What this means is that even if a given employee may move cities, he or she often stays with the company and simply starts working at a new location when he or she moves.

This type of loyalty has tangible benefits to the company by lowering acquisition and training costs and boosting employee morale. The trick here for companies is to trust that the expense of good training and culture building will pay off in the long run by building a staff of committed, loyal employees.

What were the dumbest things you were asked to do during applications? What is your opinion of the selection processes you went through?

Alex Frankel: Selection for the front-line workplaces where I applied was a quite varied experience. Chiefly applications broke down into two approaches - either paper or online applications. A paper application, such as the one provided by Starbucks, was fairly straightforward and online applications went from simple to more complex.

The most in-depth online applications had me answer up to 200 personality-related questions such as ”Do you engage in gossip” and ”Do you like to be among large crowds.” These high tech applications would then evaluate my answers using algorithms and presumably determine whether I would make a good match at the place where I was applying. The electronics retailer Best Buy was one company that used these screening tools. Interviews were also interesting, including group interviews in which up to ten applicants were interviewed en masse.

Companies such as Gap that did nothing creative in the interview process were less interesting than a place such as The Container Store (a chain of some 30 stores) which included very creative ”auditions” to determine which applicants were the best.

Is there really such thing as corporate culture in multinational corporations or are there merely many sub-cultures under the single umbrella of the corporation?
Ajay Malhotra

Alex Frankel: I think in the most effective of the multinational corporations there is certainly a uniformity in the corporate culture so that it is fairly similar whether you might be in New York, London, or San Francisco.

Starbucks, for example, may have slightly different rules and codes in Europe and the US, but by and large the experience a worker will have working in a store in one location and another will be fairly similar. This uniformity is a key part of the Starbucks approach and promotes both a similarity of experience for customers as well as employees who may end up moving work locations. At less organised companies there are likely more regional differences.

I myself worked primarily in the San Francisco area to do the research for my book so I was not able to directly compare workplaces in different places but research seems to show that a specific corporate culture tends to permeate a given company if that company is focused on expanding that culture (as is the case at Starbucks).

What were the most important corporate qualities you experienced that created the most efficient working environment, i.e. in terms of a drive to perform, employee loyalty and willingness to go beyond the standard task at hand?
Adam Keats, London

Alex Frankel: For me, the best corporate environments in which to work were those in which the corporate culture or spirit was communicated clearly by the company or, ideally, communicated from one employee to another.

In terms of what made a particular workplace one in which I felt as if I wanted to work harder and stay longer, one of the key pieces for me was how the training was conducted. If the tone and manner and information conveyed during training was clear and also came across in a way that did not talk down to employees I was most interested in paying attention.

The Apple Store in which I worked was notable for its strong training and for giving the newly hired employees the time to digest.

About the expert

Alex Frankel is a writer based in San Francisco. He has written about business culture and adventure for Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times Magazine, and Outside, and he is the author of Wordcraft: The Art of Turning Little Words into Big Business.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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