40 Minutes for Starbucks Coffee? Customers and Workers Fume Over Fewer Staff

Starbucks baristas are facing an alarming issue: drink orders are coming in fast, but there are fewer people to prepare them. Workers and managers who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly blame the understaffing, in part, on an algorithm Starbucks Corp. uses to allocate store labor. The system takes into account an array of inputs, such as order forecasts and product availability, to spit out a recommended staffing plan. Many employees say that doesn’t adequately account for the time it takes to fulfill a ballooning number of special customer requests like extra espresso shots or cold foam, as well as the effect of more corporate promotions.

Starbucks disputes it’s understaffed, but acknowledged longer wait times contributed to the company’s first quarterly sales decline since 2020. The company has upgraded its labor algorithm and other staffing policies over the last 18 months to ensure “enough capacity to meet demand,” Chief Reinvention Officer Frank Britt said in an interview. He said Starbucks is rolling out new measures to reduce wait times and cut down on unfinished orders, including a plan to rejigger drink assembly to save workers time.

The worker frustration over the labor algorithm is bubbling up as the chain’s quest for speed clashes with customer service, an issue intensified by a productivity push by Chief Executive Officer Laxman Narasimhan. A process-oriented former management consultant, Narasimhan spent two decades at McKinsey before stints at PepsiCo and Reckitt Benckiser. Since taking the helm at Starbucks just over a year ago, he has emphasized efficiency while asking baristas to spend time chatting with guests. Those competing demands have left some workers and customers feeling like Starbucks is doing neither warmth nor convenience very well.

One person pointed to a countdown clock placed near drive-thru windows as a physical manifestation of the pressure workers feel. Starbucks said the clock helps supervisors know when to direct more workers to drive-thrus. Another person cited new checklists Narasimhan rolled out that help keep stores neat and orderly, but shift managers’ attention from spending time with their employees to crossing off to-do lists.

Howard Schultz, who built Starbucks into a global behemoth over three stints as CEO and remains the company’s largest individual shareholder, publicly admonished executives and board members for the company’s sales performance and urged them to get into stores to work alongside baristas. Schultz said the company needs to be more experiential, not transactional.

Starbucks has released a blog post detailing its efforts to ensure stores are adequately staffed, highlighting schedules set three weeks in advance that account for worker preferences in hours and shifts. The company claims that employees are working more hours and earning more money, helping reduce worker turnover to pre-Covid levels. However, as part of the change, the company mandated all employees be willing to work at least 12 hours a week on average each quarter to keep their jobs, which has resulted in fewer baristas assigned to each location.

Starbucks has said that baristas who work more hours can be faster since they get more practice. However, when workers call out sick, managers say there are fewer people around to pick up shifts. Starbucks said callouts are at record lows and workers at other stores can fill in shifts. Baristas may ascribe some problems to staffing issues even if they can be fixed in other ways, executives said.

To counter hiccups the algorithm can’t predict, Starbucks has started to experiment at some stores with a position known as the “play caller.” The roving employee’s job is to spot issues and jump in to alleviate jams, whether they arise at cash registers, espresso machines, or in the back of the store. Starbucks plans to start rolling out the changes across the US this summer.

The company is also altering the way it makes drinks. For example, espresso shots will now be made first rather than last, which contributes $1 billion in revenue each year, but workers say they also take up a lot of their time.

Also adding to employee workloads is a slate of new drinks and special deals the company is rolling out to stoke demand following a drop in transactions around the world during the first three months of 2024. New drinks take time to learn and promotions bring surges of customers at times stores aren’t prepared for. Starbucks adjusts forecasts to account for promotions when possible, providing guidance to managers on how much extra labor is needed and how to allocate it throughout the day.

Read More @ The Seattle Times

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