Ken Gordon | Essays

The Second Life of Elevator Operators: A Lesson in Service Design

Elevator operator from Devyn Caldwell on Flickr.

Once upon a time—well, on December 15, 2017—the New York Times published a quirky story on manual passenger elevators, the dinosaurs of metropolitan people-movers, and the guys who pilot them. The reporter, Andy Newman, wondered why, when New York is “down to its last few seltzer men and its final full-time typewriter repair shop,” old-time elevators still enjoyed relative success. Sentiment, Newman wrote, played “a large part.”

The manual passenger elevator will, of course, never win on efficiency. In fact, current elevators are already mostly automated and will surely become increasingly so in the future. But the manuals have something going for them that no push-button, computerized lift will ever have: humanity. In fact, there’s much to be learned from this little story, for those of us interested in designing mobile experiences for actual human beings.

This elevator situation is reminiscent of the late career change of certain products. My Continuum colleague Toby Bottorf describes it this way: “When a product loses to a new competitor because of a utilitarian disadvantage, […] that process only highlights the remaining advantages, which are likely to be sensory, emotional, and experiential, not practical.” What Bottorf says applies equally well to product and service design. There is something personal, almost handcrafted, in the manual elevator experience—and from this perspective, its value becomes rich and obvious.

Shirley McClane as the much desired elevator operator in Billy Wilder's The Apartment.

To understand the value of that experience, we must look at what elevator-centered people, on both sides of the ride, get out of it. Let’s remember that an elevator is, in itself, a socially awkward place. It’s a sort of cramped, temporary prison in which you’re confined until you reach your destination and are liberated. A gracious host makes the trip more social—much more so than a closed circuit TV camera.

On the one end, there are the operators. The job of manual elevator operator is a good one. Has been for ages. Consider Ramon Rivera: “born in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, about 82 years ago,” has worked the elevator at 47 Plaza Street West for over three decades. “He raised two children on his elevator man’s salary.” As the Times story illustrates, Rivera’s enthusiasm for this is undiminished: “I love it, because I go up and down. I don’t go only down. I’ve been doing it for 35 years. Oh, yes. That’s why I’m still here.” Operators earn about $24 per hour.

The ability to create a good job, one that pays well and is meaningful for the employee, is something to be celebrated. And in any successful business ecosystem, a good employee experience will mirror a good customer experience. It reminds me, in fact, of a recent forward-looking innovation: Tesla’s new long-haul truck. Tesla made a big deal of noting the importance of the trucker experience in designing their slick new vehicles. The cabin, for instance, is “tailor-made for drivers, with stairs that are designed to make it easier to get in and out, and the ability to stand fully when inside the cab. The driver is also centered in the cab relative to the road, a unique twist on vehicle design in general.” Will this focus on drivers continue into the future? It’s not certain. In fact, truck drivers and elevator operators share a kind of professional vulnerability—hard to see either profession lasting long into the 21st century—though the building guys have an advantage in that well-heeled tenants can develop a real emotional bond of the sort that solitary drivers couldn’t possibly achieve.

The elevator operator at Coit Tower, San Francisco from Buck Lewis on Flickr.

Then there’s the elevator rider experience. The Times’ Newman catches the experience of the old school elevator perfectly, and makes it sound like a vintage, special experience, such as listening to a rare vinyl album:
Riding in an old manual elevator makes you realize how boringly quiet today’s elevators are. An old elevator makes a sort of music: the reassuring low hum of the motor, the gentle creaks of turning wheels, the click as each floor goes by, the jingle of the gate closing, like parting a bead curtain or sifting a pile of coins. The only jarring note in Mr. Rivera’s elevator is the call buzzer. It sounds like the wrong answer on a game show.
Sounds fun, right? The manual elevator experience, in 2018, could perhaps be reclassified as a luxury experience. An Upper West Side kind of experience. It’s not for every building, and not for everybody, but for those people willing and able to pay for a high-end New York lifestyle, this is wonderful, personal service.

More than that: the human-powered elevator provides a measure of safety, security, and trust. The paper says that, in a building in Chelsea, the elevator operators look after young women who come home drunk and need to be safely guided to the right floor and apartment. The article also suggests that the elevator operators are good at keeping tenants’ secrets—which is surely of value to those with secrets to keep.

But this kind of service doesn’t come cheap. The Times says that it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for operators, but buildings that make such an investment “generally figure the benefits of added security and service outweigh the costs.”

The truth is, you need enough people in a building who have enough sentimentality for old elevators to make this work. The article suggests that while there are some very popular operators out there, such as Manny Colon of the Brooklyn Friends School, there are also people who would prefer things to be smoother and more modern. “If you want to go down to the laundry, it’s six trips, and someone has to take you up and down,” says one unnamed source. “And the elevator regularly breaks down. It’s beautiful but it’s past its usefulness. It needs constant maintenance.” In order for the business model behind manual passenger elevators to keep running, there must be a sufficient baseline of wealthy New Yorkers who approve of the nostalgic analog elevator experience. But there’s a lesson here. People love attentive service. That can never be entirely replaced by technology. And there should be a place in business for those who excel at service, such as Ramon Rivera, where they can be paid in a way that will allow them to live a good life.

Left to right: Hotel Del Coronado elevator operator by Neeta Lind on Flickr. Elevator operator at Kyoto Tower by Victor Lee on Flickr. Elevator operator at the Fine Arts Building in Chicago by Anita Gould on Flickr.

When I think about the future of manual elevator operators, I think of Edward D. Hess, co-author of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age. He suggests that consciously bringing humanity to bear on one’s business and service design is an absolute must for organizations that will thrive in the 21st century. He likely wasn’t specifically thinking of Ramon Rivera when he said on a recent podcast, “Technology will dehumanize business by reducing human headcount, but on the opposite side, it’s going to require all organizations to become more humanistic, more people-centric, more psychology-oriented, [and harness] the power of emotions,” but it doesn’t take much intelligence to see how it relates to him and the other humans who operate the elevators of the world.

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