S&N's job swap programme is a year old. Phil Mellows met one managing director experiencing what life is like back on the floor.
For a minute there, it looked like everyone in the bar was going to get a bit of Steve Richards' cocktail. They are damned complicated these shakers, even for a managing director in charge of 750 pubs.
With some expert help from the staff, though, the shaker was securely assembled and Steve (pictured above right) had taken another step on a steep learning curve and nobody got wet.
As any humble employee will be aware, when the boss rolls up his sleeves and cheerfully "lends a hand" all hell can break loose. But the idea is starting to make an important contribution to the operation of Scottish & Newcastle Retail's (S&N) managed estate.
The company's job swap programme is now a year old. All 1,100 HQ staff are encouraged to take a couple of days away from their desk every six months and go and work in a pub of their choice.
Steve, who heads S&N's unbranded local pubs division, chose the Station in Hove, East Sussex, the first of a new pizza bar concept.
"There is an ulterior motive in this for me of seeing how the idea is working, and it also helps me to get closer to the business and understand what really goes on at the sharp end," he said.
"Traditionally, a business of this size is run from the centre and there is a danger that we assume that the centre has all the answers. We develop our business plans, but how do we know what impact they have on the people who work in the pubs?
"Decisions we make ripple through the company and when they reach the front end it can be a nightmare for them. You have to think about how it will affect pub staff and that requires a different kind of mindset to what we've become used to.
"Culture change is the kind of thing that you never really complete. We're not perfect, but I believe we're getting there."
An essential part of the answer is to improve communications with those people out there in the pubs. That is notoriously difficult in an organisation the size of S&N, but job swapping can give head office a chance to put faces to names and open things up.
"The bigger a company gets, the more you have to work at it and, as much as anything, job swapping is about building bridges, improving communications between us and the pubs," said Steve. "You meet loads of people you wouldn't normally get to meet and when you see first hand what they have to do you realise why there are times when they sound annoyed when you phone them up."
Talking directly to those given the job of putting your ideas into practice can also lead to changes in the way things are done.
After a single morning in the Station, for instance, manager Stuart Thompson had shown Steve a way of speeding up coffee service without losing quality, an idea that can now be incorporated into other operations, and he has also picked up some tips on ergonomics around the terracotta pizza oven that is a central design feature of the pub (see picture below).
"The back office work has also been a real eye-opener for me," he continued. "Pub managers have a phenomenal amount of paperwork to do these days."
While there are many pubco bosses who have done their time behind bars, Steve came up through beer brands marketing with Allied Domecq, moving to S&N through Greenalls, so the job swap is especially valuable for him.
While there he completed a mini induction programme focusing on customer service. "So far in here the customers have been great," he said. "It's very noticeable that all you have to do is say hello to them when they walk in the door and they love it.
"The most difficult thing is, though, that you have to be switched on the whole time. It's like working a room at a drinks party or holding a party where you are the host and everyone wants a piece of you. It's bloody hard work and it's important that everyone in the company realises that.
"I'm thoroughly enjoying myself, but I'm not sure I'm good enough at it.
"There's so much to learn. People don't realise how much knowledge you need to work behind a modern bar. Even the till is really a complex computer."
There were other surprises. When Steve arrived at the pub that morning, Stuart was touching up the paintwork around the bar. This is not likely to be specified in any pub manager's job description but even in a stylish venue like the Station you can't stop customers putting their feet up the walls and to keep it looking smart it's something he does once a week.
When you hear stories like this, it becomes clear why S&N wants to break down the barriers between head office and real life in the pubs.
As Steve points out, "my job is not about ticking boxes" and that is reflected, too, in the way that managers have a growing input over the way their pubs are run, in Stuart's words, giving the unbranded outlets "that entrepreneurial edge".
Stuart himself sits on a working party at head office and the job swap scheme itself will be taken a stage further when, in a trial later this year, new pub managers are going to get the opportunity to work at head office as part of their induction, something S&N claims is a hospitality first.
There is even a plan to allow pub managers to take their whole team on a three-day break while head office people run the show themselves.
"That will be interesting," said Steve, betraying only the slightest flicker of apprehension.
Job swaps see positive results for S&N:
Head office people are not forced to do their two days in a pub but, said Jonathan Harris, who heads the job swap programme, there has been "a high take-up".
"It reflects the importance of relationships across the whole of our business, both the relationships between different parts of S&N and between people serving in the pubs and their customers.
"The job swaps are fairly informal and not really structured. We want them to focus on customer service but while they are in the pub they can look at other specific areas they are interested in, that relates to their department, anything that will help them to think through the processes.
"Some of the results we get from this are less tangible than others, but it's clear that a better understanding of how a pub works can help make things run more smoothly. It is a matter of breaking down perceived barriers - I don't believe they exist outside of people's heads."
Among the concrete results gained through the job swaps have been modifications to training materials and streamlined invoicing.
The latter came about following a stint by planning director Nigel Turpin in the Old Mill near Coventry."As well as waiting tables front of house I was put to work loading invoices," said Nigel. "As a result we developed a short-cut method that will save managers time.
"From a head office point of view, the placements take you back to the real world and remind you to keep things simple. All the customer wants is an appetising plate of food or a correctly poured drink served by a friendly person. Over-complicating things only gets in the way."
Old Mill manager Terry Parsons is a great supporter of the scheme. "It turns the business on its head and gives us all a chance to see what pressures other people are under and to understand how the business works at their end," he said.