How to optimise the potential in your people

How to optimise the potential in your people
Jason Toogood

Retail relies on an engaged and committed workforce.

Never was that clearer than at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis where the critical role of frontline staff was laid bare – a Waitrose store worker even featured on the cover of Vogue as part of a collective appraisal of their role.

It’s why it’s so critical that retailers take the time to understand the health, wellbeing and engagement of their workforce – and take steps to improve all three.

So, where should they focus their efforts?

Focusing on professional development

Too often neglected in retail, opportunities for professional development (PD) are a key way that companies can ensure employees remain engaged, satisfied and loyal. It can also set them apart from the competition. According to one study, those companies that rate highly in employee training see 53% lower performance erosion over time.

With an often diverse and disparate workforce this can prove challenging though. For one, how can retailers practically provide training or workshops en masse? Second, how they can identify where the biggest skills gap lies, and do so on an ongoing basis?

There are forward-thinking businesses that have managed it, largely by making use of an emerging collection of digital platforms that utilize machine learning and digital education tools to deliver personalised support.

At AT&T, for example, the US telecoms company has been making use of an online self-service platform since 2014. Not only does the platform allow its more than 200,000 employees to track their own personal development, but it also directs them to tailored PD recommendations, from short courses to online degrees. Its inbuilt tool ‘Career Profile’ for instance gathers an employee’s existing skills and creates an individualised profile where they can see any skills gaps – and see how to close it.

Building creative remuneration packages

Retail is dogged by its often-low hourly rates. Rates which hardly budged in the last 40 years. Which is why more strategic and creative remuneration packages will be a key way that retailers can stay ahead of the curve on recruitment.

One option is simply to boost base pay – and shout about it. It’s an approach taken by the likes of discount supermarket chains Aldi and Lidl, both of which regularly publicize increases in their hourly rates and highlight how this compares to other major multiples.

Another is to explore packages that include less traditional benefits alongside salary. This route gives retailers a huge amount of flexibility and could include anything (and everything) from free lunches, to store discounts, purpose-driven volunteering opportunities, and support with their education. Increasingly, support with mental health will feature as part of these non-traditional benefits, particularly given the toll of the pandemic.

In 2021, Amazon introduced its ‘Resources for Living’ scheme, a free programme made available to all 950,000 US employees that provided access to a range of mental health tools, including one-on-one counselling sessions.

Going forward, the most successful retailers will be those that embrace both sides of the remuneration coin: financial and non-financial.

Creating comfortable, safe workspaces

Where we work – whether a store, warehouse or office – can have a huge impact on how we feel about who we work for, and the role we do. Which is why retailers mustn’t neglect the physical work environment when taking steps to improve employee engagement and performance.

The devil is in the detail here. Temperature, air quality and acoustics can all play a role in how comfortable a workplace environment is. How well a chair fits, or the availability of separate areas to relax during breaks can also make a big difference to emotional wellness.

The good news is that there are all sorts of ways retailers can make improvements here. Provide free fruit, give staff the option of standing desks, ensure plenty of access to natural light… there are all sorts of ways to make a meaningful difference.

Workplace safety too is, of course, an increasingly important component of this, with the pandemic forcing many companies to rethink work environments. At US retailer Target staff were provided with face masks and gloves, rigourous cleaning routines were implemented, and plexiglass partitions were installed in checkout lanes.

It’s critical though that this focus doesn’t begin and end with the pandemic.

 How retail needs to step up on recruitment and retention

Going forward, retailers will need to pay ever closer attention to the engagement of their workforce, if they’re to avoid high rates of turnover and losing talent to the competition.

That means carefully considering all three areas explored in this piece.

Professional development: Providing ongoing training and upskilling opportunities for all workers.

Pay and benefits: Building attractive and imaginative remuneration packages, that deliver holistic benefits.

Workplace environment: Designing workplaces – be they stores, warehouses or offices – that support physical, emotional and environmental wellness.

To find out more about exactly how to approach all three areas, take a look at all the latest resources available from REPL here.



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