The rollercoaster ride of the last two years has brought with it a multitude of lessons for retailers. Among them is just how critical an empowered and committed workforce is to the success of any business.
Developing that workforce is only set to become more challenging though. Be it through the allure and challenges of the gig economy, a predicted spike in post-COVID relocations and career re-thinks or even the mass recruitment drives from the likes of Amazon, competition for talent is fierce.
That means, looking ahead to 2022, retailers need to reframe their approach to the workforce. They need to recognise it for the source of competitive advantage it is, and invest accordingly, making the most of the latest industry insights and technologies.
Tech is transforming the retail workforce
Automation, machine learning and AI are all becoming an increasingly common part of the HR toolkit. And for good reason. The right tools can optimise the retail workforce in all manner of ways, and at every step of the employee journey – from recruitment and communication to opportunities for development and wellbeing.
In other words, the right technology can have a transformative effect on almost every aspect of creating a productive and engaged workforce.
Smart recruitment and retention
From the minute a job advert is published, AI and machine learning can begin to support hiring managers, playing a key role in CV and interview selection. It can help to optimise complex shift patterns, create consolidated digital platforms for communication between head office and staff, and improve employee experience (EX) by providing greater access to training and support. It can also play a role in big picture, strategic decisions too, monitoring diversity and inclusion (D&I), helping to facilitate a growing network of freelance workers, and ensuring compliance with what has fast become a minefield of regulation.
The right tech can be a lifesaver for hiring managers faced with a stack of job applications. In fact, a fifth (24%) of businesses already say they’ve started using AI-powered tools when it comes to acquiring talent, with another 56% of managers planning to adopt some form of automated technology for that purpose in the coming year, according to a report by The Sage Group.
The role of tech and AI-powered tools within recruitment can be multi-faceted. Machine learning software can conduct sentiment analysis on job descriptions to identify biased language, for example. But it can also be used to carry out far less sophisticated tasks, automating the scheduling of interviews or screening CVs using pre-set criteria. All which frees up hiring managers from repetitive jobs and allows them to focus on the more complex parts of the recruitment process.
It isn’t without risk though. In 2018, Amazon was forced to scrap its own AI recruitment tool after it was found to have an in-built bias against female candidates. Programmed to vet applicants by looking for patterns from successful candidates over the last 10 years, the software inevitably favoured men, which had dominated the tech industry for that period.
With awareness of the problem there are now concerted efforts to neutralise the bias built into these tools, and ensure they select the best candidates blind.
Automated workforce scheduling
It may be a critical part of optimising productivity, but workforce scheduling can also be both time-consuming and tedious. Particularly in retail, where shift patterns can be irregular, seasonal and subject to last-minute changes. Which is why a growing number of businesses are opting to integrate tools and technologies that can automate the process and improve how they use their most important resource: their people.
The benefits can be significant. Not only can this type of technology free up time by automating complex tasks, but it can also support retailers in making smarter scheduling decisions. For example, it can draw on ops and in-store data to strategically improve the efficiency of schedules, while managing fatigue to boost workplace safety.
After all, something as simple as stable work schedules can have a huge knock-on benefit to the performance and productivity of staff. A study at Gap found that so-called ‘stable scheduling’ in their US stores sharply increased average sales by 7%, while pushing up productivity by 8%. All this simply by eliminating on-calls – shifts that could be cancelled at the last minute – and posting employee schedules two weeks in advance. And with the right tech this type of transition can be far smoother, and far less of a headache for store managers.
Investment in employee communication channels
Though frontline retail staff were one of the few industries largely unaffected by a shift to remote work at the height of the pandemic, the experience has still served to highlight to retail head offices the importance of digital touchpoints that allow them to keep communication channels with their staff open, wherever they might be.
The creation of mobile workforce apps is expected to grow as a result. Acting as next-generation intranets, these apps can serve as a portal through which employees can receive all sorts of information, from company updates to a reminder of health and wellbeing tools available to them. Communication needn’t be one-way either. They can also provide a platform through which employees can communicate with one another, share feedback with line managers, or even access hotlines. All which helps speed up responses to both internal and external events.
Fashion brand Coach is one example of an early adopter of this technology. The company, which has 1,000 stores worldwide, wanted to consolidate its corporate intranet and so created CoachWeb, an app available across all employees’ smartphones and tables that created a one-stop platform for information, allowed them to respond to HR questions more quickly and avoid any duplicated messaging.
Focus on employee experience
The post-pandemic era has also brought with it a renewed focus on EX in order to bolster retention. In fact, more than nine in 10 employers (92%) say that enhancing EX will be a priority over the next three years, compared to just 52% that said the same prior to the pandemic, according to research by Willis Towers Watson.
Employees echo this. According to The Sage Group, 78% said working for a company with great EX would have a huge impact on their productivity. For millennials – a generation which make up almost half of today’s workforce – this jumps far higher to 92%. In retail, where notoriously high turnover rates are a major drain on cost, this sentiment is likely to be amplified.
