I'm 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 SME, but there is one aspect that sets us apart: our unusual workforce.
Serve Legal is an auditor of age-restrictive sales. We conduct 100,000 tests a year and clients range from major blue-chip multiples, to national pub chains and betting franchises to single-site independent retailers. Our army of young-looking 18- and 19-year-old staff visit supermarkets, discount retailers, betting shops, convenience stores, bars, pubs and clubs across the UK and Ireland, buying age-restricted goods such as alcohol, tobacco and knives. They check that retail staff comply with the law by asking for proof of age ID. In December we recruited our 10,000th 'visitor'.
Managing a large workforce of teenagers brings some unique challenges, not least that our professional reputation relies heavily on the rigour and consistency of their work. Many join us with little or no work experience, but move quickly into a world of compliance and law. This needs a level of induction, supervision, auditing and report writing that goes beyond that required in other jobs typically taken at this age. Our senior management team finds it hugely rewarding to see - and play and active part in - the transformation of many of our employees from inexperienced teenagers into work-ready, diligent, confident professionals.
Our visitors are digital natives so we've created short induction and training videos and use instant messaging, social media and text messages for daily task allocation, communication and engagement.
Risks 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. This includes: #ImpressEd (a Twitter-based initiative to demonstrate evidence of excellent work); financial incentives for accurate reporting, consistent good quality, high visit volumes and going the extra mile; and 'Visitor of the Month' awards.
With our workforce operating in sometimes challenging environments (late night drinking and gambling venues for instance), we take our duty of care seriously. We've established a network of regional area managers who provide regular support, mentoring and admin help for visitors locally, and recruit new visitors. Many Serve Legal managers are ex-visitors themselves,
Some of our visitors stay for two years and others just a brief time, but at the age of 20 most 'retire'. At 'retirement' some progress to management positions and some are employed to accompany new visitors on training visits.
Those that leave keep in touch and regularly seek to re-join. Serve Legal has recently moved into retail services such as sell-by date checking, which means we can now extend opportunities to talented older visitors.
Our relationship with our young workforce is mutually beneficial. They do an interesting job that fits around their other commitments, and through which they develop transferable skills. Older members of the workforce benefit from the energy, honesty and fresh thinking our young visitors bring, not to mention being forced to adopt new technologies.
During our 10-year history the work of 10,000-plus visitors has contributed to a rise in compliance. Without the programmes we deliver, harmful products would be widely available to children, without barriers.
Ed Heaver is director of Serve Legal