Even though I only worked at Whole Foods for a short period of time, I learned some very valuable lessons from my experience. One of the reasons I wanted to work for Whole Foods was to learn more about their approach to customers and employees. Whole Foods consistently ranks in the top 100 of Best Companies to Work For. As an incoming management officer in the Foreign Service, customer service and keeping employees happy are two very important aspects of my new job. (Or so I’ve been told.) Even though I needed a little extra income, appreciated the discount, and generally loved being around foodies, my time at Whole Foods was almost like a research project. Here are my takeaways:
A customer once asked me: “why is it that every time I come in here, everyone looks so happy? Are you guys actually that happy working here?” I was bagging his groceries at the time and my fellow cashier and I just looked at each other, dumfounded: “uhhhhh…good question.” We couldn’t come up with a real answer on the spot, because it’s all intrinsic. Why was I happy working at Whole Foods? I was treated with respect, loved being able to share tidbits about random foods (hint: cashews, also hint: I love trivia), I was never bored, and my fellow team members were incredibly friendly. The atmosphere was the key.
Team members/employees are friendly, because Whole Foods treats people well. For part time employees, there is access to health care, a 401k, and profit sharing. Most people who work for Whole Foods are attracted to the whole package, the opportunity to be around people with similar ideals. As prevalent as organic and natural foods are today, it still seems like a bit of a counter-culture. Plus, if you work at Whole Foods, odds are you are eating fairly healthy, therefore you are theoretically less vitamin-deficient, hence the happiness factor. That’s why theory anyway. I know I’m happier when I have beets and fruit in my diet. Yes, I said beets, deep down inside I’m a Dwight Schrute.
So why are Whole Foods employees happy? We love the fact that we can be ourselves and be respected for it. We are around people with similar values and all have generally the same goals. We are empowered to make customers happy. We are rewarded for going above and beyond on a regular basis, and not just at the end of the year during a yearly review, on the spot. The environment is inclusive, decentralized, and family-like. We receive excellent training. Everyone comes to work ready to make our customers just as excited about food as we are. A shared passion. And apparently all those factors make everyone ridiculously happy. I’ll admit, some days I was tired, sore, and ready to go home, but I still smiled and tried to make every customer leave happier than they were before.
So how does that translate into a government job? You aren’t exactly working towards higher profits or pleasing a fellow foodie’s cheese craving (or maybe you are: wine and cheese parties). Just because it is a government position, doesn’t mean you can’t empower yourself to make your fellow employees happy. You can work towards “profit-sharing” by cutting costs and eliminating waste (see: http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/27/living/student-money-saving-typeface-garamond-schools/). You can be rewarded for going above and beyond on the spot. At Whole Foods we received small gift certificates, but intrinsic recognition is probably the winner in an Embassy, well really anywhere. All it takes is congratulating a great effort in a meeting, to your supervisor, in passing to the Ambassador (if that’s allowed), or telling someone just then and there: “wow, thank you so much for doing that. I really appreciate it. You didn’t have to take the extra steps, but you did and it made a difference.” or “that report was incredibly well written and I appreciate the time you took to do it well. Thanks for working so hard.”
We can all be foodies together, with our shared values. I mean we should all know those 13 dimensions by heart now, right? People generally join the Foreign Service with similar ideals, similar goals, so it seems very possible that a Whole Foods-like environment is feasible. The key is using the resources at hand to make people happy. You don’t have to spend money to make people happy, you just need to have a shared vision, shared expectations, and a positive environment. And maybe make everyone eat their fruits and vegetables. Maybe I am naïve, or maybe I’m just optimistic, but I believe this is possible as a Foreign Service Officer.