As employees filter in for their morning meeting at the New York City headquarters of startup electronics retailer Enjoy, they situate themselves in pods of couches and eclectic coffee tables that dominate the Noho loft space. All of the phones, laptops, drones, and other technology products that they sell, meanwhile, sit sequestered in a small corner conference room behind frosted-glass walls.
It’s exactly opposite to the floor plans of most stores, where open space is dominated by rows of merchandise and employee downtime is relegated to a small, windowless break room. And the reversal is appropriate, considering that Enjoy defines itself more through a new type of retail employee than through these products.
Enjoy’s products and prices are similar to those of other electronics retailers. What separates the startup’s offerings from those of Best Buy or Amazon is that its workers both personally deliver each product it sells and stick around to help the customer set it up. In order for Enjoy to succeed, these interactions need to be more than efficient. They need to be good. Which makes the role of workers more important than ever. “We are spending more time designing the experience of the job for our employees than anything else,” says Ron Johnson, the former Apple, Target, and JC Penney executive who launched the company in March. “Because to win, we have to have great people.”
The service industry is not exactly known for providing great “employee experiences,” whether they’re offered under traditional terms of employment or as part of the new “gig economy.” Just-in-time scheduling, for instance, can make jobs in retail and fast food erratic and income undependable, and employers ranging from big-box retailer Walmart to the slick Apple Store have come under fire for low wages. Meanwhile, in response to a growing desire for on-demand everything, gig-economy companies like Uber, courier service Postmates, and cleaning service Handy efficiently dispatch workers to your doorstep using mobile phones and independent contractors. This results in more-affordable services, but also, some argue, an unfair skirting of the labor laws that protect workers (independent contractors don’t get pay between jobs, lunch breaks, or benefits).
Now, a handful of startups in the on-demand economy, including Enjoy, say they’ve fixed the worst of service jobs and gig labor by combining the two types of work. Though they borrow strategies for managing their distributed workforces from gig-economy companies like Uber, they also hire employees, pay them benefits, and offer them career paths.
At Enjoy, relying on an app to coordinate employee work not only makes hand-delivering goods to customers logistically possible, but also allows employees, whom the company refers to as “Experts,” to choose their own hours (about 80% in New York choose to work full time), pick their own schedules (most choose to take weekends off), and manage their own training (the majority of which is accomplished through peers). The company pays salaries, provides its workers with the same benefits packages as its engineers, and offers everybody stock options. Similar setups can be found among cleaners at office management service Managed by Q, where employees choose their own shifts and report directly to the offices where they clean, receiving feedback through an app; and personal errand service Alfred, which also uses an app to keep track of client preferences and manage the employees who spend their days servicing homes in different neighborhoods.
The trend is not entirely related to employee wellbeing. There’s a business motive for offering distributed workers dependable, flexible jobs that pay benefits. It is the idea that when you take away physical storefronts, distinctive products, or deep discounts that might separate one provider over another, employees become more than employees. “We recently hired a product marketing person,” says Ari Bloom, Enjoy’s head of marketing and communications. “The product is the Experts.”
“Drake, what’s happening in Connecticut?“ asks George Poulios, Enjoy’s “head of field,” at the beginning of the morning “huddle” meeting.
Poulios is trim, usually smiling, and leads with an admirable energy that falls somewhere between motivational speaker and youth soccer coach. The Experts he’s hired, who for this meeting have moved from the pods of couches to the stadium seating at one corner of the office, spend their days working in assigned neighborhoods across New York City. As with Postmates, a mobile app tells them what to deliver where and when. They could efficiently operate without ever seeing each other, but Enjoy gathers them like this each morning nonetheless. “We always work better if we’re involved in a mission and we’re on a team,” Johnson says. “And the problem with the mobile economy is that you’re kind of on your own.”
That’s more of a problem when you expect employees to be brand ambassadors. Part of the Experts’ jobs is to provide the sort of brand presence that a physical store might otherwise bring to an area, which means setting up workshops and demonstrations within those communities in addition to delivering products to customers. And part of Poulios’s job is to make sure that even though they receive delivery assignments from their mobile phones and spend their days scattered across different geographic locations, they stay connected to each other and to the company.
Nobody needs to be here—when Experts are scheduled for a shift, the only requirement is that they be in the neighborhood and available to go on a call–but the hope is that they’ll want to be here.
Fielding Poulios’s question, Drake reports that he has introduced himself to a new restaurant in the area. Another Expert chimes in that there’s a movie night at Brooklyn Bridge Park where he has been giving out coupons, and other employees are hosting workshops at Meetups and coworking spaces.
As Enjoy expands to cover areas farther from its headquarters, asking Experts to trek to Noho every day will make less sense. Which is part of the reason why, where gig-economy companies have no middle management, Enjoy has “coaches.” Sometimes these coaches host huddles in neighborhoods, which means that as Enjoy expands, these meetings will scale—connecting Experts with each other and with the company as it grows.
