The CEOs of Uber and Starbucks are picking up frontline shifts. The trend is a ‘no-brainer’ for driving employee satisfaction

April 20, 2023, 10:30 AM UTC
Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan, wearing a green barista apron, works behind a Starbucks counter
Starbucks’ CEO Laxman Narasimhan, in green apron, said he would spend four hours monthly as a barista.

Who had ordering a cup of coffee from Starbucks’ CEO or hailing a ride from Uber’s top executive on their 2023 bingo card? It may seem unorthodox, but Starbucks’ Laxman Narasimhan and Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi have joined the ranks of corporate leaders taking frontline roles. 

Executives picking up a barista or food delivery shift isn’t new. Companies like Taco Bell and DoorDash have long had similar policies in place. But the practice is quickly picking up steam as CEOs look to drive engagement across the most junior level of their organization and get an intimate understanding of the daily experiences of frontline staff.

Combating labor turbulence

Employee turnover in industries like leisure and hospitality and trade reached record highs in fall 2021. Even today, these sectors make up the largest portion of quits, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Low pay, few opportunities for advancement, and disrespect on the job were the top reasons workers cited for quitting in 2021, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Immersing executives in the roles most removed from their day-to-day work provides them with firsthand experience of the stressors shift workers encounter, providing the company with a competitive edge. It also gives leaders a comprehensive, bottom-up view of the company, often leading to changes that improve the frontline function. “Followership, culture, and connecting in a more firsthand way with people at all levels in the organization is definitely a much more primary need in the CEO role than it has been in the past,” says Jane Stevenson, board and CEO practice vice chair at Korn Ferry.

Some employers already see the effects of a disconnect from the company’s top echelon with the spread of unionization efforts.

Fifty-three percent of workers believe that their employers are out of touch with what employees want from company culture, according to a survey from the e-learning and HR publishing platform eLearningIndustries. That’s unsurprising, given CEOs spend only 6% of their time with rank-and-file employees on average, according to a study tracking the time allocation of 27 CEOs by Harvard Business School professors Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria. In contrast, frontline workers spend nearly all their time interacting with the public. Their on-the-job experiences are wholly different.

“If you’re a CEO, and you’ve adopted the view that investing in your employees is actually your best way to go to market…then the idea that you will spend some time in frontline positions is a natural progression,” says Anat Lechner, a clinical associate professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

A “no-brainer”

For executives in service-driven industries, working frontline shifts is a “no-brainer,” David Mansbach, a senior partner at Kingsley Gate Partners who specializes in the hospitality industry, tells Fortune. Frontline workers are a key customer touchpoint, and CEOs and senior leadership must adopt an in-the-field mentality.

Hotels lost millions of workers during the pandemic as senior leadership tasked general managers with additional duties like housekeeping and guest check-in, Mansbach says. And while he acknowledges that some CEOs led by example, working directly with general managers, many didn’t.

“We need to hold boards and senior leadership in the leisure and hospitality space accountable,” he says. “You just can’t remove yourself from the day-to-day no matter how large you get.”

At Uber, Khosrowshahi revamped the app after he and his team discovered how clunky it was to sign up as a driver, among other poor user experiences. Similarly, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said last year that he would spend time in one of his company’s listings every few weeks to help “improve the experience” for those using the rental service.

It’s not just hospitality and retail that can reap the benefits of a CEO appearance in frontline roles. In the health care industry, leaders who perform nonclinical tasks like housekeeping or transporting patients make a lasting, positive impression on hospital staff. “When a CEO is visible, whether or not they’re performing nursing care at the bedside, if they’re visible to the teams that they are leading, it goes a long way toward retention [and] boosting employee engagement,” says Shannon Libbert, a senior partner at Kingsley Gate Partners who specializes in health care.

Authentic connection or performative placating?

Some aren’t so smitten with executives taking frontline shifts, which can be perceived as “executive symbolism.” That’s when leadership, seeking organizational change such as quelling union activity, uses performative actions to advance their agenda, says Abhinav Gupta, an associate professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. Frontline employees tend to be the target of such actions because they typically sit on the lowest rung of the corporate hierarchy, and executives need their support to rally the tiers above them. But employees are very quick to perceive such acts, like picking up a barista shift, as superficial or phony, Gupta says.

It’s important that executives follow up their frontline immersion with substantive policy changes that improve the experience for these workers. “That can enhance the credibility of these acts and improve the odds that people would not view them completely as impression management efforts,” Gupta says.

It’s evident that Starbucks, battling a growing unionization effort, views executives in visible frontline roles as a strategic way to make a positive impression on these workers. Narasimhan announced plans to spend four hours working a barista shift at a different store each month.

But Lechner points out that what’s driving Starbucks’ behavior is a change in the labor market, not a change in CEO or management practice. “If Starbucks didn’t go through these unionization efforts, I do not know if the CEO—as new as he is—would go and spend some time fixing cups of coffee. I don’t think that this would drive it so easily for them.” Now, as the coffee chain scrambles to address the tsunami of employee discontent, its belated response highlights the importance of proactively seeking out employee discontent before it snowballs so that CEO gestures, like working a barista or Uber shift, don’t appear as clean-up acts for optics.

To Narasimhan’s credit, he’s already uncovered logistical pain points that he intends to address, such as the excessive number of cup and lid pairings baristas must deal with. “It was startling to me how many we had,” he told the Wall Street Journal in March. “We’ve got things to do to become more disciplined.” 

Other ways to build engagement

Working frontline shifts isn’t the only way for CEOs to build meaningful connections with employees and give them a voice. Other tools include company surveys and opening up board meetings to all employees.

Leaders can also adopt the practice of rounding—when hospital physicians and staff make rounds to check on patients—with their staff. “There’s no preclusion from going out and being with them and asking what they like most about their job, what they like least, and what’s most challenging,” says Libbert. “Having those conversations that are authentic and meaningful can be really impactful.”

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