Like many people, my wife and I used the pandemic to make some big changes in our lives. We left our academic careers as tenured associate professors in the UK, moved back to the US, and were fortunate enough to have two sets of parents who were able to tolerate us living with them as we rebounded between Denver and Las Vegas while trying to figure things out.
My wife and I were intent on enjoying being close to family and trying to jump start the next phase of our lives with new careers drawing on our academic research. My wife began developing sustainable floral practices based on her research in Roman archaeology (think floral crowns and hand-tied bouquets!). While I endeavored to use my knowledge in classical economics (yeah, don’t laugh!), the philosophy of meaningful work, and ethics to get involved in business consultation.
In the meanwhile, we decided to complicate matters by moving to the Bay Area of California (high cost of living!); and we therefore needed substantial part-time work. My wife was fortunate to get a designer’s job at the renowned Ah Sam’s florists in San Mateo. I decided to try and utilize my past experience as a rock climber and climbing gym manager by applying to the local REI store in San Carlos.
For those of you not familiar with REI, it’s a large outdoor retailer that was started as a co-op in 1938. It’s owned by its members (anyone can be a member), and members receive dividends in the form of getting 10% back on their regular (non-sale) REI purchases. There are a lot of other perks, as well! Its general ethos and vision are to care for nature and to encourage everyone to get outdoors. This vision has more vociferously extended to include diversity—those of racial and socio-economic backgrounds who do not normally have access to the outdoors.
It's a noble pursuit in and of itself. Figure in the fact that it is a business competing with larger retailers and trying to prioritize specialist product knowledge (the green vests!), and you have an interesting venture to say the least.
The Lessons that I Learned
Before launching into the lessons that I learned while working at REI, I want to highlight the following context:
I worked for REI for 10 months in the camping/climbing department as a retail specialist. My experience of working for REI is specific to the San Carlos, California store. I mentioned this because I recognize that while I am drawing on REI’s wider values, my experience of those values (or their practice) comes down to how the local store encouraged and taught them. It is worth pointing out that though I speak highly of the REI store in which I worked, I acknowledge that as a national business it is not perfect and that some of its employees are trying to push for significant changes.
And so, here’s what I learned . . .
Retail is hard and everyone should have to do it.
The same can probably be said of waiting tables at a restaurant. Both retail and waiting are hard work. You are on your feet for the 8-hour shift and constantly shuffling between tasks and people. My last shift, I walked the equivalent of 7 miles!
Both retail and waiting tables put you right in the mix of customer behavior. The best experiences offer genuine connections with what customers are looking for and what they want to do. And this is augmented even more so with REI given its mission of getting people outside.
To be sure, REI is commercial and therefore profit-motivated, but it also has social responsibility on its mind. This manifests in many ways, especially in terms of the genuine connections that I mentioned: retail associates love sharing their experiences and learning from customers about theirs. One of my last experiences was going over the logistics of the Half Dome hike with a customer, which led quickly on to talk about Mt. Charleston hikes and then bringing in another employee to talk about his experience backpacking.
Social, educational, communal.
I remember showing a customer how to use a certain pair of collapsable trekking poles, only to find a minute later a few women gathering around to listen. Questions quickly turned into a shared discussion, with each person sharing stories about where they traveled and hiked and what worked best for them. It was like an impromptu seminar. And their response, "This is why I come to REI -- to learn and connect."
The worst experiences often involve customers treating employees very poorly and often getting angry because at root the customer most likely knows they are wrong or have been careless with preparation and managing their expectations. (Ok, maybe they're just greedy.) It would be easy for me to give a long list of things that I have experienced or that my former colleagues have experienced. Let’s just refer to them collectively as “walk away” moments. When a customer is being difficult, it’s just better to walk away.
In sum, with retail work you get to see how low some humans can stoop when it comes to buying things. In the process, they become so fixated on what they want, they fail to see the employee as another human being. If you’re a philosophy student, you’ll probably know that this amounts to a violation of Kant’s famous moral dictum:
Treat humans as ends and not a means.
Retail presents a good litmus test for one’s moral character. I try to remember the importance of the other person each time I am in a store buying something and tempted to see him or her merely as a means to my transaction.
Overlapping and shared vision and values matter.
Part of my work in business consultation is trying to find general and specific ways employers can make the work their employees do meaningful. Not each and every aspect of a person’s job has to be meaningful, but rather the whole experience of it. I say more about meaningful work below:
For our purposes, it’s enough to grasp that one way in which an employee can find their work meaningful is by believing in what the company is doing. Most companies probably are not involved in something worth believing in; and that is why they have to come up with a Vision and Values statement that twists what they do into something loosely significant. "Make widgets . . . but do it with integrity, adaptability, honesty, and respect for others."
