How do you manage a workforce that by its very nature needs to move on at 20? Ed Heaver of Serve Legal, an organisation that monitors age-restrictive sales, believes it’s about giving recognition and creating a supportive environment in which workers can flourish.
As the founder and director of a successful, fast-growing business providing services to the retail and leisure industries, our challenges are the same as those facing any other small business. However, there is one aspect of our business that sets us apart: our unusual workforce, which is made up almost entirely of young-looking 18 and 19-year-olds.
Employing and motivating young people
Serve Legal is the UK’s leading independent auditor of age-restrictive sales. We conduct 100,000 tests a year and clients range from major blue-chip multiples, national pub chains and betting shop operators to single site independent retailers.
Our army of young-looking “visitors” visits supermarkets and discount retailers, betting shops and convenience stores, bars, pubs and clubs across the UK and Ireland every day, buying age-restricted goods such as alcohol, tobacco and knives.
They check that retail staff comply with the law by asking them for proof of age ID. In December 2015, we recruited our 10,000th “visitor”.
Rigour and reputation
Employing and managing a large workforce of teenagers brings some unique challenges, not least that our professional reputation relies heavily on the rigour and consistency of our visitors’ work. Many join Serve Legal with little or no experience of working life, but move quickly into a world of compliance and the law.
This requires a level of induction, supervision, auditing and report writing that goes beyond that required in other jobs typically taken at this stage of life. An additional challenge is that visitors work entirely flexibly and remotely. All are employed with casual worker agreements and are paid the living wage via PAYE.
Our visitors are digital natives so we have developed an effective programme of training, supervision and support based around the technology that forms an integral part of their everyday lives.
We’ve created short induction and training videos and use instant messaging, social media and text for daily task allocation, communication and engagement.
A risk with remote workforces can be a sense of isolation, distance from brand values and a lack of camaraderie. We’ve developed an employee engagement programme that ensures our visitors feel motivated and part of a team that is doing important work.
Visitors rise to the challenge through #ImpressEd, a Twitter-based initiative to demonstrate evidence of excellent work, and achievements are recognised with financial incentives for accurate reporting, consistent good quality, high visit volumes and going the extra mile to complete assignments.
There is kudos in winning Visitor of the Month and our popular monthly Hall of Fame e-newsletter shares accolades for exceptional performance. Despite having no physical premises aside from an administrative base in London, we are proud to have achieved a strong sense of professionalism and corporate pride.
With such a large, young workforce operating in what can sometimes be challenging environments (late night drinking establishments and gambling venues for instance), we take our duty of care seriously.
To this end, we’ve established a network of highly effective regional area managers who provide regular support, mentoring, motivation and admin help for visitors at a local level, as well as recruiting new visitors. Many of our area managers are ex visitors and some are parents working flexibly from home.
Some of our visitors stay for two years and others for just a brief time (average length of stay is 8.5 months), but at the age of 20, most “retire”. This is because their apparent youth is vitally important to the credibility of the age-related testing services we provide.
On “retirement”, some talented visitors have gone on to management positions within the organisation and some are employed to accompany new visitors on their buying visits while training.
Seth Uden, operations manager for the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, for example, is our most senior ex visitor and now manages business growth and staffing in those regions. Others start or continue in further or higher education, and many go on to pursue successful careers elsewhere. Alumni Kristina Lee has progressed rapidly from visitor to management at HSBC and Chloe Robinson is an actuary at Aviva.
Visitors keep in touch to tell us how their careers are progressing and regularly seek opportunities to re-join us. A recent development in our company’s growth is a move into retail services outside of age-restrictive product areas, such as sell-by date checking. This means we can now extend opportunities for our most talented older visitors and provide a longer career progression path.
Our senior management team finds it hugely rewarding to see – and play an active part in – the transformation of many of our visitors from inexperienced teenagers at a crossroads in their education or working life into work-ready, diligent, confident professionals.
While the short-term nature of contracts at Serve Legal means we’re unable to offer our visitors apprenticeships, we take our commitment to their career development and employability no less seriously.
A recent survey of our workers found that 97% felt being a Serve Legal visitor was a positive experience, 76% have learnt to work to deadlines, and 71% have grown in confidence. Six in 10 took pride in doing something for society.
The relationship we have with our young workforce is mutually beneficial. They do an interesting job they enjoy, that fits around their lifestyle, education or other work commitments, and through which they develop invaluable confidence, independence and transferable skills to support their future employability and career progression.
The older members of the workforce, me included, really enjoy – and benefit from – the energy, honesty and fresh thinking that our young visitors bring, not to mention the forcing of our hand to adopt new technologies.
During our ten-year history, the work of more than 10,000 visitors has contributed to a rise in compliance with the law by retailers and operators. Without the rigorous age verification testing programmes we deliver, we’re certain that harmful products like alcohol and tobacco would be widely available to children without barrier to purchase.