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Retail’s staff engagement and happiness problem – can tech help?

Keeping staff engaged, motivated, connected and content is no easy task for retailers, but the industry is exploring new tools and techniques to improve the workplace

Retail has a problem when it comes to retaining, recruiting and motivating staff.

Only two retailers – Oliver Bonas and Schuh – have been named among the 50 best companies to work for in the UK, according to employer review website Glassdoor’s Best places to work 2022 survey.

All four retailers which appeared in the index in 2021 – Greggs, Majestic Wine, The Body Shop and Waitrose – do not feature this year, with employee and ex-employee reviews more favourable elsewhere.

ServiceNow, AND Digital and Salesforce were the top three companies respectively, and Meta, Microsoft and Google all appeared in the top 20, highlighting the popularity of (and, seemingly, positive staff engagement from) technology and digital industries.

The Glassdoor survey is just one index, of course, but another company tracking wellbeing in the workplace suggests retail and hospitality have some of the unhappiest staff. WorkL, the employee happiness monitor set up by former Waitrose managing director Mark Price, picks out instilling pride and wellbeing as the two areas where retail staff rank their employer poorly and where there’s much room for improvement.

Data from WorkL shows that on the wellbeing ranking, only the chemicals and mining industry sits below retail. It also suggests that retail industry happiness has plummeted in the pandemic, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the major challenges it has faced operating on what effectively constitutes the Covid ‘frontline’ over the past 23 months.

Talking at The Retail Trust Leaders’ Summit last November, Price said: “None of us want to have a workforce feeling anxious and depressed who have a high wellbeing risk.”

He added that a happier workforce makes for better business performance. And, according to conversations and presentations at the Retail Trust event, workplace happiness comes when employees are given flexibility and when businesses make efforts to forge a suitable working environment by talking openly to their people.

Wellbeing strategies are all the rage, and it appears retailers are increasingly recognising that they have a duty of care to support whatever staff are going through. Price suggested it is wise for retailers to be proactive here, arguing that a “battle for labour” looks set to unfold in the year ahead – indeed, several retailers reported challenges in recruitment ahead of the recent peak trading season.

Much of the positive work in supporting staff welfare and development is now being done through the use of new technology or digital platforms.

Asda allies with Glassdoor’s number one

UK grocer Asda has deployed the services of number one Glassdoor-ranked ServiceNow to access its cloud-based software, which is used for automating routine work tasks. ServiceNow’s mantra is that it “makes work, work better for people”, and Asda is looking to implement the technology as part of its wider digital transformation.

The idea is that by implementing tools to make members of staff happy, it will reflect positively on customer service.

The Now Platform is set to become the central place for Asda’s 140,000-strong workforce, including store and office-based colleagues, to process queries, raise questions, and retrieve information. Staff will reportedly be able to speed up the resolution of requests to enhance their productivity.

Workers in stores will have the opportunity to access the system via mobile devices on the shopfloor, while administrative colleagues will use laptops in the office.

As part of the support service, ServiceNow is promising to make it easier for Asda staff to navigate complex processes to get the information they need in their preferred channels, as well as align with ITIL standards to streamline and manage access and availability of services and fulfil requests.

Carl Dawson, chief information officer at Asda, said: “The UK’s retail sector has been faced with a number of challenges in recent years, not least keeping deliveries moving and shelves stocked during the pandemic, and we needed to innovate to keep a competitive edge in a fast-changing world.”

He also suggests that the new technology will enable Asda “to pioneer new ideas and invest in digital transformation across the entire business” that will accelerate innovation in stores and improve how the customer interacts with the retailer.

Jordi Ferrer, vice-president and general manager for ServiceNow in the UK and Ireland, said that his company will provide the tools “to increase innovation and enhance the customer experience while increasing employee engagement and effectiveness”.

“This is a great demonstration of how Asda believes in its employees and their ability by investing in tools to help them work better and more effectively,” he added.

Carpetright lays down new systems

Since the turn of the year, flooring retailer Carpetright has announced the launch of several internal tools aimed at supporting its workforce.

After the launch of its careers website in January, which leans heavily on what existing staff say about the business to promote new roles and careers with the retailer, Carpetright followed up in February by unveiling a new internal communications platform across its estate and a dedicated learning platform for the workforce.

Known as Interact, supported by Interact Software, the comms tool aims to streamline employee communications, as well as become “a one-stop shop” for colleagues to find information and link through to useful websites to support their jobs. The platform contains daily updates and information, including content related to positive mental wellbeing.

Carpetright said the software will assist the retailer in developing learning plans, conducting research and allowing each of its departments to create shareable content.

A Glo Learn virtual area sits within the wider platform, and after what Carpetright described as 10 months of development, this service now helps create bespoke learning for staff. The training is “fun and interactive”, according to the business, and modernises employee development processes.

Schuh in the zone

Following Schuh’s recently announced ranking in the Glassdoor top 50, a spokesperson for the retailer said “employee engagement is paramount” for the business.

“We have added new benefits to our rewards platform and supplemented our existing wellbeing programme with further services to provide additional support to our staff and their families,” they remarked.

“During the lockdown periods, we held weekly online events to stay connected to our people and to maintain a fun work environment. We have adapted our ways of working so that we can recruit and induct new members of the Schuh family remotely, and we continue to offer opportunities to learn and progress.”

The spokesperson added: “Training is a massive part of what we do at Schuh. We recognise the importance of investing time in our people from day one and throughout their careers with us.”

Culture change

Whether it is evolving to become a hybrid working environment, shifting to a four-day week, truly tackling diversity and inclusion in the workplace, using new technology to support staff training, or shining a light on employee welfare more generally, culture change is required.

That was a key message from the Retail Trust event at the end of last year, with Price – who was Waitrose managing director between 2007 and 2016 – describing culture as “the sediment of past transactions”, adding that it is “very hard to change a culture”.

Management need to live their values, he said, and demonstrate “day in, day out” that they believe in the wellbeing of their workforce or, for example, in the flexible working practices they deploy. They can’t just say it, they have to show it.

Andrew Jurd, head of human resources for retail at Next and a panellist at the same event, said that flexibility is “inherently” built in to how Next manages its shift and contract workers, but he acknowledged there are big challenges around permitting managers more flexible working options.

“The flexibility dwindles because the perception is ‘We need you here all the time’,” he noted.

“We need to focus on the management level – I think it’s a fear thing. We need to go through the [working from home] epiphany with management structures and start to say, ‘Actually, it can work’.”

Jurd revealed that Next is exploring how a four-day week style set-up might work for some staff. There is also more flexibility now, for example in allowing area meetings to be conducted from home where appropriate to reduce time spent in the office and allow staff to build these catch-ups more neatly into their day.

The advent of technology, including online video conferencing platforms, for example, enables such a move – and in many ways, that is one of the true positive stories of the pandemic’s impact on the world of work.

But whether retailers adopt tech to help improve life for staff or not, Price argues that the priority for driving workplace happiness centres on one particular relationship.

“The single most important thing determining mental, physical [and] financial wellbeing at work, and your propensity to leave, is your relationship with your line manager – it is absolutely critical,” he explained citing data tracked by WorkL.

“If there’s one really big lesson to learn it is about equipping line managers to help people have a better experience in their working life – it’s the single most important thing you can do.”

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