Every Second Counts: The Bear is the best workplace culture content of 2023
The pursuit of excellence and respect for time
(Trivial but worthwhile spoilers for The Bear season 2, episode 7 ahead)
In Oliver Burkeman’s fabulously inspiring book Four Thousand weeks he tackles the question of time.
As someone who spent years trying to be more productive he admits to be a little embarrassed about his obsession. Being single-minded about time management might seem trivial to others. The lesson of the book is that, as micro-managing as time management seems, in fact there is no bigger question than what you spend your life doing.
He talks about this recognition of the finite amount of time available to us as finitude.
"The more that you remain aware of life’s finitude, the more you will cherish it, and the less likely you will be to fritter it away on distractions."
Oliver Burkeman (from The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking)
"The only real question about all this finitude is whether we’re willing to confront it or not.
Oliver Burkeman (Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It)
"It’s only by facing our finitude that we can step into a truly authentic relationship with life."
Oliver Burkeman (Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals)
I was reminded of this perspective when I was preparing for a forthcoming podcast this week. I’ve been reading Move Fast & Fix Things the new book by Frances Frei and Anne Morris. They give some prompts to facilitate discussions between team members, which they say has become their favourite way to catalyse cultural change.
They say one of their favourite questions is:
“What would change if we treated other people’s time as our company’s most strategic asset.
It struck me as a conundrum that few of us ever confront: that our own time is precious but our jobs waste it with no regard to its value.
This question of time reminded me, yes, of episode 7 of series 2 of The Bear - an episode of television that is becoming one of the most important pieces of discourse about workplace culture of the last 5 years.
If you don’t watch the show this is what happens in the episode. (If you do watch but haven’t seen this yet there’s not a whole load of spoilers but you might choose to skip).
As I’ve said before Richie is the antagonist of the show. He spends his time throughout the first series trying to undermine any attempts to improve the restaurant and is frequently the cause of disruptive chaotic events.
Initially Richie merely seems to be a flippant critic, intent on not taking anything too seriously. But gradually we begin to see his actions as resentfully aggressive. He seems intent on stopping change. We’ve all worked with this guy.
He bristles against his cousin’s achievements, seemingly recognising that his own lack of self belief means he will never be able to match them. He’s a 45-year old divorcee with a fractured relationship with his daughter. As the restaurant closes to be refurbished at the end of series 1 Richie is confronted with losing the one place where he felt a sense of belonging.
His attempts to drag his heels and keep it in the past have failed, now he faces the prospect of being left behind. His cousin Carmy hopes that he can bring his cousin Richie through and arranges for him to work, in the role of a ‘stage’ (please ensure you say it in a French accent). at a three star Michelin restaurant called Ever.
Richie is baffled by this, initially interpreting it as a way to get him out of the way. His alarm pings at 5.38am and he spits, ‘fuck you cousin’ to himself as he turns up at 6am for his first shift.
It doesn’t take long for him become impatient with his initial task of spending an entire day polishing forks. Richie confronts Garrett, his manager, “Let me ask you a question. Every stage shine fuckin’ forks for his whole first fuckin’ day?” Telling Garrett that he knows he’s only there to be punished.
His supervisor Garrett is surprised by this: “Let me get this straight. He’s punishing you by making you work at the best restaurant in the world?”
Day two opens, Richie’s alarm rings at 5.35am. And sure enough he spends the whole day polishing forks. He watches on as elite kitchen craft is conducted around him.
Day three opens. Richie’s alarm fires at 5.34am. Within hours he’s having another confrontation which brings Garrett to ask him, “Do you think this is below you or something?”
Richie: “I’m 45 years old and polishing forks”.
Roll video one:
Garrett: “Everyday here is the freaking Super Bowl. You don’t need to drink the Kool Aid, Richie. I just need you to respect me. I need you to respect the staff. need you to respect the diners. And I need you to respect yourself”.
That evening Richie gets the opportunity to watch the restaurant team work their magic. Along the way comp-ing a pair of teachers who had posted it was their dream to dine at Ever. It begins to dawn on Richie that he’s around people who find purpose in serving others. These people love what they are doing because they love how it makes them feel.
When Richie’s alarm fires at 5.32 on Thursday, he springs into action like he’s been waiting for the first chime. When he arrives in the kitchen a suit jacket is waiting for him. Garrett intercepts him with a greeting, “You’re trailing today. Get changed.”
“No more forks?”
“No more forks.”
Finally Richie gets a moment to shine, he can’t help remarking that his suit jacket ‘feels like armour’. He pulses with adrenalised pride.
As Richie takes his stand trailing the Back-of-house Lead he asks her how she handles the intense orchestration required for her job. She seems to be lost in flow of trying to use every second available to make the customers happier. She soon returns to him with an answer. “You asked me how I can do this? Every night I make someone’s day.”
Within minutes Richie is presented with making someone’s day himself. Diners at one table have been overheard expressing disappointment that they’ve missed out on sampling Chicago’s famous deep dish pizzas during their visit to town. The restaurant chooses to serve a surprise course of their own twist on the dish. Having dashed to collect the pizza required to create the surprise Richie asks if he can present what it has been crafted into for his guests.
He stands starry eyed as he watches the guests’ open-mouthed delight at their surprise. There follows an euphoric scene soundtracked by Taylor Swift’s Love Story.
But now Richie is confronted with something else, a sense of grief that the meaning that he has discovered will be taken from him. In the final scene of the episode we follow Richie, rogue disruptor now reborn as zealous evangelist as he completes his Saturday shift. Initially he felt exiled to work at Ever, now he’s disappointed that his tentative requests to stay there have been gently rebuffed. He unloads on Carmy that he was only sent there for punishment, a charge that he surely no longer believes himself.
Back in the kitchen at Ever, Richie finds himself wandering into a quiet corner looking for polish.
There a modest, egoless member of the kitchen staff engages him in a gentle discussion as she peels mushrooms. He joins her in the delicate act. It is only slowly, as mushroom skins are quietly removed that we realise that this is the unassuming founder of the establishment, Chef Terry. (The YouTube image below reveals the spoiler of who the uncredited guest star is).
Chef Terry finishes by sharing how father had written dozens of letters, each signed off with a single phrase that had stayed with her.
Chef Terry explained how in her lowest moment she’d come across the location for her new restaurant and his ethos had inspired her.
It’s only when Chef Terry has left that he realises he’s not heard the pay off. What had he signed off his letters with? ‘Every second counts’ reads the sign on the kitchen wall.
In the podcast with Owen Eastwood we talked about every good culture needs to be committed to the pursuit of excellence. But Frances Frei, Anne Morris and Oliver Burkeman have collaborated with The Bear to teach us something more. Great cultures recognise the value of everyone’s contribution, as measured by respecting their time.
I could write for days what the lessons of The Bear are for me. I’d love to hear your views.