Pret à mourir

by Rob Horning

12 August 2011

 

I borrowed the title for this post from my friend Anton of Generation Bubble, who forwarded me a link to this NYT article by Stephanie Clifford about Pret à Manger, sort of the Target of sandwich shops, assuming Subway is the Wal-Mart. If you want to see a horrific application of all the principles of immaterial and affective labor, Virnoesque virtuosity, lateral surveillance, obligatory reflexivity, emotional management, gamification and so on, you need look no further.

How does any company encourage teamwork? At Pret a Manger, executives say, the answer is to hire, pay and promote based on — believe it or not — qualities like cheerfulness.

There is a certain “Survivor” element to all of this. New hires are sent to a Pret a Manger shop for a six-hour day, and then the employees there vote whether to keep them or not. Ninety percent of prospects get a thumbs-up. Those who are voted out are sent home with £35 ($57), no hard feelings.

The crucial factor is gaining support from existing employees. Those workers have skin in the game: bonuses are awarded based on the performance of an entire team, not individuals. Pret workers know that a bad hire could cost them money.

All the joys of tournament labor markets like those that exist in academia, with none of the “life of the mind” rationalizations. And instead of solidarity against management, each worker becomes the face of management, another Stasi spy for the happy police.

But that is not nearly enough surveillance to allow Pret’s management to discriminate among workers:

Pret also sends “mystery shoppers” to every shop each week. Those shoppers give employee-specific critiques. (”Bill didn’t smile at the till,” for instance.) If a mystery shopper scores a shop as “outstanding” — 86 percent of stores usually qualify — all of the employees get a £1-per-hour bonus, based on a week’s pay, so full-timers get around $73. “There’s a lot of peer pressure,” said Andrea Wareham, the human resources director at Pret.

DARE sessions in school taught me that peer pressure was bad, but I suppose peer pressure, in this context, is good. It is the vaunted power of worker collaboration and cooperation turned inside out and made into a coercive management tool. One’s very ability to get along with others is alienated and quantified,amde into somethign you would only do for money rather than from basic human solidarity. Pret rejects the sort of human sociality that might thrive outside of capital, that is possible in environments where making a profit by selling commodified service experiences isn’t the overriding goal. Instead Pret chooses to incentivize human feeling and turn the point of exchange into an explicit, quantified moment of affective labor while turning worker cooperation into a reified shadow of itself. That policy is carried out all down the line, apparently, with no sociality left unincentivized and thus unexploited:

Pret reinforces the teamwork concept in other ways. When employees are promoted or pass training milestones, they receive at least £50 in vouchers, a payment that Pret calls a “shooting star.” But instead of keeping the bonus, the employees must give the money to colleagues, people who have helped them along the way.

There are other rewards. Every quarter, the top 10 percent of stores, as ranked by mystery-shopper scores, receive about £30 per employee for a party. The top executives at Pret get 60 “Wow” cards, with scratch-off rewards like £10 or an iPod, to hand out each year to employees who strike them as particularly good. Pret has all-staff parties twice a year, and managers get a monthly budget of £100 or so to spend on drinks or outings for their workers.

“Rewards, through bonuses or ‘outstanding’ cards, affect behavior,” Ms. Wareham says.

Wow cards, I suppose, are the Scooby snacks of the service industry. It’s always nice to be recognized, but there seems to be something backhanded about making even that a lottery scenario. And in the end, it’s just Pavlovian manipulation, not genuine recognition of the worker as a human. The incentivizing of feeling leaves no space for the employees to be recognized in and of themselves. Everything about them as feeling creatures has been subsumed by the wage relation. That’s what is so creepy about going into a Pret—you know they are being forced to be nice to you and are being carefully watched by other fake-nice bosses and informers. It feels like those moments in movies about people in a mental asylum, where the patients try to maintain a facade of controlled politeness in hopes of demonstrating their newfound sanity. This sounds sort of insane to me, anyway:

Every new employee gets a thick binder of instructions. It states, for example, that employees should be “bustling around and being active” on the floor, not “standing around looking bored.” It encourages them to occasionally hand out free coffee or cakes to regulars, and not “hide your true character” with customers.

Can a boss really force you to display your “true character” without driving you into an insane spiral of endlessly recursive reflexivity? And is one’s “true character” nothing more than picking random lottery-winner customers to hand a cake to? Are human interactions so conditioned by the imperative of exchange that giving and getting something for nothing is the best way to simulate genuineness, or sincere benevolence? Perhaps the looting in London was just a big expression of love.

The article should put to rest any ideas that the implementation of such concepts as gamification and the general intellect are inherently benevolent or subversive. Instead, they can be deployed by management to create a kind of affective Taylorism, where emotional experiences are assembled under hurry-up conditions and energetically concealed duress. Unless you believe that it’s more fun to be forced to pretend to be having fun while working a deli counter—maybe the findings that people who are forced to smile report being happier apply here also. Clifford notes that Pret’s “annual work force turnover rate is about 60 percent — low for the fast-food industry, where the rate is normally 300 to 400 percent.” Stockholm Syndrome is a powerful management tool.

The emotional labor being extracted from Pret employees exemplifies the way tight labor markets give employers the chance to cement expectations of a more pliant disposition from workers. The new normal is a grotesque sycophancy sugarcoated as a fun, cheerful workplace where “teamwork” rules. In an email, Anton says Pret’s approach elicits an “unprecedented self-relation—instrumentalization of mood and affect as a way of producing surplus value. It can only end in a psychotic break.” I’m inclined to agree.


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