Who would think that a supermarket would be a perfect place to train social work skills? This is a story about seeing opportunities where apparently we can just see trivial routine.
Let us start at the beginning. After finishing my adventure as a wwoofer in a farm in Nottingham I came back to Bristol to get a job. My first choice was looking for a placement as a support worker, one of the doors to be a social worker in the future, but interviews did not appeared and I needed to pay my bills, so I started to apply for an opportunity in some supermarkets. Finally I passed an interview with Sainsbury’s and I became a customer service assistant in their local in Union street, a small convenience store in the city centre.
To be honest, the beginning was not easy at all. The staff gave me a warm welcome, but the language was still a barrier for me –I was born in Spain and my English could be much better, definitely. Besides, I have come to the UK to develop my career as a social worker, so working as a retail assistant was not precisely in my plans. But you know, Roberto Bolaño was right in The savage detectives: “There is a time for reciting poems and a time for fists”.
My first approach to my new job was based on humility, deep respect and curiosity. After all, my only experience in retail shortened to a recent volunteer work in a charity shop, so this kind of job was almost unknown for me. But I am a person that tries to give his best in every project. Most of the time, only hard work can help us to reach the right to be lucky.
Just a few days after start working there, I could clearly notice that supermarkets are places full of life. My main tasks are not only replenishing stock and clean the facilities, but also trying to help people to satisfy their needs. Ups. Wait a second. Have I mentioned help people? help people to satisfy their needs? In effect, that is a key idea that matches in essence business and social work.
However, there is another important feature to bear in mind. Supermarkets, specially if they are in the city centres, are common places to all social classes. Actually, our customers are business people, students, migrants, homeless people, middle class families, etcetera. No matter what social class you belong: If you live in urban areas, you will probably have daily needs that supermarkets will cover.
Carl Jung, a famous psychiatrist and psychotherapist in the 20th century, used to say that “it all depends on how we look at things, and not on how things are in themselves”. Life sometimes gives you the privilege to get new perspectives, so that was my starting point in this new stage: Let things happen and take the chance to learn from new points of view.
There is a hazardous risk for cashiers at the checkouts: Day-to-day work often makes us become a robot that simply repeats automatisms. And people realise when you say have a nice day like a machine. Fortunately, there are some key skills inherent to social work that a retail assistant can use to give a better service to customers. One of them stands up from the rest: Empathy. But, how can a customer service assistant be empathetic?
Truth be told, it is not easy. Generally there are two moments where customers interact with retail assistants: when they ask doubts on the shop floor and payment time on the checkouts. Though in both scenes the contact usually is really brief (the average duration is 30 seconds), we can note some skills that make empathy happen:
On the other hand, empathy can also help to get a supportive environment at work with our colleagues. Small gestures like saying hi, smiling (it is contagious!) or giving a little hug can transform another given shift into a great day. It is obvious, but it is good to remind. Even at the risk of being cheesy, I am convinced that this kind of actions can start a mighty chain reaction of happiness. To understand better this idea I strongly recommend to read a short tale from the best-seller Chicken Soup for the Soul: Love and the Cabbie.
Moving beyond the above, empathy also can play an influential role in a bigger dimension. As human beings, we are going through decisive times to ensure our survival. And empathy keeps us away from individualism.
As I said earlier, supermarkets are places full of people from every social stratum. This gives us a golden opportunity to understand our society, the way it works, the way we might run the system better. And best of all: this gives us a small chance to shape a sustainable Western way of life. How? Supermarkets are extremely powerful spaces to change the way we cover our needs, the way we live. They can lead the way.
Sainsbury’s have implemented its Sainsbury’s 20×20 Sustainability Plan, 20 sustainability commitments to be delivered by 2020. You can check the 2014 update and see the efforts so far taken to respect the environment, to decide what to do with food waste or to source with integrity, among others purposes. Unfortunately, this is not enough.
After five months working for Sainsbury’s, I can discern two main challenges in the long term for supermarkets:
I have warned you, this is a story about seeing opportunities where apparently we can just see trivial routine. This is just a bunch of thoughts about how empathy can change the way we understand supermarkets. As long as we find a balance between short and long term, we will conquer what we want.
It all starts today. I do love the message hidden behind the title of that Bertrand Tavernier‘s film. It is a call to action, every single day matters. It is up to us.Twittear