How Starbucks Can Use Internal Weekly Email Digests to Connect with Employees

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Before I became a designer, I was a barista at Starbucks (typical of people who don’t know what to do with their lives). Although it’s one of the best companies to work for and I had an amazing team, one of the problems I’ve encountered repeatedly over the years still remains unsolved: How do you get employees to take advantage of Starbucks’s 401k match? I still run a blog for baristas and have friends at Starbucks, so it’d be amazing if I could help them out.

Fortunately, I think this is a problem where an email digest can help (… but I’m probably biased, for obvious reasons). 

The big problem

Starbucks’s benefits package includes a generous 4-6% 401k match for part-time employees. This is so good, it’s unreal… it makes Starbucks one of the few part-time jobs where employees can actually save money! But it only works if people actually take advantage of it. From my experience, employees know of it, they may even want to do it… but most fail to. 

I once worked with a co-worker in her mid 50s who was struggling to cover her bills, and wanting to help, I asked if she had been contributing to her 401k (because you can take a low-interest loan from it). She’d been employed for almost 10 years so I assumed she must had a decent chunk saved up, but it turns out she had never started her retirement plan! She’s a warm lady who survived breast cancer, so I was very saddened to hear about her predicament.

And she wasn’t the only person who failed to set up their 401k. In fact, I met so many people who “didn’t understand it” or “never got around to it” that I decided to write an unofficial guide to Starbucks’s 401k (It now ranks either 1st or 2nd when you Google “Starbucks 401k.”)!

This happens because employees lack the mental bandwidth to “figure it out” and fall victim to the status quo bias. This shouldn’t be a surprise, because being a Starbucks barista is actually more difficult than you’d think, and many employees also go to school or have 2nd jobs. 

They actually do get a piece of physical mail with information about this, but it happens once a year (I think), and then they have to set up their 401k plan online. Switching from physical to digital creates serious friction, especially if it’s something they don’t fully understand. And coupled with our natural planning fallacy, this means most people just never get around to it. 

A smaller problem

Many employees lack trust in corporate. Starbucks is actually one of the most employee friendly companies, but it suffers from the same problem most large organizations have: lack of communication with front-line employees.

Most of the communications that came through were things we were REQUIRED to read. It felt like “corporate” was this distant entity that made our policies but had no direct exposure to customers like we did. In reality, Starbucks does its research, even going as far to as opening stealth stores to test new products — they know what they’re doing (most of the time). 

Sure, employees can go online and scan Starbucks headlines if they really want to. But this is a job, not a career to retail employees. Once they are off the clock, they stop working. 

I believe a weekly digest email can solve these problems

Information about 401k and Starbucks news can be sent through email in a weekly digest. I think this will be effective because:

1.) The higher frequency (compared to physical mail) will ensure 401k (as well as other benefits) stay on top-of-mind. Taking action also becomes easier because you’re already online. 

2.) Regular communication with corporate will slowly build trust with employees

The issue then becomes getting employees to open these emails. Because they stop “working” once they’re off-the-clock, they’re going to ignore these emails unless there’s something they really need. And let’s be honest… it’s not very exciting to read an email about benefits and Starbucks news. 

So how do you get employees to “work” outside of work?

The solution: include their weekly schedule in the email. 

Baristas almost never get the same schedule week-to-week and occasionally they’ll forget when they work or show up at the wrong time. Having a digital copy would be a HUGE immediate utility and will guarantee this email gets opened multiple times throughout the week. 

And, they’ll LOVE Starbucks for doing it. 

This is how it could look like:

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I actually showed this to baristas and the response has been great!

One reader responded:

Are you okay with me talking to someone who can actually do something to make that happen? I am a current partner who works at a Seattle store rather close to the Support Center. We get people from almost every department in our store and on a few occasions they have listened to us and our problems and fixed them. I would love to see your email idea happen and I know it would help so many people.

There we have it — it’s a win/win.

I hope Starbucks makes it happen!

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Although I wrote this specifically for Starbucks, the same principles apply to many other organizations. An internal digest can be an ideal medium to send timely reminders and company communications. Can your organization benefit from a weekly digest?