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Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee

Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee - Alex Frankel Started out strong, finishes weak. The conclusion is particularly weak, and the later chapters seem perfunctory, like he was already onto something else. Still it was a brilliant project and offers a lot of insights -- just draw your own conclusions.He does stints at UPS (his favorite), tries but fails (explores online applications in the process) to get into Home Depot, the Container Store, Whole Foods. Goes on to Enterprise (car rental), Gap (hates that too), Starbucks (hates), and Apple (mixed feelings). "As I embarked on the journey, I found that transferring between jobs altered not only my view of commerce but also my view of geography. Each job allowed me to see the same world differently. A homogeneous cityscape quickly transformed through my fresh engagement with it. Serving as a conduit from countless warehouses to individual residences as I delivered packages for UPS allowed me to see the movement of material goods in a new way. The facades of buildings shifted as I opened doors and entered hundreds of houses and apartment buildings as if working my way through a life-size cardboard Advent calendar. As I assumed more roles in the commercial sphere, my interest in the act of working became secondary to an attempt to understand better how we experience modern life, a probe of the many ways we operate as we ship parcels here and there, drink expensive blended coffee drinks, and dress ourselves with fabrics designed in urban America and sewn together in India." p.8"At a memorable point in what became this undercover adventure, as I was applying for a job at Starbucks, a UPS driver double-parked on the street and came in with a medium-size box. He somehow lost his grip on the package and it tumbled to the floor behind the counter. 'I hope that there wasn't anything fragile in there,' the manager said in a passive-aggressive tone.'Me too,' said the UPS driver, hopefully.It was a symbolic moment. Each of them, stripped of their uniforms -- he, a pair of brown pants and a brown shirt; she, a green apron, black blouse, and black pants -- was a just a person. But dressed as they were, they each represented a large, multibillion-dollar corporation, a product, a brand, a way of doing things. They were both actors on a vast commercial stage." p.9"There was no question that we belonged. We were global but endemic at the same time. We were "UPS guys," a staple of the cityspace. We blended into the fabric of the city like handbill-covered lampposts or overgrown shrubs. We were working and sweating, not just going to meetings, scratching ephemeral notes on whiteboards, and forwarding electronic documents. We were part of a far-reaching, high-tech, and no-nonsense service industry that allowed the city to connect to the larger world." p.25"Back with Carolyn that Friday afternoon, it seemed to me that hers would be my regular route if I stayed on. It rained off and on all day, and my clothes were damp from a combination of perspiration and precipitation. By the end of that day there was a perceptible emptiness that I could hear and feel in the large space behind us; instead of a crammed compartment of boxes, we sat in front of a hollow, drumlike metal box filled with cold air. Somehow, rising out of my own sense of exhaustion, that Friday was a good day. I had driven into work certain that it would be my last day, but at some point in the early evening, wired after a cup of coffee and thundering in our truck down O'Shaughnessy Boulevard toward the 280 freeway and then shooting along the dark, wet highway back to the building, I felt a sense of accomplishment at having delivered our hefty load. I decided that I could -- that I had to -- crank it all the way to Christmas Eve.That day I had moved from being a stranger on the outside to a part of the group, someone on the inside. I had shifted from being an observer to a participant. I started thinking less about my life on the outside and comparing it with being inside. I had pushed myself to the breaking point and decided to leave. And then I was reeled in -- not against my will but because I had new feelings that made staying the right thing to do. NINETY PERCENT UNIFORMITYThere was no doubt in my mind that the uniforms we wore had a galvanizing effect on the workers. I felt a slight, almost magnetic tug when I walked by a coworker similarly dressed, even if we had never met. There was no question who was in and who was out in this group . . ." p.27Working for UPS, I realized that a corporation's culture is something not necessarily perceived, except by outsiders like me. There were no specific moments when you could say: "I am now joining this culture." Culture is many things, even the story of that superhero driver (that may or may not been true). To function, the culture had to be organic and move of its own accord. People had to believe without being persuaded to do so. Having a culturally specific language certainly helped build employee buy-in. Once, as I threw an NI2 package into the back of our truck, Carolyn joked: "Hey, every package is a guest of honor!" She was channeling some management directive, and it was funny to us both, but she was also translating culture through language-based memes, as Stanford business school professor Chip Heath would later explain to me. Once the corporate minders pulled out something and identified it as a part of the culture, it immediately lost its authenticity. Evolution of the culture was crucial, and to evolve meant to change. As a new worker, I had to feel that I could not only join the culture but also add to it. Yes, UPS prescribed a number of ways of behaving, but the culture flourished on top of this and affected workers throughout the ranks." p.35"If you believe in Starbucks as a third place, it can be a great place to work. But if you feel that the customer service you are providing is fake, it's harder to be genuine. As for me, there were days when the customers made me want to run. Some days after taking yet another order for a silly, oversugared beverage, I looked at the long line of customers that seemed to never end, and I wanted to flee the store. As days turned into weeks at Starbucks, instead of bonding with my customers or even getting to know them, I felt more alienated. I began to loathe them as they treated themselves to the products we offered. The individualized orders and particulars so many customers seemed to cherish -- having a coffee handmade just so -- struck me as a societal illness underwriting by corporate greed. And the view from behind the counter, where we were more often than not rushing to slap together a drink instead of crafting it carefully, made me feel the product was unworthy of what we charged. With so much focus on creating a welcoming place for our customers, I almost forgot we were a moneymaking operation. Despite the culture Starbucks works to create, the hidden aim of the stores is, of course, to vacuum dollars from the pockets of the customers in the black, electronically alarm-guarded safe in the back room, the true center of the stores -- the real third place." p.159