The White House is pushing to “reopen America” even as the country recorded its highest daily death toll from COVID-19 on Friday. Shopping mall operators are eager to see customers wander amongst their stores, if anyone is in a mood to buy as consumers tighten their belts while some of the country’s most iconic retail brands teeter closer to bankruptcy. But if retailers, or companies in any sector for that matter, are to reopen, their first priority should be their employees. Starbucks is showing that the wisest approach is not barreling into a reopening, but taking an approach retailers and restaurants could describe as a “soft relaunch.”
The odds are high that the Starbucks closest to your home reopened yesterday. The coffee giant says that by this weekend, up to 85 percent of its stores across the U.S. will have reopened. By early June, that ratio could reach 90 percent.
For now, however, it will be some time before your local Starbucks once again becomes that “third place.” Don’t count on poaching the store’s free Wi-Fi to do some remote work any time soon. At many locations, you'll only be able to walk in far enough to claim your drink. And the company is going beyond cashless transactions — for the time being, you’ll only be able to order via the Starbucks mobile app at what were once sit-down locations - unless the location has a drive-through.
Considering that, as a publicly-owned company and iconic brand, it’s always in Wall Street’s crosshairs, Starbucks didn’t have to take such drastic steps. The company could surely generate more revenue in the short term if it allowed customers to queue outside as long as they stayed six feet apart and could pay with cash or a credit card.
But it’s clear Starbucks is taking such actions to look out for their employees. After all, while most of us are respecting requests to follow social distancing rules and take steps such as wearing face masks, we’ve all witnessed our fair share of intimidation and bad actors. It’s easy to push back and say the most extreme forms of despicable behavior making the newswires are rare or to sigh with a “tsk, tsk” from afar, but imagine if you were that employee who was the brunt of such obnoxious, entitled behavior. Just one horrid viral video could make Starbucks’ relaunch go sideways, so the best approach is to be hyper-cautious from day one.
Acknowledging how many of customers feel about their Starbucks routine, the company’s CEO, Kevin Johnson, recently said: “We think of the third place as a mindset — a feeling of comfort that uplifts customers everywhere, and in every way, they experience Starbucks. And the third place has never been more relevant than now, as communities seek to reconnect and heal.”
One could dismiss those words as the craftsmanship of a seasoned communications professional, but Starbucks is backing up that prose with action. Healing, after all, will take a long time. As widely reported, the company is continuing to offer its store employees “catastrophe pay” through the end of this month, based on their baseline hours. Employees who choose to work will make an extra $3 an hour during this time.
Consistency is also key as Starbucks continues to flick on the light switch at more of its stores: Locations with the conventional café format will for the most part have limited hours. Giving a sense that everyone is in this together, and that everyone will be treated the same, matters for both the company’s employees and its customers.
The employees at the Starbucks location 3p visited today gave a sense that they were not only pleased, if not excited, to be back at work, but that they were being looked after, too. Hand sanitizer was readily available. Face masks of all colors and patterns were worn. Working hours are limited for now (12 hours a week), but these employees felt as if they were taken care of and, most importantly, they were heard.
And therein lies the biggest difference between what’s happening at Starbucks compared to companies in other industries: Many workers feel as if they are not being heard or talked to — and they are tired of company executives talking at them.
One narrative during this crisis is that trust between many employees and employers has plummeted. This pandemic and the economic crisis have made many employees feel not as humans, but as line items in a spreadsheet. It’s true that no company could have planned for this upheaval, and no plan is perfect. Nevertheless, Starbucks offers corporate America a template on how to leverage a company’s most resilient asset during these times: its people.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.