Starbucks is inviting staff on 2-hour coffee dates as it works to fix rift with unionizing employees

April 26, 2023, 11:41 AM UTC
A Starbucks barista, pictured in 2016.
Baristas at Starbucks will undertake “connection” sessions at the behest of CEO Laxman Narasimhan.
Victor J. Blue—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The CEO of Starbucks is hoping to get staffers back on side by going back to what the business knows best: coffee.

Laxman Narasimhan didn’t inherit the healthiest relationship with employees when he took over from Howard Schultz last month.

Starbucks staffers have been divided over working conditions, with more than 300 stores attempting to unionize and some taking strike actions.

In a bid to steady the ship, Narasimhan has rolled out a raft of measures to reengage workers, including promising to visit stores himself—and now is rolling out a series of “connection” sessions.

The new policy echoes the theme Narasimhan is keen to push, saying this week that the company is in the “business of connection,” courtesy of conversations had by customers over the “ritual of coffee.”

The sessions will take place between team members and their store managers, with the latter then feeding back ideas for improvements or change to executives.

Narasimhan—who signs off his new policy with “Laks”—will open the sessions via video, before teams undertake a series of connection exercises such as “speed-connection,” “identifying their connection superpowers,” and discussing how to “create connection moments.”

More than 250,000 employees will take part in the initiative across 10,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada—though conversations will be steered away from operational issues.

Narasimhan’s blog adds: “These two-hour sessions are intentionally focused on discussing the art of connection among and between Starbucks partners and customers,” before going on to add that store managers are “always” available to discuss operational and logistical matters.

Union pushback

Barista coffee and chocolate croissants will also be put on for the events, but union representatives say the deal isn’t sweet enough to tempt them.

“If Starbucks really wanted to connect with its partners, it could meaningfully participate in bargaining with workers at the more than 300 stores who have joined together and voted to form a union,” a representative from Starbucks Workers United, the union representing some employees, told Insider.

The representative claims management has been walking out of the connection sessions after mere minutes, adding: “These so-called connection sessions are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by the company to continue its unprecedented union-busting campaign.”

Starbucks did not immediately respond to Fortune when approached for comment.

A representative for the coffee giant told Insider the company has recently engaged in a full-day bargaining session having put forward more than 390 proposals, and that Workers United has responded to just 24% of those ideas. 

A revitalized mission

In the memo released earlier this week, the former PepsiCo CCO also addressed the need for additional support for front-of-house staff.

He wrote: “From immersions in over 30 stores, I have experienced firsthand how we are still evolving to meet the demands of our customers. Our stores are ‘theaters in the front’—for baristas to showcase their craft and connect with customers. To help our partners deliver smoother and more consistent execution, we need to significantly strengthen the ‘factories in the back’—truly refocus on how we come together across the entire company to simplify the work of our partners [and] support the health of our stores.”

Such declarations allude to the troubles the unions have raised from in-store experience. Among the demands of the union is the right to defend themselves against customer aggression, as well as freedom from verbal abuse from colleagues.

Their other requests include a more stabilized work environment, better pay, and the return of COVID-19 benefits.

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