Series Part 5: 4 Ways to Keep Staff Happy Long Term

Illustration by  Alabaster


I was inspired to write this series about employee morale primarily because of my experience at one specific workplace ”Variety Coffee in Brooklyn, New York. I’m not saying Variety is perfect, or that I didn’t struggle there, because I did. But the owner and the baristas operated in a distinct way that I’d never seen before. People stayed forever, everyone had their hand in at least one aspect of the business, and the owner was not afraid to tell you if things were slow, if he was mad at you, or if you were doing a bad job.

One conversation with the owner that really inspired me was when he talked about why he started roasting coffee. I began working at Variety in 2014, just as the company’s roasting program was gaining momentum as an idea, but hadn’t quite been put into motion yet. I wasn’t sure why this was happening, so I asked. The owner’s response was what sparked and consumed most of my interest in employee morale since then.

He said, œIf people are going to stay here for a long time, I have to provide them with different things to do to grow. 

Nobody wants to do the same thing over and over forever. Your café can be the pinnacle of happiness and satisfaction, but if your staff doesn’t grow and learn over time, then they’re not going to stay. People need to be challenged, they need to grow, and they need to learn more about their craft and themselves. Here’s a few ways to do that.

  1. Identify skills.

As a barista, one of the things I’m best at is multitasking. I didn’t know that until one of my bosses told me she trusts that ”when I’m given a long to-do list ”I’ll always approach it in the order of most to least urgent. I’d argue that the single most important responsibility a boss has to her staff is to help them identify their strengths and put them in positions where they can succeed. Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t know what they’re good at. If they don’t know, then they can’t practice these skills or feel good about the work they’re doing. Praise good work or a smooth morning service not by saying ˜good job,’ but by specifically recognizing the skills or behaviors that produced that outcome.

  1. Put people in challenging situations.

After you identify a person’s skill set, you might be tempted to give them tasks in line with those skills. However, no one wants to do the same thing over and over. People get bored and they want to do more, so think of specific ways to challenge your staff and push them to be better. There should always be a goal someone is aiming for, and it’s your job as a manager or boss to help your staffers focus on attaining theirs. The goals can be small ”maybe one of your baristas wants to start curating your tea menu ”to big: maybe someone on your team wants to roast, so you consider roasting, as it happened at Variety. You can also push people to diversify not just the tasks they do on a day-to-day basis, but the skills they practice. The Harvard Business Review highlights a case study where Walgreens managers push their employees to excel within the confines of a large corporation, so if you want to read more strategies on how to push your staff further, check out this article:

  1. Be mindful of the growth of the group.

According to a study done CEB, a technological company that studies best practices of corporations and organizations, people are highly cognizant of the growth of others around them. œWe’ve learned that what really affects people is their sense of how they’re doing compared with other people in their peer group, or with where they thought they would be at a certain point in life,  says Brian Kropp, head of CEB’s HR practice, in this article: Obviously, not everyone is qualified for the same responsibilities at the same rate, but if there are discrepancies in growth within your staff, there will at least be some discussion about it at best, and resentment and anger at worst. As a sidenote, if you think employees are keeping their wages private, you’re wrong. Everyone knows what everyone else is getting paid.

For example, if you give someone who has been working with you for four months a raise before you give one to the guy who started six months ago, there’s about a 99.999% chance the second person will find out. And it’s not like that person will think, œOh, so-and-so probably deserved it more than me.  The best way to prevent discrepancies is to create pay structures, and stick to them unless you have a very good, tangible reason not to. What I mean by tangible is traceable and documented ”if someone isn’t getting a raise because of constant tardiness, it needs to be recorded and easily referenced. If someone is getting a higher starting rate you usually give, it needs to be stated in an employee handbook that commensurate experience will garner a higher wage.

Also, if you just read that last sentence and don’t have an employee manual, stop reading this and go make one.

  1. Provide continued education and opportunities for engagement.

This one is easy in coffee because there are so many opportunities for education. Some of them might be costly, like barista camps and other Specialty Coffee Association of America events, but some are really simple, like asking your roaster to host a continued education series. Ask your baristas what they’re interested in learning about and tailor your continued education series to their interests.

As for the more expensive excursions to trade shows and events, I would argue that if you’re considering them for yourself, consider them also (or instead) for your staff. One of the most meaningful coffee experiences I had was going to the Barista Guild of America‘s barista camp in 2012, because I had no idea that coffee could be as professional and as engaging as it was there, nor did I anticipate meeting a group of people so dedicated to their craft. It was so inspiring that I started taking my job and my profession more seriously from that point on. If you’re an owner or a manager, you’re probably already there. Take the time to help your staff get there, too.

I’ve been ambiguously referring to whoever is in charge as the ˜manager,’ ˜boss,’ or ˜owner.’ Next time, we’ll talk about the people in charge and how they can set the tone of positivity and growth.



Ashley Rodriguez  thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where she worked for Sightglass Coffee for three years. She recently decided to give full-time coffee writing a go, though she can still be found working bar shifts now and again in Temescal Alley in Oakland. Follow her on Twitter at @ashisacommonname

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