Once upon a time, store managers spent their days in a lonely back office. Up to their eyes in admin, surrounded by spreadsheet print-outs and a well-worn calculator.
On the shop floor, staff stuck behind tills smiled while apologising for not knowing when an item would be back in stock. Customer gone, their thoughts might turn to when they could punch their card and get home.
In this digital vacuum, workforce management centred on cost savings: how retailers could spend as little as possible while selling as much as possible.
Gradually, WFM began to evolve. The customer took centre stage and, in many places, still rightly remains in the spotlight. Effective labour modelling solutions need to focus on providing seamless transactions that encourage customer satisfaction and repeat visits.
But while customers will always play a vital role, employees are starting to steal the show.
At the 2018 WFM Forum, REPL’s CEO Cerys Johnson explained why the WFM benefits case is changing once again: “The future is all about the employee. They’ll be the point of difference that will separate retailers from their competitors and give them a tangible advantage.
“WFM is evolving in the face of increasing pressures within retail. The most modern solutions go further than ever before: they’re about right person, right place, right time, doing the right things in the right way.”
Why Take An Employee-First Approach?
Customers are increasingly savvy. They’re used to being looked after and their expectations are high.
Store employees are the link between these clued-up customers and a retail brand: the face representing the carefully-designed website they’ve been browsing before entering your store, the human being that can skilfully answer their questions about a product.
A broken link here can make all the difference between a successful sale and a complaining customer.
Engaging these employees is essential.
Cerys said: “Retail success in this day and age has to be based on having educated and informed employees who are passionate about the brand. They must offer excellent customer service and make a difference by creating special moments that will drive people back into store time and time again.
“Inspiring this passion should be every retailers’ focus right now. Everything in the industry is pointing to its importance.”
Part of this challenge is to understand the demographic shifts occurring in the workplace. Alongside staff with decades of retail experience are the millennials already building their careers and the younger Gen Zs hot on their heels.
This combination of experience and expectation is making different demands on workforce management systems, as Cerys explained:
“Back in the day, optimised scheduling meant the most efficient use of resources to meet demand. That was the equation.
“Now employee quality of life comes into it. The technology to make this possible is already in our hands. What we take for granted on a day-to-day basis has to be accessible to employees in the workplace.
“Why shouldn’t they know what upcoming shifts they have by simply checking their mobile? Why shouldn’t they be able to request a holiday at a time that suits them? Why shouldn’t they check their mobile at home to see if there are any overtime opportunities?
“All this functionality can be delivered now. There’s a growing expectation that it will be there for them.”
This is especially true for younger generations who have grown up with access to apps that organise and streamline their personal lives. For them, being able to replicate that in the workplace is expected and even assumed.
“They’ve learned a lot from us,” added Cerys. “They’ve seen how their parents have burned out by spending all their hours at work and maybe neglecting some areas of their life. They’re saying that’s not for me, I want balance.
“I respect that enormously but what that means in the future is that it’s not just about career. It’s about facilitating that balance by embracing more flexible ways of working including employment contracts. Retailers must understand that employees are now more engaged in the gig economy and are working at different companies. Long gone are the days of one job for life with one employer.
“This is where we need to ensure that we get that balance: to employ people who are happy coming to work and want to continue working with us. People who believe in what we’re offering and want to portray that enthusiasm through to the customer.”
What Else Can Modern WFM Solutions Achieve?
Traditionally a challenge, retention within retail is only going to get harder. The natural consequence of having engaged employees, thanks to the right tech, is that they’re more likely to stay loyal.
Cerys said: “We’re already seeing evidence that with Brexit looming, the UK isn’t as attractive a place to come and work anymore. This means that we’re going to see an imbalance between supply and demand very much in the employees’ favour.
“Attracting members of this smaller pool will become even more competitive. Retaining them will rely more and more on them being well-trained and well-motivated.
“Retailers need to think about how they can elevate their staff, respecting their professional career choice and inspiring them to be exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate about their brand.”
Cutting-edge WFM solutions are powered by machine learning with the ability to collect and process unprecedented levels of data. Based on science, not gut feel or an individual opinion, they can challenge conventional thinking within an organisation.
Cerys said: “Retailers may have reams of historical data which is being added to all the time but not really know what to do with it. The right WFM tech can make sense of it all and give hugely beneficial granular insights into operations.”
Increased productivity is a direct result of successfully engaging employees by equipping them with the right tech.
Freed of time-consuming tasks, from walking to a physical clocking-in machine to filling in holiday request forms, they have more opportunities to deliver exceptional customer service.
Empowered by taking personal control over their work-life balance, their loyalty will rocket and they’ll want to work harder.
As employment laws grow ever more stringent, the latest WFM software can help to meet legal obligations.
With the right processes in places, retailers can input, measure and analyse to ensure they’re ticking all the right boxes for wages, working hours and GDPR.
Cerys concluded: “WFM is the ideal arena to trial new software and dip a toe into a change management project. Hypothesising what that change might be, testing it, repeating it and building a compelling business case can showcase both the benefits and potential barriers.
“A data-driven approach with a small sample size can put you in an informed position to consider the best way forward.
“For retailers who want to establish differentiation and protect themselves in this increasingly volatile industry, keeping up with the evolution of WFM is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.”