Retail Responds: Lessons Learned from European and UK Retail Customers

recent crisis impact roundtable

To further understand how the recent crisis has impacted - and continues to impact – our customers, UKG has run several industry-specific virtual roundtables. In June, representatives from some of our UK and Continental Europe retailers met to share their COVID-19 experiences. This article shares the major workforce-related topics discussed. A cross-section of functional roles was represented at the event, but most attendees had an operational focus. 

Learning to Adapt - Quickly

Never have organizations needed to change their operations so rapidly, and to such a degree. When the crisis hit and rules on who could and couldn’t trade were imposed, businesses needed to react overnight. For some, such as our grocery sector customers, the challenge was how to deal with the surge in demand. For those in the non-essential retail verticals, trading unfortunately ceased, with many staff furloughed. 

One customer commented that never in their organization have decisions been made so quickly, and at such scale. Actions which previously may have taken month or years to enact were happening in a matter of hours or days. The question moving forward is whether this experience will change the speed and scale of future decision making – only time will tell. 

When a Crisis Drives Engagement

Judging by the comments from most attendees, colleague engagement and their willingness to do what the business and customers need has not been a problem. Indeed, most people said they have been pleasantly surprised by the high levels of colleague engagement and flexibility.

Adaptation to the crisis for some retailers involved closing their city centre stores and moving some staff to their regional sites. This change in location and role has in fact been a boost for morale and engagement for many employees; they say, ‘a change is as good as a rest’! This demonstrates that multi-skilling employees and giving them greater role flexibility can deliver mutual benefits for businesses and colleagues.

Replacing executive face-to-face store visits with virtual visits has also proved successful. Not needing to physically travel to meetings means store managers can communicate more often with the execs, which has led to them feeling more valued and engaged.

Nowhere to Hide from HR 

The crisis has undoubtably given HR teams unprecedented levels of insight into employee engagement and management abilities. No pulse survey, performance review or executive training course could ever have delivered such data on staff engagement, willingness and ability to support the operation. 

At a colleague level, engagement levels are demonstrated by the way employees have rallied to the needs of the business, and customers. As stated earlier, most colleagues have shown stoic willingness and flexibility. Interestingly, at a similar session run for logistics, the attendees discussed colleagues generally falling into three groups

  1. Those willing to do whatever is required – the highly engaged staff
  2. Colleague not happy to be furloughed because they feel they are not adding value and contributing to the business, and
  3. Those employees who are happy to be furloughed and take 80% of their pay to do nothing

A concern voiced by some of the attendees was for employees who may be working while others are furloughed doing nothing. Will they feel resentful? This needs to be carefully managed and considered.

Demand Forecasting in Unprecedented Times

Many retail customers who use UKG demand forecasting to help build accurate labour schedules. But, how do you forecast demand when there have never been similar historical events? This has been a challenge for many customers. Some essential stores remained open, while others saw dramatic changes in buying patterns, and increased online trading. In every case, events have changed their demand forecast. To give guidance on this issue, UKG ran webinars on forecasting and scheduling, and published several advice articles on our Customer Community portal to help.

Another change to forecasting and scheduling requirements has been social distancing. Unlike grocery, other retailers, such as fashion and apparel, are no longer forecasting based on customer demand, but rather safe store operating capacity. Attendees on the roundtable discussed the work they have been doing (during non-trading) in preparation to now forecasting and scheduling based on safe distancing needs and new colleague roles.

Building Flexibility and Resilience into Staffing and Operating Technology Models

Changes to system configurations and business operating models have constantly evolved during the crisis. Every rule change by the Government or business operating procedures must be reflected in configuration of systems. Pay code edits to track who’s furloughed, amendments to holiday entitlements, changes to schedules, changes to working location, amendments to contracts and roles…. have all needed to be reflected in the workforce management and HR solutions. For those companies who run small system support teams, this has been a challenge, but one which has led them to internally develop new tools and processes to simplify the changes.

Responding to Future Lockdowns

There was a consensus by the group that lock-down is likely to happen again in the autumn. Whether this happens or not, the historical issues of configuration changes have led businesses to think about building greater flexibility into their system configurations – to accommodate future changes.

Building greater workforce resilience is now a key focus area too. Ensuring businesses have the capacity of people and skills to cover for colleagues who may need to quarantine at short notice is essential. Multi-skilling staff, more flexible contracts and knowing employee availability and preferences will each be important for building effective labour schedules. 

The Value of Workforce Technology

It has been pleasing to hear customers on these roundtables reference the value that UKG workforce solutions are delivering, especially in these tough times. To paraphrase one participant,

"During the initial stages of implementing UKG, we wondered whether it was the right thing for the business to be doing. Since COVID-19 the value has been clear. Having the ability to manage staffing and control labour costs has been a godsend". When delegates were asked, ‘in hindsight what do they wish they had done prior to COVID-19’ the organizations who had just started their UKG implementation said, “I wish we had implemented UKG earlier!”  

Looking Ahead

None of us know what truly lies ahead for our businesses, but much has been learned by UKG and our retail customers in how to build stronger and more resilient businesses for the future. The importance of good communication, an engaged, multi-skilled and flexible workforce, and having the right technology that simplifies and supports our ability to deliver great services to our customer – whatever the situation - is now more recognized than ever. 

About the author

Neil Pickering is an Industry Marketing Manager for UKG in EMEA. Working closely with customers across the supply chain, he witnesses first-hand the engagement, cost, productivity and compliance benefits achieved through the effective alignment of people and workforce technology.