Vicky Tzannetis is scheduled to deliver a pair of Sonos speakers, so she cuts out of the huddle meeting early. Previously, she ran merchandizing for the Apple store at Grand Central Station. Before that, she owned and operated an olive oil company (her family owns olive groves in Greece). It’s not as though she doesn’t have other potential options for employment. As she shoulders a bag that looks big enough for her to crawl into, she explains her rationale for joining Enjoy. “I have equity in the company,” she says, “so I want to make sure to do everything I can to help it succeed.”
She’s a short subway ride away from her first customer of the day, and she taps her smartphone screen to let Enjoy know she’s on her way. She’ll tap the phone again to let the company know she’s arrived, and again when she leaves. The app also manages her schedule, matching her availability and expertise with clients, and blocking out time for training or workshops as she requests it.
When Tzannetis arrives at her client’s address, Ada Neylan answers the door with her 2-year-old daughter, Ella, in tow. The three unpack the two speakers in Tzannetis’s giant backpack together. “This is the manual that I will never read because you’re here,” says Neylan, removing the paper booklet from the box. “What’s this?” asks Ella, picking up a cord wrapped in plastic. “That’s a cables so we can plug this into the wall and play ‘Happy’ out of it,” Tzannetis responds, remembering that Ella had moments before named the Pharrell Williams song as her favorite.
Tzannetis also answers Neylan’s questions. She shows her how the speakers change from mono to surround sound depending on which side they’re set. Yes, she can play the television on the speakers. Yes, each speaker can work independently.
It takes a while before Tzannetis finally hits that seemingly inevitable snag in the setup process that makes having an Expert set up your purchases a marketable idea and, before Enjoy, powered Apple’s Genius Bar and Best Buy’s Geek Squad.
It happens when she’s trying to link Neylan’s Spotify account to the Sonos app. For some reason, it won’t work. Tzannetis tries disconnecting and reconnecting Neylan’s iPad from the Wi-Fi. She tries logging into the service on Neylan’s phone. And then her own phone. Finally, figuring that something must be wrong with Spotify’s service at the moment, she decides to call the Enjoy support staff, but gets stuck on hold. Finally, she gives up.
This isn’t a store, so Tzannetis doesn’t call a manager to help or refer Neylan to customer service. The entire experience rests on her shoulders. Before she leaves, she promises to follow up, personally, by email.
“When Spotify doesn’t work, it’s not a deal breaker,” she says on the way back to the house. “It’s the beginning of our relationship.”
Back at headquarters, a group of four Experts sits around a GoPro camera, with the box still on the table. “How do you a take a 3-D photo with a GoPro?” asks Jake Hyde, a 28-year-old from Long Island. George Calvar, another Expert, taps on his laptop a few times before explaining that GoPro has a 3D HERO system that requires you to have two cameras. He turns the laptop around on the coffee table between them so that Hyde can see a photo of the setup on the screen. “Look at how amazing this is!” he says. “We need to get one for the house.”
One consequence of running a distributed workforce from a mobile phone is that Enjoy can operate with fewer levels of management (and thus, theoretically, pay fewer employees more). A GPS-enabled phone can direct employees from job to job and verify that they are making deliveries that they are supposed to be making. It can provide tips in the field. No manager needs to lock the door at the end of the night. In New York, Enjoy has three “coaches” who work with about 32 Experts. In San Francisco, it has three coaches for 44 Experts.
Without the costs of real estate and upkeep, store security, product displays, and middle management, Enjoy is able to make more money on the margin of its products (it also sells tech help, like the Geek Squad, for $99 per hour). But it could be a problem when it comes to training—if it weren’t for this credential system that Hyde and Calvar are playing out right now.
Here’s how it works: Calvar completed several weeks of basic training when he started, but in order to make more specialized deliveries—a GoPro, for instance—he needs to gain approval from another Enjoy Expert who has already been certified in that particular skill. He can learn this information in three ways: by asking someone to teach him (the scheduling team blocks out a time during both employees’ shifts), by joining a group training by another Expert, or by studying alone. When he feels ready to deliver the device, he finds another Expert like Hyde to test him. Enjoy sends eight to 14 test questions that Hyde can use to evaluate his partner’s skill, and the pair meet up for a test wherever is convenient. For Calvar, passing means he’ll get a virtual badge that will signal to the scheduling team that he is prepared to take jobs delivering the GoPro. That means he’ll go on more visits, and 500 visits means a raise.
For Enjoy, this training system means that when the company begins carrying a new product, its managers need to train only a handful of employees directly. Everyone else will train each other—creating opportunities for team interaction in the process.
At least in theory. Like all of the mechanisms Enjoy uses to build a unified team of distributed workers, about two months after launch, training is still not something the startup has actually had to scale. Though it has landed partnerships with large companies like AT&T, Experts are still handing out free tote bags to their first 100 customers. Other startups that are building teams of distributed workers are also fairly new. Alfred launched in November. Managed by Q left its beta phase in April.
It’s not yet clear whether Enjoy’s model, or this type of job, will stick around. But the shift in priorities is, at the least, refreshing. “We have basically built the entire company around the employee, the Expert, and the visit with the customers,” Johnson says. “Everything else we haven’t invested in.”