Workday Study: Building the New Retail Front-Line Experience

The “Great Resignation” has slowed down, but employee burnout persists as retailers continue to try filling essential roles. In a recent study, “Empathy and Empowerment: The New Front-Line Experience” findings show, some leaders are blazing a hopeful path amid turnover woes.

Retail front-line workers have had a tough last few years. If their place of business didn’t close completely, they likely had to deal with uneasy customers and suddenly found themselves tasked with enforcing facemask and distancing mandates that seemed to change at every turn.

With the effects of the pandemic exacerbating already high turnover rates, retailers face a worker retention crisis. While the “Great Resignation” might be slowing down a touch, employee burnout is still an issue as retailers struggle to fill essential roles.

But all is not lost. In our recent study “Empathy and Empowerment: The New Front-Line Experience” conducted by Longitude, a Financial Times company, we found that there’s a small cohort (11%) of leaders, represented across the four industries we surveyed (hospitality, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail), who are blazing a hopeful path amid turnover woes. These organizations, which we call “Front-Line Leaders,” have committed to an improved front-line worker experience as a business strategy. What’s more, their strategy is paying off—these Front-Line Leaders report turnover that is lower than their historical average. 

Compare this with the majority of organizations we surveyed: They’re grappling with historically high front-line employee turnover and almost half of them expect it to get worse in the year ahead. Also, they are less likely to invest in the front-line worker experience and more likely to focus on the short-term gain of filling positions—often at the expense of overall organizational outcomes.

With the effects of the pandemic exacerbating already high turnover rates, retailers face a worker retention crisis.

We surveyed 504 senior executives, including 126 from the retail industry, who have oversight of and/or responsibility for decisions about their organizations’ front-line workforce (any employee who must be physically present to do their job).

Retail Industry Ups and Downs

Although the retail industry is experiencing turnover at the same rate as the majority of our respondents, we found that 65% of retailers say their managers’ awareness of front-line worker mental health increased during the pandemic. What’s more, of the four industries surveyed, retailers were the most likely to say they value front-line employee experience as highly as customer experience.

This lines up with what we found in the “Employee Expectations Report 2022.” It found that although retail had relatively low rankings across the majority of engagement drivers, the most notable increases in scores between the first and fourth quarters of 2021 were for management support and peer relationships. 

“Psychic motivation is of enormous value,” says Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “People stay with organizations that they feel kinship with, where they feel respected.”

Retail executives are more likely than our other industry leaders to say that data is a guiding factor in evaluating front-line worker experience.

Even though retailers seem to be taking interpersonal connection more seriously, a sense of belonging doesn’t pay the bills. The number one reason people leave their front-line retail jobs, according to respondents from this industry, is for higher pay. And retail executives are hoping to address this issue: When asked what areas they believe their organization should be investing in over the next two years, leaders cited higher pay and employee incentives, which tied for the top spot. 

Offering Workers More Flexibility and Control

Front-Line Leaders seem to have a greater understanding of how difficult the pandemic has been for their workers, and they enhance the front-line workforce experience in five ways:

  1. Empowering their front-line workers with more control and flexibility.
  2. Investing in employee-first tools and technology.
  3. Relying on data insights to inform and improve employee experience.
  4. Focusing on front-line workers’ development and well-being.
  5. Listening to their front-line workers’ wants and needs.

Of special interest to retail, we found that Front-Line Leaders are significantly more likely than other organizations to use employee-first scheduling tools with their front-line workforce (42% compared to 27% overall). They are also 10% more likely to have introduced greater scheduling control for front-line workers in the past two years.

Retailers must offer employees as much flexibility and control as possible if they want to avoid losing out to competitors.

“Up until the onset of COVID-19, many employers had become increasingly aggressive in scheduling front-line workers to suit their forecast demand,” says Cohen. “But people cannot be living on a 48-hour cycle of change. Now, employers are doing everything they can possibly do to make it convenient for their workers to remain employed.”

Promisingly, retail executives are more likely than our other industry leaders to say that data is a guiding factor in evaluating front-line worker experience, and that better access to quality insights will improve the experience. This will be crucial to their future success, as employee needs and expectations continue to evolve.

As Cohen says, “Now is the time for retailers that want to succeed—once we’re through these crises—to get their act together and recognize that the same old bad behavior is going to put them at risk when the next crisis occurs.”

Read the main report “Empathy and Empowerment: The New Front-Line Experience” or the industry snapshot “Empathy and Insight: Building the New Retail Front-Line Experience.”

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