The roadmap for resilience in retail

By Mike Callender, executive chairman, REPL Group

Resilience has become a very hot topic in retail as the industry faces a winter whammy of another wave of Covid-19, widespread seasonal flu infections and continuing confusion about official pandemic policy.

Staffing levels could drop precipitously and talk of local lockdowns will add to the feeling of uncertainty. Without a plan and the right technology to face these challenges, many retail business-leaders may drop their heads into their hands.

There is however, a defined route they should follow towards resilience as soon as they can. Any crisis has three stages – response, restart and resilience. Most of us are somewhere between the second and third, but now is the time when we must push on towards embedding resilience in our organisations.

The four stages on the road to resilience

This road to resilience has four staging posts, each of which addresses unique aspects of retail in the Covid-19 era. Firstly, retailers must prepare for growth in absenteeism as we head into winter. To reduce its impact, organisations need uniform procedures for quarantining and testing as a bare minimum so they can assess the scale of the challenge and be ready to reduce the risk of spreading infection. Then they must ensure they can onboard additional staff rapidly, filling shifts as required.

The only way to achieve this is through an app-led approach that enables employers to gain a complete picture of employee availability and broadcast their requirements for unfilled shifts. Employees need to trade shifts transparently with one another so organisations maximise availability and resources with least hassle. The ease-of-use makes for faster on-boarding, but with the bonus that training, assessments and videos about adherence to Covid-19 health and safety procedures are there ready to be consumed on employees’ phones. This accessibility is a key point, with shop-floor staff traditionally presenting a communication challenge for head office.

Be ready for local lockdowns

Fast communication with different groups of employees will also be essential to the next stage on the journey to resilience, which is about being ready for local lockdowns. There were complaints that the Leicester lockdown restrictions were re-imposed with little warning, while in Aberdeen the Scottish government gave hospitality venues only a few hours’ notice.

Instead of having to furiously phone around employees at short notice, managers must be able to send out messages about restrictions as soon as they need to, segmenting their workforces easily and accurately according to location, status and seniority. There is no point telling employees in London to prepare for the re-imposition of restrictions in Birmingham, but equally, some employees may commute long distances and must be included when they are affected. Preparation will take care of this. Fast, secure communication must be a priority.

This addresses the commencement of local lockdowns. But when they end and stores reopen, segmented communications allow for quick, HR-compliant mandatory surveys of employee health, giving managers greater insight into resourcing requirements, while reducing the risk of infected employees returning. Notifications about the return should be matched to the employee’s responses. Information should include details of what staff and managers must do to get the store back up and running.

Be ready for inconsistent public health policy statements

Stage three in our journey brings us to the inevitable uncertainties in official policy. We have already seen rules change about mask-wearing on retail premises, while the track-and-trace system in the UK had a shaky start. It remains to be seen whether an app for this will be developed. If and when a Covid-19 vaccine is developed, we can expect to see a similar level of confusion about its use. It will after all, be a vast project to inoculate tens of millions of people.

How can retailers deal with this? Primarily through fast communication and micro-training as the guidelines evolve. Short, punchy micro-training sessions need to be created, including video, sent directly to an employee’s phone. They can be linked to particular areas of work, providing maximum relevance to keep employees engaged and up-to-date. Employee feedback should tell companies where they are getting it right or in danger of sowing more confusion. Again, pulse surveys will give a picture of which employees need more support.

Providing reassurance about safety

This leads us to the final, fourth staging post, which concerns safety and the perception of safety. Many employees and customers will remain nervous about contracting Covid-19 from retail premises as we head into winter, so organisations must provide practical reassurance. Just as contactless payment methods have taken, off, so it is time for employers to increase the use of contactless technology for employees.

App-based clock-ins are an obvious way of removing unnecessary physical contact, removing the necessity to swipe a finger-print scanner or sign a register. In fact, the entire app-based approach increases contactless efficiency right across an organisation. Rules, requirements or information sheets relating to specific workplaces, including warehouses, can all be digitised and made accessible through a phone app. Reassurance can also be provided by informing employees quickly if they have been in contact with an infected person and should take appropriate action. This can be achieved discretely via an app, adhering to privacy requirements.

This ability to bring so much functionality together and make it easily accessible to employees, wherever they are, is critical to embedding resilience in retail organisations as we move towards the uncertainties of winter. This is an approach that brings near-immediate gains in collaboration at any scale, enabling retailers to face the coming months with far greater confidence.

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