For many people, "work" now signifies human interactions based entirely on the commercial exchange. If you are an employee, the customer is someone you serve because the boss pays you to. If you are a boss, the employee is someone who helps you make money from the customer, and the customer is someone who brings money into the business. I love my work because it doesn't feel like "work." What I do all day long is pay attention to what people need and what they want -- to making them feel welcome. If my work begins to feel like "work," I know I am doing something wrong.
The company I co-founded, Laughing Man Coffee, lives on a beautiful street in the heart of New York in Tribeca where the city started. We are surrounded by buildings that were coffee warehouses, cheese factories, and produce depots. A block away is Washington Market, which functioned as New York City's most important wholesale produce market. The market reached its peak between 1880 and 1910, when ships would arrive with goods, load up trucks and fill the city with commerce. Duane St, where we are located, is home to Duane Park. Purchased in 1796, it was the first land ever bought by the city to use as a public park. Purchase price five dollars. We are surrounded by the memory of a different age when community was the people you actually lived amongst and interacted with everyday. At work, in the streets, or at home, people received your full attention because they were part of your community, and your relationship with them extended beyond the commercial exchange.
I often think of the history of Tribeca when I am stopped by cafe regulars and first-time visitors alike who praise the coffee and the staff. I love to hear people praise the staff! The other day someone said to me: "A lot of people come here because of your staff." They love the coffee but they get something here they don't get many places. I said, "You mean they actually feel welcome here?" "Yes that's it!" he said. I laughed. Feeling welcome shouldn't be an unusual experience, but it is. Many of us have a hard time recalling a retail experience that made us feel genuinely welcomed and where we were greeted by happy people. Though many of us remember simpler times, when there were fewer screens in the world, we often forget the most basic lessons of success: Make people feel welcome in sales, in normal conversations and in making coffee. Think of your best friend and how you feel talking to them. Forming community through the workplace means treating everyone as if they are your best friend.
Employee manuals are created to teach anyone how to be attentive and mindful to customers, co-workers and generally useful at work. I think they certainly have their place, but should you have to train someone to be welcoming? Does that really result in a welcoming atmosphere? When someone compliments our staff, we usually end up talking about how we find such great employees. I say I just try to hire people who are naturally welcoming. The people who work at Laughing Man Coffee seem to have learned to be welcoming at the same time they learned to share and say "please" and "thank you." We seem to be good at hiring people with an innate understanding of the value of building and sustaining community, and all I have to do is let them be themselves.
I run a social business, and I enjoy partaking in the ongoing conversation about different business models and intentions. But maybe, no matter the business, our first responsibility is to put the social back into commerce. You can't talk about caring for coffee farmers and do anything less for your customer. Is it possible that anyone could change the world without making the person in front of them feel welcome? To build community, we have to start by embracing the stranger standing in front of us as if we have known them our whole lives.