It’s not You, It’s Your Job:
The Story of How a Female Entrepreneur Created Better Work Design
by Starting a Café
Beck scores her job (ten being the most enjoyable job you can imagine).
by MK Ward
It’s open, airy and bright as we sit in the modest space that Pearth Organic Kitchen uses to serve the West Leederville neighbourhood. We met with Beck Brown, the owner and founder of Pearth Organic Kitchen which has been open for a little over two years.
“All my earlier jobs forced me to be there from 8:30am to 5pm no matter what. I know that I wasted heaps of time because I used that time to research health rather than sitting there with no work to do.”
Imagine what it’s like to be in a job that isn’t letting you use all your skills, your vision and creativity, keeping you on hold, like a tool on a shelf. This is characteristic of work design with low complexity, skill variety, and autonomy.
That’s how Beck felt, and like so many of us, she thought that it was something wrong with her, not the work itself.
“I thought I was just the type of person who would never be satisfied because I never liked my jobs.”
Over time, her research about health, food tastings at cafes, and obsession with healthy eating, she developed a few recipes, got feedback from friends and considered returning to school to study nutrition. Then she wondered, why go back to school for nutrition when she already knew heaps? Instead she wanted to open a business and serve the products she most wanted to eat and drink, but couldn’t find anywhere else.
So, has Beck created her dream job in the café?
Well, it’s not easy. Part of the recipe for success involves physical, repetitive tasks that need to be done starting early in the morning. Some tasks like setting up the till, writing the menus, tidying and housekeeping are not the most enjoyable but they are necessary to keep the café looking good and operational at all times.
Beck also finds it hard to get employees to make the café a number one priority like she has. Being realistic, she has decided to accept that it may not be the number one priority – and that’s okay, as long as her employees are not slacking and are happy. Still, as the owner, it’s challenging to care so much.
A common consequence of high work engagement in people like Beck, is that there can be spill over from work to life and vice versa. Since becoming a café owner, Beck’ social life has definitely changed:
“Our regular customers are like friends now because I talk to them and see them more so than I do my actual friends. I’m introverted and at the end of the day I have to be alone because in this work I give my energy to other people all day. That affects my social life, forcing me to prioritize outings.”
Social contact all day does not necessarily equate to social support, something the work design literature would describe as a resource. Even contact with beneficiaries (i.e., customers) can be energizing or energy depleting. It depends on the person, that person’s relationship to their work, and the other person or people involved in the social interactions.
I’m intrigued by Beck’s reflections on whether she’s doing enough. This is the core of the stress in her work, and this is the flipside of caring about what you make and trying to maintain a quality café experience.
“Sometimes I still wonder why they chose us rather than the guys down the street.”
Although this work is certainly demanding than her earlier jobs in marketing, it’s clear that Beck loves her work.
“I’m proud of the people who work here and the things we make. My work feels satisfying, especially at the end of a busy day when I feel a certain sense of accomplishment. “
Bad work designs of earlier jobs helped Beck along this path of work. Beck now knows that if you’re unhappy with your work, chances are there’s something wrong with the work design, not you.
a little more...
“Go for it!” said her friends and partner.
“That sounds really risky. You know most businesses fail. Cafes are really difficult to make successful. Are you sure?” said her family, with good intentions.
Yes, she was sure and once she convinced them with her business model, over the years of prepping for launch and growing the business thereafter, her family has supported the business with investment money, time washing dishes, and employment (Beck’s sister manages the store). “A previous chef whom I met at the gym helped me figure out how to build out the kitchen. It was right person, right time. It’s funny, the more people you tell you want to do something, the more people can offer their assistance. It’s important to actually talk about what you want to do because then the right people will listen.”
Feedback from friends & family when starting a business
Feedback comes to Beck about her employees from online customer reviews, word of mouth customer referrals, seeing reluctant meat-eating customers leave very pleasantly surprised. Beck compliments her staff immediately when they do something well, and provides private feedback about how to improve where needed. Weekly one-on-one meetings give her a chance to have more in-depth feedback for employees. But something’s missing here, something that’s missing in most businesses. There is very little feedback directly from employees to Beck. She doesn’t hear constructive compliments from her employees when she does something well, or criticism when she needs to improve something. Discomfort with upward feedback is a common and persistent issue across many organizations.
Feedback of all sorts, except one.
The shared goal of maintaining high customer service has changed the work in a few ways. It means that people have to notice when customer service may drop, ready to take over when others are busy making food or coffee, leaving no one to take orders at the till. This changes the work design to include more skill variety because talking to a customer involves different skills from making a short mac. This also means role ambiguity, where you, the employee must be aware of what’s happening and know when to step in. Trying to outline what people need to do during the day was really hard at first for Beck. Employees often ask, “What should my priority be? Should I be clearing tables or doing dishes?” This is an example of role ambiguity, wherein there’s uncertainty about what you versus other people are responsible for doing at work. Autonomy and flexible work roles tend to create role ambiguity, but that ambiguity can get resolved through experience and learning on the job. It’s something that they gauge over time to see the different areas to move between during the day. Although it is difficult at times for people to get employees to embrace role sharing in the café, Beck has remained steady in giving her employees the autonomy they’re not used to enjoying.
“I really trust my staff, and chefs I’ve hired have commented on that. I don’t know how to be a chef, so why would I try to tell you how to do your job?”
Skill variety to maintain high customer service
Behind the Scenes
Despite the mid-afternoon “lull” there are people eating at a few tables, and several with their coffee of choice, filling up 75% of the seating area. The window wall is folded back to create an indoor/outdoor space separated by a standing bar where you can look outside, or in to the back of the kitchen because there are virtually no walls inside the café. The place is hip, and has service that’s friendly, not fake. There’s an authenticity you can sense in the materials, space, place and people. In architecture, they call it “truth in materials” to use real wood rather than composite made to appear to be wood.
The founder and owner of Pearth Organic Café has glasses with clear frames, blonde hair, and a presence that give you a sense that she’s present, friendly, and grounded. Customers, who’ve had limited interactions with her, will frequently will say things like, “My friend started this café on Cambridge Street.” Although this seems odd, in a weird way, it makes sense.
Beck gets at least one request per day from people asking for a job at the café because they like the vibe of the place. We can’t confirm a perfect work design for such a café, but if people want to work somewhere, then the work design is probably better than the crap jobs Beck experienced in the past.