The Covid-19 pandemic changed the world of work fundamentally, forcing many businesses to try working from home for the first time.
According to the Office for National Statistics, those in professional occupations were almost four times more likely to work from home than people in sales and customer service roles.
With the retail sector still facing staff shortages, offering remote working in some roles would allow it to compete for people. Consumers are now accustomed to the convenience of online shopping and it’s more popular than ever, which is also pushing the sector towards more hybrid working.
Tony Gregg, chief executive at retail executive search firm Anthony Gregg Partnership, explains how retail businesses can implement hybrid working in the retail sector and what leaders must consider when introducing a hybrid model.
How can retail become hybrid?
Retail might not be the sector most comfortable with the hybrid model, but when the pandemic hit, technology and those in senior leadership positions stepped up to provide solutions. In addition to virtual team meetings and the rise of online shopping, data analytics has been assisting with demand forecasting, highlighting when more people are needed on site.
This kind of set-up will only benefit consumers, satisfying their growing appetite for online shopping and improving the overall experience. Many of them will also adopt hybrid habits, shopping online sometimes and making other purchases in person. Businesses should look to reflect this demand, matching in-person shopping levels with the appropriate level of staffing in store.
Hybrid practices can also be applied to retail executives, who can easily carry out more remote work, just as they do in other sectors. They can also benefit greatly from hybrid working, enjoying more flexibility, less commuting and more time spent with their families. Those with children, for instance, can now get a headstart on the day, responding to emails before the school run. Decisions no longer have to wait until the 9am office arrival.
And as job vacancies outpace unemployment figures for the first time since records began, candidates can cherry-pick roles that include more flexibility. To help ease its staffing shortage, the retail sector must offer flexibility wherever it can.
The advantages of hybrid working for retail leaders
In addition to attracting candidates into the industry, hybrid working practices will help to foster job satisfaction, which is particularly important when vacancies are so plentiful. Giving people options and flexibility can also make them feel valued and result in greater productivity.
Remote working also opens up a wider pool of candidates. If people only need to work on site twice a week, for example, they can come from further afield.
Having more employees working at home also raises the possibility of reducing office space. While brick and mortar shops will still be needed, companies can downsize their office footprints, saving on rent, utilities and even IT equipment.
Challenges retail leaders face with hybrid working
The nature of the retail industry means that there will always be employees needed in local stores and warehouses.
Leaders might face some resistance when implementing hybrid arrangements. Employees might not appreciate not knowing where they’ll be working from one week (or day) to the next. Leaders would do well to remember that people like consistency, setting clear policies and systems out to ensure employees remain structured in their roles and that important daily tasks are completed.
It’s vital to ensure effective channels of communication, so that employees can still receive guidance and raise issues as needed. Meetings should be scheduled for when workers are on site, but employees at all levels should still be in regular contact with colleagues when working remotely, to maintain a sense of belonging.
With employees working remotely, it’s also more difficult to gauge morale. Anonymised surveys might help uncover motivation levels, while team-building activities can lift morale.
Hybrid retail working in practice
In response to the pandemic, Apple launched its high-profile ‘Retail Flex’ programme, which saw employees work from home some weeks and from stores other weeks. More staff are allocated to stores at times when in-person shopping demand rises against online shopping demand.
Retail executives must not only understand such approaches, but when they’re suitable, they must also advocate for them – to create efficiencies and greater job satisfaction.
Primark is another retailer making big changes. Its new hybrid working model has office-based employees working from offices for an average of three days a week. The fast fashion company implemented the policy after extensive internal listening sessions and work-type assessments.
Will hybrid working last in the retail sector?
The industry will certainly need to adapt to the new hybrid working landscape, borrowing ideas from other sectors as required. Leaders should also not forget to listen to the workers themselves when considering new ways of working. After all, they know their jobs better than anyone – and they’re the very people hybrid working is designed to help.
We’re finding that many executives are in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – or in a store local to them. This type of arrangement truly does give retailers and individuals the best of both worlds. Employees gain extra flexibility, but also enjoy sufficient time in the office to develop and maintain necessary relationships with colleagues.
This balance is the very essence of hybrid working. If a company can achieve it, both parties benefit and as with any other facet of working life, a successful practice can become enshrined in a company’s policies.