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22 May

A New, Stronger Relationship Between Employer and Employee

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Author: Chris Love

The Covid-19 pandemic has created the conditions for a radical rethink of the relationship between retailers and their employees. These are the frontline retail workers (FRWs) who – alongside NHS, care home and logistics employees – stepped up to support us all through a dramatic change in circumstances. 

The polarised retail sector has already made swift and significant adaptations. In the face of a major recession, how retailers define the future employer-employee relationship will be key to the success of the retail sector. And the wider economy too.

Major Moves in the Retail Sector

I’m full of admiration for the remarkable job retail has done since the middle of March. I’ve been amazed at how many UK retailers have adapted in record time to keep the country fed and supplied with essential products. It’s true that, at the start of the pandemic, there were some noticeable gaps on shelves and shoppers often had to queue a little longer than normal. However, the overall availability and service provided has been extraordinary.  

And, despite some well-published false moves by a small number of retailers, the vast majority have put the health of their employees and customers first. All in all, the retail sector should be applauded for their swift response to the crisis. 

What Does Covid-19 Mean for the Future of Bricks and Mortar?

There’s been a lot of speculation about shoppers deserting stores due to social distancing concerns. But I don’t subscribe to the idea that people will never visit a physical store again. 

Yes, there will be winners and losers, but the death of the high street argument is flawed in the same way it has always been. Why? Because many retailers have prospered and grown significantly on the high street in recent years proving that the correct offer that’s flexible to shifting consumer trends secures high street success. This is a trend that I believe will continue post Covid-19.

During the crisis, what has become clear is that the often underappreciated role of the FRW is now at the heart of our Covid-19 response. And it’s also key to recovering and rebuilding a strong retail industry. 

There’s much talk of a V, W or L-shaped recovery and the factors that impact our return to robust economic health. Of course, the length of the lockdown, testing, treatment and development of a vaccine are important. But so is the need to make staff feel safe about returning to work. 

Many FRWs need assurances that the environment they’re returning to is safe and secure. Only when our FRWs feel safe will they make customers feel confident to make the trip to the shops again. 

If consumers don’t feel secure, they won’t shop for anything other than essentials. And if staff don’t feel safe, they won’t return in large enough numbers to allow stores to open.

History shows that economies, companies and retailers are remarkably resilient and creative and companies that adapt and invest will bounce back and flourish more quickly. 

Underpinning the move from current state to a brighter future, retailers must revisit the relationship between employer and employee. 

Why Employee Investment Will Dictate How Well Retailers Will Bounce Back

There appears to be a narrative that people are enjoying their time on furlough. I strongly dispute this because I believe that the vast majority of people want to work. I simply do not subscribe to the idea that most people are treating this as a free and extended holiday. 

In fact, what we’ve seen among many employees is the complete opposite of entrenched laziness. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re already seeing two extreme changes in the relationship between employer and employee:

  1. Retailers that have continued to trade, like food retailers, had to focus on:
    • Hiring more staff quickly
    • Paying staff more to recruit and retain
    • Making employees feel safe – rapid adaptations to the work environment and operational practices 
    • Communicating effectively during the crisis
    • Altering work patterns and the jobs people do so staff remain safe and meet new demand levels
  2. Retailers whose physical businesses were shut down during lockdown, had to focus on:
    • The mechanics of furloughing staff 
    • Communicating with employees pre and post-furlough 
    • How to bring staff safely back into the business, not knowing when this might be or what would be needed
    • Considering how their business will operate post-lockdown and the impact on staff 

In both examples the relationship changed overnight. 

Of course, these are extreme scenarios that will shift over time. But should retailers use this as an opportunity to change the relationship with their teams? For me, the answer is resounding yes

5 Key Changes for Retailers to Make

I would invite retail leaders to consider making the following changes: 

1. Reassure your employees

Let’s start by recognising the importance FRWs will make to the recovery of your company. In order to restart businesses and make them profitable, there’s a  need to reassure employees in order to make them feel safe, engaged and valued. Or risk losing them to other careers. It’s time to consider each employee as an individual and ensure business and employee needs are balanced. 

2. Reinvent your customers’ shopping experience

Consumers will demand new business processes that make them feel safe and encourage them out of the house and into the shops. The need to further accelerate the experience of visiting a store through knowledgeable and engaged staff will be critical to retailers’ success in future. Your employees will be at the heart of that experience.

3. A communication platform for engagement, connection and business continuity

Retailers must reinvent the way they communicate with staff and the technology they use. I have spoken to several businesses who had no effective way of talking directly to their frontline workers during the pandemic. This made it very difficult to share important information – like the fact individuals had been furloughed or the new processes to keep customers and colleagues safe. All at a time when communicating with employees was critically important. The technology already exists to quickly implement a highly effective communications, task and engagement strategy with your retail workforce. And the business case has never been clearer. 

4. Scheduling to meet individuals’ preferences

We must all recognise the challenges of getting employees back to work. These range from the logistical, to more complex health and safety concerns, to a broader question of who will actually want to work in retail? I have historically promoted a more personalised approach to communication and scheduling taking into account individual employee preferences. This feels even more relevant now as the retailers who deliver on this front will be more likely to retain their workforce.

5. Consider the win-win of a flexible workforce

I believe that the pandemic created a vast flexible workforce – or at the very least a workforce that recognises it can be flexible – overnight. The likes of John Lewis moved thousands of department store colleagues to their Waitrose shops and Tesco hired 45,000 temporary workers from the hospitality and aviation industries to bolster their operations. That’s tens of thousands of workers moving from one sector within and from outside of retail to another, in a way I can’t remember ever happening. And it brings into focus the potential for employers to create better schedules that recognise many employees don’t want a fixed set of hours each week or even a single employer. Providing a win-win for all. 

In summary, I believe there has never been a better time to redefine the relationship between the employer and the employee. Investment in that relationship, driven by a recognition of the vital role the retail workforce has played during the lockdown and the critical role they will play in the recovery, will drive a win-win for both sides. 

Improved communications, more personalised scheduling, health and safety and the creation of a sustainable, flexible workforce will greatly benefit the companies who are willing to make the investment. 

The business case for technological solutions to address these challenges is crystal clear. Increased consumer spending will reward those companies that have treated, and continue to treat, their staff well. And employees will reward the companies that make them feel safe and engaged and consider them as individuals with their own unique needs and not merely a commodity. 

Times of great challenge present opportunity for change. Now more than ever is the time to act and grasp the chance to develop a highly effective relationship with your retail workforce.

Take a look at the wide range of workforce transformation solutions we can offer to help you begin a new chapter with your staff or find out if your business is Covid ready with our complimentary review of your workforce scheduling and communications processes.

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