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Weekly Thoughts: Sixteen Tons

Here is something that caught our eye this week:

Sixteen Tons

We often read news articles about some pretty amazing initiatives focused on improving the quality of the workplace for the benefit of employees.  Invigorated by the belief that happy, healthy employees perform better, companies are renovating their corporate campuses to create beautiful environments and introducing a myriad of incredible employee benefits, ranging from tuition forgiveness programs to kombucha on tap.

However, a more careful read also shows that the majority of such programs are geared toward optimizing the performance of white-collar workers, while the quality of work for blue-collar employees largely goes unmentioned (except for being in a preponderance of popular country songs).  A Quartz at Work article provides some insight into the workplace for many employees in the hospitality industry as an example:

“Behind the graceful lobbies and elegant dining rooms of luxury hotels are the grim, windowless spaces where employees work, eat, and try to relax.  Kitchens are chaotic, hallways are scuffed and cluttered, break rooms furnished with mismatched or broken chairs retired from guest rooms.  Hotels will spend millions renovating spaces visible to the public, but the so-called back of the house is an afterthought, if it’s a thought at all.”

On this topic, we stumbled across a Boston Globe article discussing the growing disparity between how business leaders think about front-line workers versus their contribution to the business.  As explained by the Globe:

“..aspiring managers at business schools like ours are implicitly trained to ignore them.  We attend two top MBA programs where courses often treat front-line workers (and, increasingly, contractors) as an expense to be tolerated instead of as an asset to be valued.  Their concerns and contributions are rarely discussed on campus.  And when they are, the conversation tends to focus on values-driven leadership or the potential for workforce automation, not the need for a balance of power between executives and workers.” 

The Globe goes on to note that this disconnect creates mistrust between executives and employees, which is ultimately destructive to our economy and our society.  The great thing about problems is that they create an opportunity for those who find a solution and we are happy to see some companies are figuring it out.  For instance, Quartz notes that hotel chains Hilton and Hyatt are both aiming to improve workspaces for service workers, as they are “recognizing that money spent on blue-collar workers should be viewed less as an expense to be eliminated, but rather an investment that can reduce costs and improve revenues.”

These hotel chains are rolling out a variety of initiatives including back-office renovations focused on improved lighting and locker room aesthetics, new employee cafeterias serving healthier cuisine, Under Armour designed uniforms, and improved benefits packages (leave policies, employee discounts, etc.).  Of course, Hilton and Hyatt are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.  They are doing it because, in theory, improving the employee experience should reduce turnover and improve service, which in turn, should increase profitability.  The good news is that they are seeing results: At Hilton, turnover in the US declined 6% (down 13% among millennials), saving the company $30 million in annual recruiting and training costs.  Simultaneously, internal surveys on job satisfaction and trust in leadership increased more than 7%.

We, like a growing number of other employers, just don’t see why the things employers do to satisfy white collar workers do not apply to all people.  To that end, we have enthusiastically supported our portfolio companies as they pursue benefits strategies ranging from Crossfit classes to the distribution of mini barbecues.  We’re hoping that if Merle Travis knew employees in the Chenmark network, he would have sung“You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day stronger and less in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I love the options at the company store.”

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Capital Team

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