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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

The Cinema

It's late on Wednesday night and I've just got in the door from a lovely adventure. Harper's in bed and Mrs Davies is watching Love Island, so I thought I'd indulge myself by sharing with you a story about a short but very impactful time in my career and life, which I was able to revisit tonight for the first time in over a decade and a half.

In 2005/6 during my final year of studies at university, I got a part-time job at a cinema. I'd worked almost continuously since arriving in the city in the autumn of 2001, doing a variety of jobs from a trainer seller in JD Sports, to a VERY short-lived call centre job (lying to potential customer about their opportunity to win a free kitchen which didn't exist), to being a barman at the student union, but my final part-time gig, the 15 months I spent at the cinema was my favourite of the jobs I held during my student years!

The cinema was a very large, very impressive building and was only a few years old at the time, so it was quite an impressive sight and was, especially at weekends, extremely busy. However, with the exception of the management, it was staffed almost exclusively by students, or those of traditional student age, so there was a very strong social element within the cinema and a good buzz. Irrespective of the tedium of the work (scrubbing out metal pots of cheese sauce or cleaning the machine which produced fresh salted popcorn were NEVER fun tasks), it was always fun coming into work and seeing who you were on shift with.

There were three teams, ticket team at the front desk selling tickets, snacks team making, selling and cleaning up the food and floor team who took tickets at the door and cleaned out the screens between shows. I was on the snacks team. We largely picked our own music to play over the speakers in the building, particularly during quiet times, so the hours passed fairly quickly even if you were on a morning shift, especially when you were scheduled on with friends.

Cinemas today will regularly show the same blockbuster movie in up to half of their screens at any one time, to maximise the number of screenings per day and bring in as many customers as possible, however at this time, the company who owned the cinema had a reputation for showing smaller, independent and more niche or challenging films, meaning that there were up to fifteen different movies being shown at any one time. In addition, at the time, all staff were entitled to four free tickets PER DAY, which they could use themselves or with friends. Most of us worked there because we loved movies, which meant that almost everyone on the staff would voraciously devour every film being screened at that time. Most weekends I would go on either a Friday or Saturday night with Cathryn and we would see two movies back-to-back, free of charge, as well as ad-hoc visits during the week, before or after shifts! That meant the staff were knowledgeable about what we were showing, so our conversations with one another and with customers were really informed and we could make recommendations or suggestions.

Alongside these many positive aspects, however, there were some less enjoyable aspects of working at the cinema. Firstly, as you might expect with a job of that kind, the pay was pretty poor. It felt like every week we were increasing the prices of tickets, food, drinks and especially scoop'n'go sweets and it got to the stage that it was hard to look customers in the eye and tell them the cost of their confectionery with a straight face; meanwhile we were all on paltry wages and seeing none of the additional funds being generated by these ever-increasing prices!

Secondly, the management (not exclusively, but largely) treated the staff like kids. I find that when you treat people in a certain way, often their behaviour will come to reflect this, and the cinema was no different. Consequently, the amount of nonsense that went on out of the view of the CCTV cameras and the eye-lines of management was absolutely staggering!

Staff stage-diving off walk-in-freezers into boxes of nachos, others having competitions to drink pints of Jalapeno juice the fastest, burst bags of sweets being rapidly devoured in locust-like fashion, false walls behind the scenes of the building being punched to dust in the space of a single shift, people being thrown into the trash compactor in comedy wrestling montages and plenty of people finding new and inventive ways to cut corners and do as little work as they could, were all commonplace within the cinema! And all of this coordinated through a set of handheld radios and an elaborate series of code words and phrases. Everyone in the building knew which parts of every floor were out of the view of cameras and took full advantage. Paperwork was fudged, cleaning duties (especially mopping the floors!) were half-assed and, in general, the staff behaved just like the children they were treated like.

Some staff went further to take out their frustration against their employer, giving friends sizeable discounts on snacks and drinks when they came to watch films. In more extreme cases, some staff even had scams where they would charge customers the full amount for their snacks but omit some items when they put them through the till and keep a running tally in their heads of the difference. At the end of their shift, they'd take their till to an area not covered by CCTV to tally up the takings, slide the unaccounted for cash into their sock and walk out the door with some additional pocket money. One staff member was dismissed for this very thing and I'd be amazed if they were the only one doing it at the time.

As a student I didn't think much of it. I used to love going to work there, I loved nights out with the team and I generally tried to do a decent job (once I mopped the floors so thoroughly that I was locked inside the building when it was closed at night because the management had forgotten I was there), but I wasn't immune to cutting corners or finding shortcuts, especially if an overly-officious manager had annoyed me with what I believed to be an unnecessary dressing down.

As an adult, however, with a focus on leadership and building great teams, I look at experiences like these through a different lens and try to find lessons from them. From this part of my employment history, there are two which stand out above all others:

  1. Treat your people right and they'll do the job well and treat your customers (and your property) right

  2. Find ways to incentivise or encourage your people to use your product and build advocates

On the first point, payment and treatment weren't great and so staff found ways to get their own back or even to supplement their income nefariously. If you treat people well and support them, you give them far fewer reasons to cut corner or sabotage you. This is evident everywhere I look, with businesses reporting significant profits returned to shareholders or paying astronomical salaries to their top people, while neglecting those who actually do the work and interface with customers. Every time I'm inside an organisation like that, I see examples of people cutting corners or withdrawing their goodwill and doing the bare minimum. This adds up and eventually effects service and outputs which affects the bottom line.

On the second, I'm reminded of the time that the bank I worked for changed it rules so that its employees no longer had to hold bank accounts with that bank to have their salaries paid into. This was a knee-jerk reaction to the press kicking off about how another high street bank had the same policy (it was standard practice across the industry at the time) and how it was unfair on the staff. I get the argument, however there was nothing stopping the staff having a bank account with a rival provider. They could even automate the move of their salary into these competitor bank accounts as soon as they were paid, should they wish. However, this move meant that swathes of the staff closed their bank accounts with their employers and had salaries paid elsewhere, meaning that they were no longer customers of their own employer and therefore had no lived experience of what this experience was like. Imagine designing products and services and customer journeys for products that you don't even use! How can you expect to do it well and how can you expect to build advocacy in your customer base if you can't even do it within your staff base?

How you treat your people makes a big difference to them, but it also makes a big difference to you and to the success of your business. It's amazing how often I see that forgotten.

I left the cinema in 2006 with treasured memories and look back with real fondness on that period of my life. I continued to visit as a customer for nine months, then moved to Edinburgh and I hadn't set foot in the building in over seventeen years. A few weeks back, one of the staff from that time who I've kept in touch with through the intervening years, Gillian, reached out to invite me to an event. Ten years ago, one of our former colleagues, Donna, died tragically young and her partner had decided to book out a screen and invite back her old friends and colleagues to get together, remember Donna and watch a horror movie; a genre which was among her favourites. Tonight was that night and we got ourselves seated in screen 13, shouted and laughed and heckled each other and the film throughout, in a way which would have caused the floor team to have us removed from the screening, had we been in a public showing! The film, Night Swim, was absolutely terrible, which made the experience all the funnier and the night was a fitting tribute to a special person.

It wasn't a masterclass on how to run a business, but my time there holds a special place in my heart. I'm sure you have memories of unauthorised chaos in some of the workplaces you've been a part of and I'd love to hear them!

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