Roundtable: What comes next for retail?

Retail Gazette and Ceridian hosted a virtual roundtable considering the pandemic’s impact on retail workforce management, and the processes involved in reopening head offices and stores.

Roundtable: What comes next for retail?

Professional services organisation PwC published its annual CEO survey in March, helping give a broad picture of UK boardroom thinking.

Some 62 per cent of chief executives said helping to deliver a skilled, educated and adaptable workforce for the UK should be a business priority this year, while 45 per cent indicated they are addressing workplace culture and behaviour to drive competitiveness.

Retailers are facing up to these issues and more as they plan the return to head office and reopening of shops in the weeks ahead following a shift to coronavirus-enforced remote working and store closures. Many organisations are mapping out how they can bring flexibility and productivity to the workforce by offering a hybrid of remote and in-office work, while weighing up how shops now need to run as the crisis subsides.

So-called non-essential retailers were permitted to reopen their shops on April 12, making it a pivotal time for the industry to address health and safety, human resources (HR) management, and corporate policy.

At such a crucial period for the industry, it was apt Retail Gazette could bring several people bosses together to discuss what comes next for their organisations and the retail sector as a whole.

The event, which ran in partnership with HR software and solutions provider Ceridian, welcomed retail decision makers from Co-op Group, Costa Coffee, Cotton Traders, Dixons Carphone, La Perla, Mole Valley Farmers, N Brown Group, Sainsbury’s, The Hut Group, and Wilko.

From Covid-testing processes and general staff wellbeing to future working models and technology to improve HR management, multiple subjects were addressed at the event.

Office politics

Dr Martens chief executive Kenny Wilson was quoted in the PwC report saying the office is going to be important “as part of a mixed model of work” as companies focus on how to operate post pandemic.

“We’ve learned we can be more flexible around that mix, but we’ve also learned that we really lose something when we don’t have people coming together and collaborating,” he commented.

This was a key issue raised at the roundtable, with the majority of participants grappling with what represents the right mix of homeworking and office. The general consensus was leaders now trust their staff away from the office and remote work opens up opportunities to expand recruitment geographically.

Several roundtablers said they have put in place a booking system for people who want to work at head office, ensuring social distancing protocol can be followed. Others have placed thermal imaging cameras on their premises as another safety measure.

Ongoing people management and workforce communication will be crucial to maintain harmony in these unusual times. Retailers at the event shared best practice to keep motivation high.

Caroline Bendelow, people and organisational development director at Mole Valley Farmers, told the roundtable: “A key thing we did to engage staff during the pandemic was to share results of a customer survey with them to show how their actions made shoppers feel safe and secure.

“This type of communication empowers staff, and really underlines to them the importance of following new protocols from both a health and safety, and commercial perspective. Indeed, we wanted to make sure we fostered a feeling of ‘everyone is in this together’.”

She added: “In addition to a number of protocols, and a befriending support network for shielding and lonely staff, we also invested in learning and development initiatives including resilience and working from home, all communicated by a new intranet where all departments could communicate with one another, access the same messages and access learning and engagement – these platforms will be important even when the health crisis subsides.” 

Several retailers involved in the discussion said they intended to use their store estates more for bringing staff together, following the pandemic. This is viewed as a way to provide more localised hubs for staff, and to help build relationships between head office and frontline workers in these difficult times.

Skills and recruitment 

The PwC survey found 66 per cent of chief executives are set to increase their investment on leadership and talent development in the year ahead, but recruitment in retail has not stopped in the pandemic – especially in those businesses deemed “essential” such as grocers.

Some roundtablers said there are members of their staff who are yet to meet in person due to the virtual nature of recruitment, induction, and onboarding in 2020. One acknowledged no-one can truly understand the culture of a business until they have worked in its offices for a period of time, but there was a general agreement recruitment in a time of coronavirus has been relatively positive.

Interview candidates can be less formal, explained one retailer, who said this makes it easier to relax into discussions that come as part of the recruitment process.

“They can bring the best version of themselves to the table,” she said, suggesting virtual interviews should play a part in future recruitment strategy.

Another participant noted one danger a remote workforce is people can “hide in the background”. It was a reminder that even though digital communication has proved successful in the pandemic, there is a still a requirement for HR leaders to do all they can to be inclusive and ensure everyone is involved and engaged in business affairs.

Increased agility supported by tech 

One retailer admitted to being “more agile than ever” during the pandemic, adding this adaptable approach to workforce management needs to be maintained as society continues to open up again following the health crisis.

Another said “technology is more important than ever to HR teams”, particularly as economic challenges as a result of the pandemic become clearer in the months ahead and retail staff may need earlier access to pay or the ability to self-serve HR information.

Jonathan Worrall, head of HR at Cotton Traders, told the roundtable: “For many retailers, it has been a case of surviving the last year – on announcement of the first lockdown, it was clear the situation was going to be very damaging for shops and retail businesses in general and the outlook wasn’t good for the industry.

“But for those out the other side, there’s now a real opportunity to look at how some of the temporary measures put in place can be made more permanent. There are so many opportunities in embracing a more flexible working world and using technology to support it all.” 

Helen Seale, district vice president for enterprise at Ceridian, and a participant in the roundtable discussion, said as retailers map out their people strategies for post-pandemic trading, some key priorities stand out above all others.

“It’s encouraging to see staff wellbeing and improving connectivity between head office and the front-line are high up retailer’s to-do lists – and it’s clear many companies are investing new technology to support these plans,” she explained.

“It’s been a turbulent time and the retail industry looks a lot different to how it did just one year ago, with accelerated online sales, fewer shops, new working patterns and locations. Retail has had to be fleet of foot over the last decade but the last year has cemented the need for retailers to build in agility to their workforce management processes so they can twist and turn in line with an ever evolving industry and, and technology that can align to a strong people strategy can help them do just that.”

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