Let’s Hear It For The Frontline!
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The challenges facing retailers have been dominating the headlines recently — whether it’s slowing consumer spending, looming economic headwinds, rising costs, or margin pressure.

But what about the challenges facing retail workers themselves? This is one often-overlooked piece of the puzzle as retail leaders look to solve the conundrum of satisfying customers and securing growth in an increasingly recessionary business environment.

Because, despite the significant role they play in our economy, retail workers are still often undervalued and under-appreciated. Let’s not forget they were on the front line during the pandemic, keeping economies running by ensuring essential goods and services were available to the public.

They kept shelves stocked, helped customers navigate safety protocols, and maintained a sense of normalcy during an incredibly challenging time. It’s important we all acknowledge their dedication, just as we did for medical professionals.

Retail leaders rise to the occasion

With almost nine in every ten retail executives worried about employee turnover and wage-inflation, clearly, a more fundamental rethink is needed. The imperative is to ensure the sector remains a supportive, engaging, and rewarding place to build a career. This ultimately benefits customers, communities, businesses, as well as employees themselves.

It may sound simple, but it starts with being human and having empathy. When times are difficult, leaders need to not only inspire their workers, but also show they genuinely care about their wellbeing. Those who can are typically much more effective at creating greater motivation and improving retention.

This is partly a question of emotional intelligence. It’s about really listening and responding to people across the business, giving them confidence that their voices are being heard. And it’s about building an environment where people feel they can bring their whole selves to work in a culture of safety and equality.

It’s also a question of leadership style. It means foregoing some of the outdated “command and control” methods of yesteryear and instead taking a more facilitative and enabling approach to running the business. It means being agile and innovative, continuously questioning, learning, and reinventing business practices – in an open, transparent and collaborative way.

Redefining retail careers

Another important aspect is the extent to which frontline retail workers can take on new challenges, learn new skills, and advance their careers. The good news is the digital economy provides many opportunities for them to do so—whether that’s becoming a digital brand ambassador, a social media micro-influencer, a store-based live-streamer, or even a personal stylist and product consultant. Through digital, so much more is possible that doesn’t require a relocation to headquarters.

But other, more traditional strategies remain just as important. Take executive training programs, which have long been a mainstay of retail businesses, but have sometimes been only for top leaders at headquarters. What if these programs could reach the frontline worker providing a launchpad for new career opportunities. Imagine how this could create a healthy pipeline of future leaders with a deeply ingrained understanding of the business. Everybody wins.

A big role for technology

The overarching goal should be to create an environment in which employees feel more connected to one another and their work, as well as to business leaders. And, technology has a key role to play in creating this kind of “omni-connected” workplace.

For instance, investments in artificial intelligence and digital platforms can help retail workers spot trends and make decisions faster. You only have to look at the explosive popularity and potential of leading-edge applications like AI and Web.3 to see how fundamentally this can improve and augment the way work gets done.

Then there’s robotics, which can automate highly manual tasks so that frontline workers can spend more time interacting with consumers. This can then create a positive feedback loop, with employees gaining more retail knowledge and tech expertise, opening new roles for them across the business.

There are also many opportunities to empower workers with modern workforce platforms and communication tools supported by cloud and edge infrastructure. We’ve already seen examples of major retailers introducing workplace apps that include leading digital capabilities like AI, computer vision, and augmented reality.

An example of this is Walmart’s introduction of a workplace app that uses technology like machine learning, augmented reality, camera vision and AI to help employees simplify daily tasks, serve customers and plan for life outside of work.

What’s interesting about these platforms is they can be serve many purposes allowing employees to better plan their shifts, access training, and having a direct link with headquarters. They also can aid in supporting customers – such as finding inventory, product specifications, or loyalty information.

Build omni-connected workplaces

Let’s face it, employees themselves are increasingly tech-savvy. They quickly recognize outdated and poorly performing business systems, which can easily contribute to a sense they’re not fully appreciated or valued.

As retailers look to invest in creating positive work environments, they need a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, invest in the ‘soft skills’ to enable more empathetic leadership and, on the other hand, ensure the workforce has the ‘hard skills’ via data and technology that enables employees to be effective and productive. That’s the route to greater employee satisfaction and retention – and what is needed to have a healthy future for retail.

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