Thankfully, tech can be a great enabler when it comes to improving EX quickly. For example, the trend of ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) is being recognised as a great way to empower staff on the shopfloor, by allowing them to use their own devices to access information in real-time, and more easily address customer queries. The same approach can also be used to serve employees with digital training tools they can access whether at work or at home, helping to challenge perceptions of retail as a stopgap role by creating universal opportunities to upskill. According to Cisco Consulting Service, when done right BYOD can create an added value of $1,650 per employee.
Early wage access (EWA) is another boost to EX that is gaining profile and can be facilitated with automated tools. EWA allows staff to access wages they’ve earned prior to payday giving them far greater control over their finances.
Finally there are a growing number of AI-powered HR chatbots, tools that are increasingly sophisticated and can provide staff with easy, 24/7 access to support on common questions, concerns and problems.
Diversity & inclusion powered by tech
The business case for prioritising D&I within a workforce has only strengthened over time. A 2019 analysis by McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to achieve above-average profits, than those companies in the fourth quartile.
As we’ve explored above, AI and machine learning can both provide both a help and hindrance when it comes to reducing bias in recruitment – providing a tool for ‘blind’ recruiting while also being at risk from ingrained data bias. But the role of tech in improving D&I doesn’t stop at the recruitment stage, with a growing array of sentiment management solutions that can also help retailers better monitor the equality of experience across their employees.
Though still at a nascent stage, these solutions can scan comments and feedback to gauge whether staff feel equally supported across their roles, and comfortable with the workplace environment. They can be embedded across employee engagement surveys or other channels of communication, ensuring D&I is monitored across all levels of an organisation.
But – as with those tools used in recruitment – these technologies are only as good as the people designing and implementing them.
Growth of the gig economy
Fuelled by the promise of flexibility and an end to the typical ‘9-5,’ the gig economy is flourishing. From delivery drivers to virtual assistants, graphic designers to IT specialists, the number of people opting for freelance work over full-time employment is growing at a rapid pace. In fact, global gig-economy transactions are forecast to grow by 17% a year to around $455 billion by 2023, according to a report from Mastercard.
For retailers looking to take advantage of the services of gig economy workers, tech can help facilitate freelance hires in all sorts of ways, from full-blown hiring apps that communicate directly with a network of self-employed workers, to automated payroll software that can support retailers in tracking invoices and payments.
Remote management technology can also be used to oversee and consolidate the detail of freelance contracts, monitor assigned tasks and provide a channel for feedback and communication. They can also automate onboarding procedures tailored to the needs of a gig economy worker and made available across personal devices.
With a more hybrid workforce set to become mainstream in the coming years, retailers will need to make increasing use of one or more of these tools in order to ensure a smooth transition.
There is now a maze of evolving regulations that retailers are required to keep track of and comply with, from Brexit, to GDPR, contractor classification and the gender pay gap. Doing so can often require the appointment of costly third-party specialists or take up significant internal resources. The additional paperwork and tariffs required as of the end of the transition period on 1 January 2021, for instance, saw many retailers hire carriers as custom agents in order to avoid the pitfalls of non-compliance.
But technology designed to automate compliance is fast gaining traction as a more cost-effective solution. On the one hand, these tools can remove many of the time-consuming administrative tasks associated with compliance, by automating document audits, scheduling reviews at key moments or creating alerts to relevant changes in regulation.
On the other, they can dig into the vast amount of data held within an organisation to flag areas vulnerable to non-compliance. This can be particularly useful when it comes to areas such as GDPR or cybersecurity.
With the advent of further international trade deals and a more interventionist regulatory approach to issues such as the environment, the level of focus required on compliance within retail is only set to grow. Technologies such as these will undoubtedly be used as part of the solution.
Build a workforce (em)powered by the latest technologies
The expectations upon businesses are changing fast. And, as COVID proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s those businesses prepared and poised for this change, and ready to adapt to whatever external events might bring, that will ultimately succeed and secure the loyalty of their customer base.
That kind of agility is only possible though with a workforce of passionate people empowered to perform at their very best, and committed to delivering the very best in customer service.
For far too long that element has often been overlooked. With many parts of retail operating under a ‘just in time’ model, investment in the recruitment and retention of employees has often been pushed to the bottom of the agenda, resulting in eye-wateringly costly levels of turnover at many companies.
On this front, retailers need to think again and recognise the huge value of an empowered workforce. Not least given the growing sophistication of transformative technologies that can free up hiring managers from monotonous tasks, optimise scheduling and communication channels, monitor diversity and boost EX substantially.
By making best use of these tools and technologies everyone works smarter. Staff become more engaged and productive. Organisations become more inclusive. Scheduling becomes more strategic. And most importantly of all, customers notice the difference.