While there is a better way to align such businesses with what I like to describe in terms of virtuousness, one can see that with REI’s commitment to experiencing the outdoors, it’s rather easy for employees to find an allegiance with their employer.
This is true structurally:
REI encourages its employees to get outdoors with a paid day off on Black Friday (when the store is shut);
Employees accrue paid "away days" to get outside; and
REI creates a channel via Microsoft Teams for employees to get together and do things like cycling, backpacking, running, fishing, and even surfing and archery.
It is also true in spirit:
The vibe and energy to get outside with colleagues is inspiring and contagious.
It’s a great opportunity for employees to learn from colleagues who are good at a sport or activity.
But even more than this, the overlap between what a company is trying to do and what an employee can “buy into” is huge when it comes to working together.
I worked through two of the biggest sales of the year at Xmas and the REI Anniversary sale. Things get crazy very quickly during sales and at weekends when customers are stopping by for last minute items, rentals, or fixes.
The shared vision helps to cultivate a moral fiber that is more than just teamwork. It is the feeling that no matter what happens, a fellow employee has your back. Co-worker help is fast, professional, candid, and friendly.
Managers lead by example. Instead of barking orders when things become overwhelming, you will see managers jumping in to fill gaps, helping at the frontline of cashiering, and even plumbing a clogged toilet!
You cannot fabricate or force moral fiber. Something organic and inherent to the organization has to foster it.
As Aristotle observed, moral character develops through a combination of education, practice, and the experience of failure.
Health matters. This last point might seem strange if you are from a country where there exists a national health care system. In the US, it is perplexing that there isn’t an easily accessible and inexpensive form of health care. Because of this, it’s expensive for employers to offer it and for employees to acquire it. Businesses will often not hire full-time employees to get out of the obligation of having to offer benefits.
REI not only has a health insurance scheme for part-time employees who worked over a certain average of hours per week to get health coverage, but in response to a recent employee poll, they upped their efforts. They are now offering health coverage for any part-time employee, irrespective of an average hour threshold.
I’d like to say this ethos extended to sale floor practices. Managers and co-workers were constantly reminding others to take care of themselves first. There is no bottom line without the physical, emotional, and mental health of the employee.
Is REI an easy case?
I’m still somewhat research active as an academic. (My paths and outlets have just changed with respect to how and why I do research.) I recently gave a keynote at a conference on meaningful work where I used REI as an example of a virtuous company (well, co-op). In many ways, it is easy to do so because of the business it’s in—getting people excited about the outdoors because it is a part of a meaningful life.
But far from seeing REI as an easy example, I see REI as a model by which businesses and organizations can creatively re-think what it is they are offering and how they can do it.
Where does it begin? By asking employees what they want.
Thinking about how to incorporate what they want into their work . . . that is the real stuff of entrepreneurialship. Ethical, existential, or exceptional. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It needs to happen.
So why did I leave REI?
REI has a high turnover, not because it's a terrible place to work. It's the opposite. It's the place to go to be a part of something meaningful. And as philosophers like me know, what's meaningful usually equates to new discoveries.
Very interesting and over-qualified people work there for a variety of reasons. Some stay because it's like having an extended family. Others move on. I worked with a former ballerina, small business owners, a Navy Seal(!), a CPA, chemistry teacher, sushi chef, hockey players, and much more. There are surfers, staunch backpackers, ultra-marathon runners, cyclists, casual day hikers, archers, and people restarting their lives. It didn't matter what you were, but who you were and what you could bring to the REI experience. One of the most able persons whom I met was a high school student. He could have been a sales lead if not for his age. I'd have no hesitation employing him in my own business.
So here it is, I left REI because I've always felt my talent and calling was in writing and analysis. When a colleague of mine offered me a full-time position doing just that in a way where I could apply my philosophical knowledge in business, I couldn't turn it down.
But notwithstanding that, REI taught me so much about living, and I will never forget those lessons and the colleagues with whom I worked.
How many of us can say that about the jobs that we do?
Thank you, REI San Carlos!
Todd Mei is former Associate Professor of Philosophy (University of Kent) who specializes in the philosophy of work, ethics, and classical economic theory. He is now a Researcher and Project Manager for 1.2 Labs and is a podcaster for Living Philosophy, a public series exploring ideas about life and the inspiring second-lives of people. You can follow him on Quora, Twitter and YouTube.
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