The challenges of this year have forced many businesses to adapt their cloud strategy to become more agile and resilient in the new normal. Retail businesses in particular have experienced a huge logistical challenge and have had to identify new ways to forecast shifts in demand and manage mandated store closures, all whilst continuing to meet the evolving needs of their business and customers.

Back in January, Satya Nadella was invited to deliver the keynote at the National Retail Federation conference in New York. He spoke of our ambition to help retailers create their own tech intensity and tech independence. Looking back, none of us could have predicted the levels of tech intensity and workplace modernisation that we have seen over the past few months and we’re committed to supporting our customers on their road to recovery as we enter a new normal.

Navigating the new normal

People lining up with social distancing in place. In the new normal, Sainsbury

Our focus from a retail industry perspective has been on helping customers like Sainsbury’s, Co-op, and M&S continue to serve the nation by rapidly scaling out remote working. Technology has been a real enabler for all our retail customers to keep both their customers and employees connected, secure, and informed during this period of uncertainty.

“It’s unprecedented to run a business like ours, a complex business that requires so much day-to-day intense transactions, all remotely… We pivoted the whole company to work from home in a couple of weeks, and at no point did any of that ever cause any disruption in stores.” – Phil Jordan, CIO, Sainsbury’s

Breaking down barriers

In the latest edition of The Interface magazine, Sainsbury’s found Microsoft Teams instrumental for their employees to stay connected with internal teams, third-party suppliers and partners. They also found the collaboration platform to be a key enabler in democratising the business and making the leadership team more accessible too.

“We work really well this way,” says Jordan. “Everybody coming through the same communication medium has democratised the business so hierarchy becomes less important… the fact that people are talking from their own homes makes you, as a leader, look and feel more accessible.”

Adoption of Teams became 100 percent across operations and almost completely replaced face-to-face contact. This has actually facilitated better communication between teams, as there’s one voice reaching out to everyone, giving the right information at the right time and as Jordan says, “people feel more inclined to comment, to sit and talk, to ask questions.”

At Co-op, as communications become even more dispersed due to regional rules and the shift to remote working, they used Teams as a means to work together on specific projects at work, but Yammer became the place to ensure everyone received one version of the truth. It ensures everyone gets updated and connects the support centre and executives with firstline workers.

“Yammer really helps us break down those barriers and open up communications—to really focus on well-being, supporting our colleagues, and helping people with one source of truth.”  says Rebecca Sykes, Channel Strategy Manager.

Now, over 73 percent of 17,500 users are using it to connect together.

“It’s important for everyone to have to the opportunity to collaborate and feel like part of the Co-op.” – Rebecca Sykes, Channel Strategy Manager, Co-op

“We really saw a quick uptick in usage because it filled the hole that we had, giving colleagues the ability to converse and share ideas. It was all about adding value and being beneficial to people,” Sykes says. “Colleagues saw their voices were being heard and considered.”

Embracing ways of working and managing employee wellbeingIn the new normal, Sainbury

For the vast majority, 80-90%, Sainsbury’s found their employees liked working from home. “They’re productive. They don’t have to commute. It frees them up from a location perspective, and we work really well this way.”, says Jordan.

Gillian Green, Colleague Experience Manager at Sainsbury’s was charged with helping the team adapt to remote working and ensuring people could maintain a healthy work-life balance. Before COVID-19, Gillian had been working through a lot of different initiatives to raise awareness and build empathy between colleagues through education. With COVID-19 they were challenged with how to get the value from those connections and keep the passion alive in a virtual format, particularly for new recruits to the business where screen fatigue would start to set in for the traditional three-and-a-half-hour induction session.

Sainsbury’s are fully embracing the flexible working approach and employees are encouraged to make the most of the ability to do a yoga session on their lunch break or go for a walking meeting. Technology is an enabler to keep the community together and drive the team forward.

Harnessing the power of data to manage customer demand

For retailers, the end of the year normally brings more customer opportunities with Black Friday, Cyber Monday and holiday shopping. But in the new normal, we can all expect this to be done slightly differently, especially as people move to digital channels to do the bulk of their shopping. By using data and analytics, retailers can help manage demand, predict changes, as well as drive new insights.

To fully embrace this, M&S decided to build a new data platform around Microsoft Azure Data Lake Storage, Azure Databricks, and Azure Synapse Analytics. By moving their data to the cloud, they can access it securely from anywhere. They can also scale to respond to customer demand. Most importantly, it gives data and insights to people who need it, when they need it.

“By democratizing access, we’re allowing more people to have ideas, and these ideas add incremental value to the business.” – Aaronpal Dhanda, Head of Data Technology, M&S.

“Our retail support team is already reshaping how we report stock and stock loss to managers. Since they work closest to the retail side of the business, they know exactly how to consolidate and present information in ways that lead to real improvements,” says Aaronpal Dhanda, Head of Data Technology.

Bringing everybody along the journey to a new normal

As we look to respond to the immediate impact of COVID-19 and build flexible business resiliency models for the future of work, it’s important to take an inclusive approach. Ensuring everybody has the tools and skills to work in their best way has never been more important. With built-in accessibility features such as Immersive Reader, closed captions and more, we are committed to ensuring our products are designed for everyone, including over one billion people with disabilities. That way you can be confident that your solutions provide a strong experience for all – whether that be for your customers or your employees.

Building on that we are also providing increased on-demand training and resources to aid re-skilling which is imperative given the increased role technology will play as part of our economic recovery. A recent study by Goldsmiths, University of London in partnership with Microsoft, showed that the UK economy could get a £48 billion boost if companies made small technology and talent changes. Microsoft’s Get On 2021 campaign aims to help 1.5 million people in the UK build careers in technology by 2025 in an effort to help the UK economy build back better.

From recovery to re-imagination

This unprecedented change has caused businesses to reimagine their processes for the new normal. As we now start to recover, our focus extends to the future of work. It’s the perfect time to re-imagine how businesses will operate, and how we can innovate faster, using data and analytics to gain new insights and streamline operations, whilst also optimising secure remote collaboration and connected workforces.

The learnings we’ve acquired during these tumultuous times will help us recover faster and emerge stronger as a collective.

Let’s work together to build a future with resilient and innovative customer-centric services.

Find out more

Download the eBook: What’s next for retail?

Download the report: Creating a blueprint for UK competitiveness

Read the blog: Four ways to nurture success in the new world of work

About the author

Jennifer Morrison smiling for the camera

Jennifer leads the account technology unit that looks after key strategic customers in retail and consumer packaged goods for Microsoft UK, and is focussed on partnering with customers to deliver technology solutions and innovation that creates business value.

She has had a diverse career in the IT industry over the last 20 years, across product development, programme management, enterprise architecture, consulting and sales. She holds a BA (Hons) in Industrial Sociology, an MSc in Information Technology and multiple change management qualifications, reflecting her passion for bringing people and technology together to drive sustainable and impactful change.

Jennifer is a passionate STEM ambassador and an active champion of diversity and inclusion, and neurodiversity. She lives in Reading with her husband and three sons and can most often be found at the weekends either walking the dog or freezing on the sidelines during one of many sporting activities with the family.