The CEOs of 181 major US businesses have issued a statement saying that corporations should no longer value shareholder profit above all. Instead, they believe that high-level goals – like considering customers, the environment, employees, suppliers and the community at large – should take precedence.
This announcement doesn’t surprise us at REPL. We’ve already seen a change in focus around many of these objectives, in particular workforce transformation (WFT). In this article, we explore the changing nature of workforce management and how advanced workforce transformation systems offer a brave new world of possibility.
How WFM has Changed: From Profit to People
“When we started with WFT,” says Robin Hayman, solutions director at REPL, “retailers were focussed on efficiency and trying to find ways to save money. Today this technology is all about unlocking time to invest in employees as loyalty takes centre stage in the fight to differentiate on the basis of service and drive recruitment cost savings.
“Retention is no longer simply about the right person at the right time, but the appropriate skill set and someone who promotes your business suitably.”
How do workforce systems play a part in this changing landscape? The recent introduction of data science enables retailers to have far greater visibility across the employee lifecycle.
As Alex Williams, consulting manager at REPL says: “Instead of data being held in separate systems that only HR or operations could access, leaders can achieve greater crossover giving more people access to a wider range of metrics. This creates a shared experience and empowers leaders to highlight and track problems. And this insight empowers them to make smarter decisions that directly impact retention.”
Flying the Flag for Flexibility
Alongside loyalty, a key trend in workforce management (WFM) is flexibility. From a purely operational perspective, leveraging the benefits of a highly flexible workforce is extremely advantageous. However, what works for an employer doesn’t always work for employees or create the great employee experience that retailers want to provide.
As Alex notes: “There are still huge parts of the workforce who want consistent hours and schedules. Fully flexible contracts with no guaranteed working based on demand patterns won’t always be optimal for both parties.”
Instead, retailers often aim to achieve a good balance between permanent employees and more flexible contracts. “We’re seeing more people who want a flexible working pattern that can be amended as circumstances change. For example, in three months time, they’re going to university,” says Robin. “Employers are shifting focus to support employees having more control over their availability to work.”
Alongside workforce management solutions, companies are looking for options that enable them to manage an employee’s end-to-end experience. This includes effectively managing skills certifications, training and career progression, plus a wide range of other people management tasks and processes. And human capital management (HCM) solutions enable this.
Such solutions create a single platform from which to manage a wide range of HCM and WFM tools, like scheduling systems and e-learning courses. Having an integrated ecosystem enables retailers to promote engagement between the employee and the employer using integrated systems. Like advertising the range of career paths available or other offerings that are attractive to staff.
With a more visible and accessible package on offer, employers increase their ability to retain staff even when other retailers might be paying slightly more. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Benefits of HCM
While workforce management brings a range of benefits to retail businesses, HCM provides a wider range of tools that support a more advanced form of people management.
HCM includes every aspect of the employee lifecycle, including recruiting, employee onboarding, training, talent and benefit enrollment. This allows retailers to capture data which can be used to make better business decisions. While a lot of the same data points are used in both WFM and HCM systems, HCM is a much broader and more integrated approach to people systems. And it opens up exciting possibilities for organisations.
When REPL start a project with a client, the retailer is typically focussed on a small slice of what’s possible, for example implementing time and attendance or improving a payroll integration. However, Robin notes: “As we progress through various WFM components and the organisation’s system evolves, people begin to see the wider potential of HCM. We’re seeing a step change in customer maturity levels with retailers now thinking about longer term, interconnected solutions rather than a quick fix for the next two to three years.”
Introducing Artificial Intelligence and Unlocking Greater Potential for Employers
The new wave of workforce transformation systems differ to older versions because they’re more open and integrated making it easier to share data. “In the past, there was a lot of competition,” says Robin. “There was no way to collaborate easily, so WFM tools weren’t able to grow very quickly. However, the industry realised that customers don’t want multiple systems for multiple jobs. They want a single place where managers and employees can do whatever they need.”
To make this happen, technology providers are working to make it easier to integrate with other systems. “We’re seeing a lot of collaboration happening,” says Robin. “And the tech is also becoming more open so it enables everyone to connect systems and data. Instead of exporting data to spreadsheets to create an enterprise-level view of human capital, retailers can achieve this in a single platform.”
These open boundaries are also the key to unleashing future technological advances, like artificial intelligence (AI). “It’s not necessarily specific to retail,” says Alex, “but AI is the huge new driving force that will help retailers create a more personalised employee experience.”
By tapping into all the data points people have with a business, systems can create more tailored employee experiences. Like recommending relevant e-learning content based on an employee’s existing level of knowledge or the courses they’ve taken in the past. For AI to work, it relies on a large ecosystem of end-to-end data that covers the entire employee lifecycle from hiring to firing or retiring.
This can even be extended to programmes like onboarding, as Alex explains: “AI can also create personalised onboarding experiences that adapt to an individual’s role or level of seniority. For example, a graduate might want to hear more about corporate social responsibility – a big area of interest for generation Z. Or the system could provide a more structured modular approach for someone with a big four consultancy background.”
This level of personalisation can be balanced against corporate goals and delivering against the framework the organisation wants to offer.
Systems That Create Space for Innovation
In the past, this level of personalisation would have to be created manually by managers using materials from HR. As soon as the system takes up the load, managers are given more time to spend on other tasks more fitting to humans.
The end goal is not that AI takes peoples’ jobs but that it removes the routine elements. Whether that’s scheduling or building courses for employees, AI allows humans to use their natural talent for creativity. “This will free people to move to more creative roles,” says Robin, “Or come up with new ways of thinking and pushing innovation rather than spending time on day to day tasks that never really change or just need a little bit of help every now and again.”
AI-enabled systems also allow employees to provide on the spot feedback which can be used immediately to amend the programme or course. By constantly refining in this way, content remains relevant and engaging, keeping employees and employers happy with minimal effort.
And there are other advantages too. AI is also starting to impact WFM. By assessing how many people have already booked a certain period off, systems can advise staff of the likelihood of their time off request being approved before they submit it.
The system’s data can also feed back the other way to inform hiring, as Robin explains: “By understanding where there are shortages across the week, that information can be used to advise recruiters of the availability required from the next candidate.”
How Should Retailers Start Their Workforce Transformation Programme?
What you do next on your retail workforce transformation journey depends very much on where you are at the moment and your organisation’s ambition. If you have a system that’s running out of support, coming to the end of its life or becoming unmanageable you might be forced into upgrading certain elements.
If your systems aren’t dictating the way forward, Robin advises starting with strategy: “It’s important to have a clear vision for your organisation’s workforce. From there it’s a case of segmenting the plan – into payroll, time and attendance and HR for example – and writing a business case for each section to identify which will deliver most benefit. This helps you prioritise your development in order of best return on investment.”
Of course, budget plays a part too, however, the benefits that complete HCM provides will deliver enormous returns. Particularly as WFM starts to synergises with AI giving retailers access to even more powerful workforce transformation software.
Technology is the enabler that makes it easy to manage retail workforces in a way that works for everyone. HCM platforms are at the heart of helping businesses counter the perception that retail offers low pay with minimal employee benefits, limited flexibility and career growth. By adapting, training and investing in staff, retail employees will only become more engaged, more loyal and more likely to generate great returns on the investment made in them by their employer.
Find out how REPL helped M&S prepare for their workforce transformation journey.