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Coronavirus: Retailers reach for tech to keep staff connected in the crisis

From fast-tracking home-working strategy, to conducting training and board meetings virtually, read about how retailers are keeping staff connected during the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How retailers are staying connected during their coronavirus shutdown

Imagine the scene – it’s pre-lockdown in London, days before UK chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), and probably less than a quarter of the population have ever heard of the word “furlough”.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has effectively banned consumers from visiting pubs, restaurants and other hospitality premises, without actually telling these operators they must close their doors.

Restaurant chain Honest Burgers, which has 39 UK branches, has pivoted to sell its menu solely online through an established Deliveroo partnership – a move it will temporarily halt due to staff safety concerns in what was to become an escalated health crisis.

The HR and operations leaders at the company are sitting in one of the restaurants having just gained approval from private equity backer, Active, that all staff will be guaranteed 50% of their pay over the coming months, despite the shutdown.

The two department bosses are about to tell their 700 employees this news, which comes at a time of significant uncertainty for them and the sector. Then, the message is sent, and it is distributed via the Workplace from Facebook platform.

“It wasn’t an email and a nicely crafted announcement – it was raw,” says Honest’s head of people, Chantal Wilson, who says staff responded positively to the news, despite what she explains as the senior team’s disappointment it could not afford more.

When communications are conveyed on Workplace from Facebook, the messenger sees other members of staff logging on, and Wilson admits there was a nervousness as they awaited the real-time reaction.

At the time, many in the wider hospitality industry thought they were facing unemployment and no pay, and had no idea what the future held, but this news and – days later – Sunak’s furloughing statement and assurances that 80% of people’s salaries would be paid brought an element of security.

Wilson adds that Sunak made the Honest pay promise and related nervousness “irrelevant” by announcing the CJRS, but welcomed the government intervention, adding that the incident is just one example of how technology has played a central role in keeping staff up to date in the crisis.

Getting into bed with tech

Honest’s use of technology during the pandemic includes utilising Workplace from Facebook for the co-founder to run weekly fitness classes with staff via online video. It has also been the hub by which staff have been able to find out how much they are getting paid – a subject that has become more complicated in times of furlough.

The latter process is aided by The Bot Platform, which is Facebook Messenger’s and Workplace from Facebook’s preferred bot building software partner.

Honest’s internal IT team has adapted the tech, tweaking it for its own staff learning and development strategy, which has become increasingly important in the pandemic. From 4 May, approximately 150 staff left furlough to help support a return to a delivery-only service from eight restaurants, and they needed new skills.

Wilson says Honest wants to avoid staff getting tangled up in lengthy administration, so it uses bots to help get the workforce up to speed with new safety measures and operational advice related to the reopening.

“The bot platform has trigger words so you log on via the chat function with words such as ‘budgeting’,” she notes, adding courses and manuals are now “obsolete” at Honest.

“It’s a real user-generated learning platform – and because it’s built for us, we didn’t have to pay for loads of features we didn’t want. It just gives us huge adaptability.”

Having brought in Workplace from Facebook a year ago, Honest has made it a “cornerstone” of how the business works, according to Wilson.

“To make it thrive, you have to eliminate all the other noise, such as Microsoft Outlook calendars, email, text messages, WhatsApp – we actually streamlined everything into Workplace right from the get-go and said this is 100% our tool to engage outside of human connection.”

In addition to bots, and communication software, Honest has introduced technology that has allowed the chain to plot which restaurants it should reopen, based on employee proximity to sites and consumer traffic.

“For me, it was inevitable we were going to have to get in bed with tech and learn as a team we couldn’t just outsource something to an IT department,” Wilson says, explaining she made the decision last year to bring in a learning architect. “We don’t need to be coders but we need to be pretty close.”

At home with tech

While Honest had already built in these remote communication techniques prior to the crisis, using technology to keep bosses and the wider workforce connected, other businesses have had to adapt to the changed world quickly.

Footwear retailer Dune closed down its stores across the UK before the government officially ordered non-essential operators to do so, and head office staff who remain working are now communicating in new ways – from their own homes.

Microsoft Teams is being deployed across the business, fast tracking a move that was already in the pipeline. At present, Skype for Business is still used in places but will ultimately be replaced by Teams across departments as the business continues its IT modernisation as a Microsoft house.

To help support this shift, Dune has been utilising its pre-existing relationship with Freshworks – a partnership it has had for the best part of a year now – using the provider’s software to help run the internal service desk.

According to Dave Abbott, head of IT service delivery at Dune Group, the company took 1,000 IT service-related phone calls during first week of working from home as the lockdown began, and there was a 500% increase in internal support emails.

“It was pretty seamless, which is impressive because we’ve never adopted working from home on a large scale at Dune,” says Abbott.

“We started a smart-working initiative in February, which involves working core hours between 10am and 4.30pm, and either starting earlier or finishing later – there’s also an opportunity to work from home as part of the shift. It’s been on the radar for a while but was confirmed to be trialled from February, and we’ve accelerated because of the coronavirus.”

He added that it entails a cultural shift in the business but it is something the organisation is embracing to consistently improve the employee experience, regardless of the current crisis.

Dune’s customer experience team use a range of Freshworks’ tools to support consumer conversions, with the retailer pleased with the impact the supplier has had on its internal and external business communications.

Running board meetings with tech

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, the enterprise collaboration software market is a crowded one, and individual businesses will either choose one or use a combination of several providers.

Video-conferencing platform Zoom announced at the end of April it has surpassed 300 million daily meeting participants globally as the Covid-19 pandemic has put pay to many meetings that would have otherwise taken place in person.

Zoom is gaining traction in the non-corporate world too, as families and friends seek the digital tools to stay in touch with one another during this unique time of health crisis and social distancing. In response, Facebook has rolled out Messenger Rooms, which facilitates 50-person video calls, to try to gain more of the action.

Providers of technology specifically for the business world have been updating their systems to deal with greater demand, and in some cases amending their terms. Mobile messaging app Yapster, which is used by companies such as Brewdog, Caffè Nero, and Krispy Kreme in the UK, was made available free of charge to companies that have been severely affected by the government’s coronavirus containment measures.

As the crisis unfolded, Yapster said businesses with more than 100 staff on temporary leave can sign up to use its instant messaging, allowing their teams to stay connected until lockdown measures are lifted. Around 20 companies have taken advantage of the offer, and Yapster says there is no obligation to buy once normal business activity resumes.

There are many examples of how the pandemic has changed internal communication techniques in retail and hospitality, from front-line workers to senior directors.

For UK grocer Morrisons, one of the busiest retailers during this time due to its essential food retailer status, the board has been combining more virtual conversations with “lots of emails”, says chairman Andy Higginson.

“We had a board meeting just before the lockdown – we had two or three people there, and others dialling in,” he says. “We’ve done our year-end numbers during this period too, and that was a virtual thing. We’re probably going to have to do the same for the AGM in June – it’s all about keeping the lines of communications open.”

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