Honours Interview: Alyha Bardi

Alyha Bardi is a fourth year sociology student completing her honours thesis under the supervision of Dr. Kendra Strauss.

Drawing inspiration from her Minor in Labour Studies, and Certificate in Social Justice, Alyha is researching the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on front of house workers, specifically those working in coffee shops. We spoke to Alyha about her experience in the program, some of the main takeaways from her research, and how she plans to put her experience in the honours program to use in the future.

Can you tell us about the topic of your honours project? What were some of your main findings?

My honours project focused on the effects that COVID-19 has had on Front of House Coffee Workers (FOHCWs) during the pandemic - regarding both customer interactions and the general workloads of these workers.

For some context on my interest in customer interactions, customers have lost a lot of freedoms they have traditionally had within cafes in the past. This is due to COVID safety measures that have created circumstances where customers feel like their freedom is being impeded. I found that in response to these hindered customer “freedoms”, customers tended to react in three different ways; first, through acts of resistance such eye rolls or disputes with staff; second, through abiding & learning - instances where customers are wanting and willing to follow coffee shop safety measures, but are unsure of what coffee shop safety measures are, meaning they required greater guidance; and the third kind of response, abiding & knowing, where customers knew the safety measures within the cafe and abided by them without question.

The conclusion that I was able to draw from these experiences were that all three of types of customer-by-customer interactions were described to be longer, and more effort compared to general pre-COVID interactions. This even included abiding & knowing interactions, which were still prolonged due to workers having to ask/pour proper cream & sugar amounts for customers; repeat themselves through the barriers of plexiglass and masks; and remind customers to follow certain safety measures if they forget (i.e., wear a mask).

Moving from customer interactions to workloads and busyness, along with lengthened customer interactions, baristas’ workloads also increased in terms of sanitation and cleaning practices. During periods of safer-at-home orders, the business district café I focused on lost many customers due to the majority of office workers within the café’s vicinity working from home. With such losses in customers, workers described their overall workloads as less (despite increased expectations of sanitation and customer-by-customer interactions), due to long periods of working with no customers. However, as safer-at-home orders were rescinded or less-followed, increases in customers were described to make the overall workload far more burdening. This was due to a combination of increased customers, prolonged customer interactions, and increased sanitizing jobs. So, fluctuations of customers due to B.C. COVID-19 guidelines has also greatly impacted the workloads of FOHCWs, causing unpredictable fluctuations of store busyness. 

            Thus, my overall findings were:

1.     The pandemic has caused an overall trend of customer-by-customer interactions having increased due to losses in customer freedoms within the café.

2.     During periods of busyness, the workloads of café workers have increased compared to pre-COVID, making the work more exhausting and stressful.

3.     Fluctuations regarding café busyness and lengths of customer interactions have made the work of FOHCWs less stable, more unpredictable, and have made their workspaces a place of constant change and adjustment.

How did you decide to study the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on front of house workers? Do you have a personal connection to the topic that sparked your interest?

Having worked within the food service industry for a number of years, I knew I wanted to cover a topic that related to food service work. Initially I was more geared towards focusing my topic of experiences of sexualized interactions for women in food service, but had a lot of difficulty finding a gap within literature – which has been focusing on this topic for decades.

As I was playing around with the idea of topic, I was also living under the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which in the Spring of 2021 had been in our lives for about a year. One day, catching up with an old food service worker friend, she was talking to me about all the ways her work had changed since COVID – which then sent me on the path to consider how COVID-19 rather than in-work sexualization, has impacted the at-work experiences of front of house coffee workers during the pandemic (who continue to be predominantly women).

Are there any skills you've developed or strengthened through being in the honours program?

Some of the skills that I have developed from being in the honours program are my organizational skills, the ability to reflect and make connections in creative ways, and greater confidence in speaking to, and sharing my ideas with professors.

I also learned the valuable research skills of coding qualitative research, creating connections between codes, and learning to draw findings and themes from these observed codes and connections. I also gained greater confidence in conducting research-based interviews, slowly developed my ability to ask relevant follow-up questions on the spot, and learned that the unexpected answers that arise in response to your research questions may often lead to your most valuable findings.

What challenges did you face along the way? What was the most difficult obstacle you had to overcome?

I think my greatest challenge when conducting this research was taking the vast amount of information, feelings, and experiences I collected from the seven interviews I conducted – and working to parse through what was relevant, what was similar or different, and how all these ideas connected. Until I was able to start connecting the dots, I did not really have much of clue of what direction my paper was going to go – that uncertainty was somewhat stressful. But once I started making those first few connections, a lot of the connections that came after became easier and easier.

Pretty much like piecing together a puzzle, the first few pieces are tricky to fit together, but the more pieces fit together the easier it is to fit the other pieces in.

What was it like working with your faculty supervisor, Labour Studies Professor Dr. Kendra Strauss, on your project?

Working with Kendra was really wonderful. She has such a wealth of information, and I remember as I would speak with her in meetings about some of the emerging ideas and connections that were arising from my analysis, that she would often add her connections or reasonings to those findings –connections that I don’t think I would have made myself, which also directed the paper in some really cool ways.

She also kept me course for the project. At one point I was head deep in coding analysis and connecting themes together, and I had so many different ideas. She told me to pause and start writing down the most valuable themes I’ve noticed, and try and construct a paper outline from that. Looking back, it seems like a straightforward approach. But I think without that guidance I could have easily continued in analyzing my codes in circles, without distinguishing a clear direction to take my research. So having her as a supervisor really provided the guidance I needed, to know what to do, but also when to move on to the next step of my research.

How does your project relate to your future career or educational goals?

What arose from my honours paper “Front of House Experiences within COVID-19: An Analysis of a Coffee Shop in Vancouver”, was an analysis that connected my education in sociology and Labour Studies together. I drew from the social conditions and feelings of the pandemic, and considered how this impacted workers both in terms of their interactions with customers, and their workloads.

I care about social issues, which has driven my interest in sociology – and as work often intertwines with varying social issues and hierarchical structures, I care about the experiences of workers. For me this paper was an example of how I can connect these two interests of mine together; something that I hope to maintain as I continue my education, and explore my career paths into the future.

If you'd like to connect with Alyha you can find her on LinkedIn.