Retaining precious staff this festive season (and beyond)

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By Dr Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at the Achievers Workforce Institute

Baumgartner: retail is nothing without people

Grappling with a range of concerns from financial pressures to workplace aggression to having to enforce Covid restrictions, British retail workers are leaving their jobs at an alarming pace. In fact, a study out last November on stress and mental health, found that more than one in four employees (26%) were considering leaving their posts and 30% have taken time off for mental health reasons. Worryingly, 40% of those surveyed also had relapsed into occasional or regular smoking. 

All this is happening as retailers, already contending with big labour shortages due to Covid and Brexit, are struggling to recruit seasonal staff to cover the festive season. However, many of the top factors that workers cited as sources of worry and stress – unmanageable workloads, poor management, and lack of company direction – are within retailers’ control to improve. Our own research has shown time and again that by taking positive actions to raise employee engagement, then motivation, happiness, and retention will all follow.

Building cultures of engagement depends on being able to establish meaningful human connections among workers. However, this can be particularly hard in retail, where the priority for people working on the frontlines is serving customers. This means, compared to, say, working in an office environment, junior staff don’t always have the opportunity to build close relationships with and learn from managers. Also, with managers engaged in routine ‘fire-fighting’ – especially during this Covid crisis – they are also getting burnt out, disengaged, and have less energy to give to their teams. 

So, what’s it going to take to improve engagement during these busiest dates on the retail calendar? What follows are our top three pieces of advice, drawing from our own research at the Achievers Workplace Institute, along with other related studies.

  • Activate and democratise frequent recognition

Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of employees we surveyed wanted greater recognition for their work. This can be as simple as getting a sincere ‘thank you’ to a more tangible reward, like a voucher for a relaxing spa treatment or tuition reimbursement for skills development. When employees get these kinds of recognitions on a regular basis, they are less likely to move on

And here’s something that may surprise readers: giving thanks can lift spirits at least as much as receiving it. So, encouraging employees to recognise each other in this simple way costs nothing and can make such a big difference. 

To make dramatic cultural improvement, it’s vital that employee recognition be led from the top down and then embedded throughout retail operations from corporate offices to the warehouses to the shop floor frontlines. This means retailers should treat recognition goals as seriously as other business objectives, like raising profit margins and brand awareness.

To activate recognition strategies, retailers should build action plans that include regular manager check-ins, creating incentives for internal recognition, and providing rewards. On the latter, we advocate not only making a range of points-based rewards available, but also providing systems that make it fast and easy for any employee to recognise and reward a colleague.

  • Supporting mental health to battle burnout

The first survey we referenced clearly showed the stress and burnout that retail employees experience leads to poor well-being, productivity and retention. Retailers can take a crucial step to support their employees’ mental health by providing employee assistance programs (EAPs). EAPs help employees to prioritise their wellness by offering benefits like free assessments, short-term counselling, and referrals to longer-term support services. Employees rate these resources very highly, with 86 percent of those accessing EAPs reporting that they have had a positive impact on their well-being.

But managers must also lead by example and practice healthy work-life balance, so that others feel entitled to do the same. This means managers taking their allotted personal leave, working flexibly, giving recognition to colleagues, and using support resources. And it is obvious that managers shouldn’t come to work sick — especially in the middle of a pandemic. All this can be really tough in retail environments where staffing is tight, but the important thing to do is to strive for continuous improvement.

  • Keep listening to staff, then act!

If retail leaders are truly serious about boosting employee engagement, they need to be sure they’re addressing the right issues. The way to do this is simple: ask employees for feedback on a regular basis. Making general assumptions – especially in large global workforces with local differences – can lead to flawed conclusions and actions. As it stands, nearly half of workers don’t have direct lines into their corporate headquarters. 

Fortunately, digital pulse surveys have made it fast and easy to regularly poll employees for valuable insights. This tech-driven approach gives retail leaders the employee sentiment information they need to take the most appropriate actions. And this is key: our data shows that 90 percent of workers are more likely to stay with an employer that acts on feedback.

No matter how digital retail gets, it’s nothing without its people – whether it’s serving customers, promoting the brand, or keeping the supply chain moving. And no time is more critical than the busy festive season. In a labour-lean economy, retailers are having to compete harder than ever to keep staff employed and working to their full potential. 

The research has spoken: leading from the top and taking care of employees’ basic needs for recognition, wellbeing, and positive mental health will ensure retailers not only keep their people, but get the best from them. Not only during the festive season, but all year round.

Dr Natalie Baumgartner is chief workforce scientist at the Achievers Workforce Institute, the research and insights arm of Achievers, providing thought leadership based in science, data and research, and ensures our products and services are rooted in workforce science.