Stories from the corner of 37th and Nicollet

staffing with sustainability in mind

The conversations are currently everywhere: online, in meetings, in passing, in list-serves, and in most interactions I have with other small business owners.  What do we think about the proposals being developed for strengthening workplaces and creating healthy workplaces?

I took on the role of owner-manager ten years ago with a belief that I could create a workplace that would be enjoyable to work at and would be productive and profitable.  I felt that two parts actually went hand in hand.  If the people who worked for me and with me were invested in the goals and mission of the shop, and if they felt they were being invested in as well, they would work hard and provide their best efforts to help the shop succeed.  Their success and the shop success seemed interdependent. 

Most of the time I forget that I am the employer.  I work side by side with my staff, I often work shifts for sick or vacationing staff. I cover open shifts during quiet times and back up staff during busy times. I put in as much “employee” time as any of my staff.  I feel like an employee in many ways, except for the part where I send out paychecks, then I remember, yes, I pay them, not me for working here.

Restaurants and retail stores don’t have very good reputations for treating their staff well, which is perhaps why proposals were developed to try to manage the bad employers somehow. I know there have been challenging times for my staff during the early years as I tried to come up with someway to get a positive cash flow and stay open with little capital or revenue. It was also a big challenge for my staff to make the move from one site to another as we tried to sort out the changes in traffic patterns and staffing needs. 

Through it all, I’ve held on to a goal of providing a workplace that is centered on my staff’s needs.  We have nearly 20 people on staff, most of them have other jobs and commitments and the work they do for me has to fit into those.  Almost half of my staff work more than 30 hours a week, about a quarter work between 20 and 30 hours, and the rest work just one or two days a week.  I work out intricate and complex sets of options in order to help each of the staff members get the number of hours and days that fit their scheduling needs.  In the end, there are always spots I can’t quite fill with the staff on hand, and I take those on myself until I can find someone who is looking for just that day or night or particular number of hours. 

Once the parts are in place, keeping them there is another balancing act.  I know that my staff need to be able to get rests, get away at times, get to important family events, and even, to get sick once in awhile.  I don’t have extra staff waiting around for those changes, nor can I just pick up a temporary person to fill in when I get a call in the morning.  I don’t think that requiring staff to find a fix works well, nor can I feel good about requiring staff to make changes to their personal schedules or second jobs to help me out.  There aren’t a lot of options for me except to change my schedule and fill in.

And if I were a better at predicting customer traffic, there wouldn’t be times when the staff would be feeling overworked or underworked. Unfortunately, weather, events, and the unpredictability of retail sales means that I can only stay in business if I keep fine-tuning my staffing needs to my customer demands.  Fortunately, over the years I’ve become a bit better at this, so I that can fine-tune the staffing schedules during times of natural transitions.  We have normal changes during seasonal shifts in school scheduling and that always gives me the chance to adjust a bit until the next transition.  Unless, of course, someone decides to leave or make a change before that transition time, then the whole thing becomes a frantic chase to fill the missing parts as we try to return to balance.

Will having a set of rules and penalties make me better at scheduling? It might actually make me feel like I’m trying to follow the rules and trying to avoid the penalties, instead of trying to be a good employer who cares about my employees.

Every day is not like the other.  That’s a good thing in some ways, but mighty frustrating and challenging in other ways.   I am trying my best to walk the path of staffing sustainably, but this is a tough path to follow.