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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: The benefits of employee interaction over machine-operated hums

Weighing the importance of employing people over machines.

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have two re-occurring conversations in my life. One happens at the grocery store and it follows this pattern…

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I’m waiting in a checkout line and the single person who is supervising four “u-scan” checkouts calls out that there’s no line—as they have been instructed to do by management. “No, thank you, I prefer to keep people employed,” I respond, eyeing the four registers reduced to one employee.

The other occurs at the downtown post office about twice a week: I am standing in line when someone walks in and bemoans there is not a self-checkout like at other post offices—or a stamp machine, for that matter. “No,” I respond. “There are people employed, instead.”

The first conversation usually just has the staff member saying “OK,” and going on to the next person in line. The second conversation tends to set off fireworks in people. It’s interesting to watch.

Of course, as a small business owner, I find myself on the other side of this equation frequently. I should first say: I was never a good employee. I have a personality cut out for entrepreneurship and the life of a writer. Frankly, I don’t play well with others. I am a big-picture person with very little interest in repetitive minutiae, and I can work toward big goals steadily if I believe in them. But grinding on hamster wheels was never going to work for me. I was pretty actively working on my own bookselling and writing dreams when I had my last “real” job. My boss at the time was very gracious when I told her about buying the bookstore, and she commented it was what I should be doing. (She kindly refrained from pointing out already I had been doing it.)

My own personality aside, there are probably two reasons I never made a good employee. The first is nine years of montessori school, which really does not prepare students to follow directions very well. The second was I came of age at the end of the 1990s. When I entered the workforce, the economy was incredibly strong, and since I was only looking at entry-level jobs (most with no hope of advancement), my attitude was one of, “Well, if I don’t like it, I can always quit and get another POS job.”

For the generation that came after me, though, it would certainly not be the case. Nor has it been for anyone on the job hunt in years surrounding the recession. So, let us say I went into life as an employer with some pretty “meh” karma coming my way. I hadn’t ever done anything incredibly awful or immoral; just I was never very good at being an employee.

I’m probably an even worse manager, truth be told. I try too hard to be fair and generous. Something I certainly did not comprehend at all in my early working life was (especially in a small-business setting) every dime spent on my paycheck was money not going home to buy groceries and pay the mortgage of the owner. On the other side of that coin, I am keenly aware of it.

It was actually one the first times I worked through the steps in  “Your Money or Your Life”  by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez that gave me the insight and strength to say I had several employees at the time who were not providing “value for money.” In other words I was “employing” them as an act of charity, and they were taking serious advantage of me at every turn. I was borrowing money in order to meet payroll, and to be blunt, there was very little work and an awful lot of complaining in return.

Part of the problem was I let it happen. Part of it was, in order to grow and mature, I had to learn how to face these situations, which were part of managing a staff of people. I had to learn from mistakes and not repeat them. I could read every book on business and people management and empowerment I wanted, but until I was confronted with the reality of the experience, it was just a lot of hot air. I know there are a couple of places in town that, when they promote someone to management, the first thing they ask them to do is fire another employee. Sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? It’s probably one of the worst and hardest things to do for soft hearted folks. But the point they are trying to make is: Management has to make and act upon decisions for the good of everyone. Employees also have a responsibility to contribute to the success of the business to pay for them to be there.

When I hire people at the bookstore and we discuss the starting wage, the next point is, “If we have a great summer, everyone gets a raise. If we don’t, no one does.” There have been a lot of times when I have gotten advances on credit cards (at 20-percent interest) in order to make payroll. Thankfully, for now, it hasn’t been necessary in a while. When we hit times of prosperity, I try to pass it on and reward the hard work that made it possible. Again, those decisions can’t be based on individual gain, they have to be made looking at the impact and the good of the whole.

Which brings me to the larger issue: 

There is, I believe, a difference between eliminating jobs of hardworking people who show up and contribute to the team for the sake of replacing them with a machine, rather than making a necessary decision for the good of the whole. The postmaster general isn’t facing a crisis, trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage, when decisions about automated postal machines are made.   Thankfully, the downtown post office doesn’t currently have them. As noted, instead we have a wonderful staff of incredibly helpful, lovely people trying hard to provide excellent service. For me, it is worth waiting in line a few minutes (and getting a chance to meet some other people in line) to have that human connection. We have increasingly moved into an automated world with more daily activities processed on a computer and devoid of human contact.

Obviously the grocery store is thrilled to have the u-scan line, because they now only have to employ one person per shift for the four registers that are open.  Think about it: Grocery stores are now open 24 hours, and the mom-and-pop grocers of years past are gone—the ones with regular business hours that close around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. and are most definitely closed on Sunday for church. Three eight-hour shifts in an average day, multiplied by three registers operating without a person, across as many stores as the company has, means a pretty significant decrease in expenses and increase in profits.

That’s pretty great for the bottom line and profit margin, but I somehow doubt it is a decision made for the good of all staff or how they would move forward into the future together.

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