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How to invest more holistically in your retail workforce

As we round out the third year since COVID-19 altered the retail marketplace, businesses and their workers continue to face a complicated landscape. Ongoing supply chain disruptions, unwavering inflation, rising cost of goods, and an uncertain economy are forcing businesses to make hard decisions and do more with less.

Across the labor market, trends such as “The Great Reshuffle,” “The Great Resignation,” and “Quiet Quitting” are reflecting the widespread burnout, dissatisfaction, and desperation among frontline workers. After years of carrying our economy through the pandemic with lower pay, less autonomy, and fewer resources than their desk working colleagues, more than half of retail workers in non-management positions reported not feeling valued as an employee, according to a Work Trend Index (WTI) Special Report.1

These challenges represent an important opportunity for retailers to better equip, develop, and engage the workers most critical to their success and survival. By investing in frontline retail workers with the same tools, training, and resources already afforded office workers, businesses can attract and retain high-value talent to drive superior customer experiences and sustainable business growth. Let’s explore some ways retailers can get started.

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Equip your frontline with tools to efficiently communicate, collaborate, and deliver

According to a WTI Special Report,1 60 percent of frontline retail workers are excited about the job opportunities tech creates, yet more than a third say they feel as though they do not have the right tools to do their job effectively. What does this mean for retailers? A wide playing field to equip an eager workforce with tools to improve communication and collaboration while driving task and workflow efficiency.

Communication and collaboration across retail teams

In fast-paced, customer-facing roles, almost nothing is more important than clear communication. From retail workers serving customers at the storefront counter, to those stocking goods in the back storeroom, having the right information at the right time can mean the difference between a happy recurring customer and a costly customer service complaint. To support the seamless flow of real-time information across disparate and remote teams, frontline workers need tools that provide:

  • One unified and secure communication platform to support all touchpoints:
    • 1:1 conversation between colleagues (real-time inventory request).
    • 1:1 conversation with customers (virtual fitting).
    • Team or department meeting (team huddle across stores).
    • Corporate communications (town hall meeting).
    • A feedback loop from the store to various functions across the retail organization.
  • Centralized access to key resources and intel to drive transparency and inclusion:
    • A centralized, digital home base, customized to your business and team.
    • Equal access to corporate information and updates across all teams and devices.

Increase frontline operational efficiency

Another critical set of tools for driving frontline success is technology to help improve task and workflow automation and efficiency. More than a third of retail workers polled by the WTI said they wanted technology to help with shift scheduling, onboarding, and automating repetitive in-store tasks.1 Yet across industries many frontline workers are still using paper-based, manual methods for tracking things like daily tasks, schedules, orders, and inventory. Not only are these methods tedious and inefficient, but they take valuable time away from higher-value tasks like customer engagement and increase the risk of errors and accidents. Retailers can enable frontline workers to streamline and automate tasks and workflows with data and analytics tools designed to improve efficiency, such as:

  • Task and workflow automation:
    • Digitization of undocumented and paper-based tasks, workflows, and processes.
    • Automation of manual and repetitive tasks, workflows, and processes.
    • AI-assisted reminders, updates, and guidance (virtual bots).
    • End-to-end virtual appointment tools (integrating scheduling, forms, and analytics).
  • Integration with line-of-business applications and industry devices:
    • One unified front-end platform for all frontline applications.
    • Native integration with third-party applications for one streamlined experience.
    • Bidirectional flow between one platform and your systems of record.
  • Centralized shift and task management across teams and departments:
    • Simplified shift management from any mobile device.
    • Easy clock-in and clock-out access from any mobile device.
    • Streamlined task delivery and reporting between managers and workers.
  • Real-time visualization of retail data and insights:
    • Self-service analytics and AI to help frontline workers make real-time decisions.
    • Simplified polls, surveys, and forms to maintain a feedback loop across teams.
    • Easy task tracking and reporting to keep teams organized.

Safeguard your retail business 

Once frontline teams are equipped with the right devices and tools to do their best work, businesses need reassurance that these tools will be protected against outside security threats. With shared devices commonplace among frontline retail workers, identity management and security are paramount to maintaining accurate records and protecting employee and customer data. To help streamline and improve security across the retail value chain, retailers and their IT teams should look for tools that support the following:

  • Simplified deployment and management at scale—regardless of role:
    • One integrated solution to manage all endpoints across personal and company-owned devices.
  • A streamlined user experience to save workers time and improve accessibility:
    • Single sign-on across devices and applications.
    • Manager-controlled password reset and device management to lower the burden on IT and expedite frontline support.
  • Identity, endpoint, and application security across operating systems and devices:
    • One unified solution to manage endpoints, data security, and device compliance.
    • Centralized control of frontline devices and applications.
    • Coordinated enforcement of policies that protect personal and company data across shared devices (shared device sign-out).

Develop your retail talent to drive fulfillment and close the technical divide

While frontline retail workers are largely optimistic about the job opportunities tech creates, nearly half have reported being worried about losing their jobs if they did not adapt to new technologies—and 55 percent report experience learning new tech on the fly, with no formal training or practice.1 With a growing skills gap threatening business growth and a large percentage of frontline workers eager to grow in their careers, retailers are well positioned to benefit from investments in frontline training and development. What’s the best approach? The following recommendations are best practices for accelerating onboarding and upskilling across the frontline:

  • Simplify training and onboarding to set up workers for success:
    • Make training and onboarding available on one, unified platform.
    • Provide training and onboarding in person, online, and across devices.
    • Ensure training and onboarding are accessible for workers with disabilities and available in multiple languages.
    • Enable frontline managers to upload custom learning content and recommend courses to meet team-or role-specific needs.
  • Promote continuous upskilling and development:
    • Make it easy to discover, share, and engage with the latest learning content.
    • Help workers find the right learning content with interest-based, personalized recommendations.
  • Aggregate and assign learning content:
    • Bring together content from various sources into one platform and sync learning assignments to keep employees up to date on required training.
  • Share knowledge and expertise across the organization:
    • Store and share corporate, skills-based, and technical information and training on one unified platform.
    • Use AI to automatically identify, process, and organize content based on individual and team needs and interests.

Engage your frontline teams to promote transparency, inclusion, and wellbeing

The last and perhaps most important step in supporting the frontline is ensuring that workers feel valued, engaged, and motivated to do their best work. However, WTI reports that 61 percent of retail workers say messages from leadership do not make it to them, while another 31 percent believe their voice is not being heard when communicating workplace issues.1 These figures represent two important problems for the retail industry:

  • There is a lack of transparency between leadership and the frontline.
  • Important information from the frontline is not making it back to management.

While both of these problems signal a breakdown in communication across the business, one threatens worker productivity, while the other introduces organizational risk. A lack of transparency from leadership to the frontline contributes to workers feeling undervalued and makes it difficult for them to be productive. Meanwhile, silencing the voice of the worker disrupts an important feedback loop from the frontline to management—withholding key information, like an inventory issue, that may go unaddressed until a larger problem arises. To tackle these distinct but interrelated problems, businesses can invest resources in several key areas:

Build company-wide dialogue

  • Facilitate two-way dialogue between leadership and the frontline:
    • Provide one unified platform to facilitate dialogue and share information across teams and departments, across all devices.
    • Encourage leadership to send regular updates to employees at all levels, and keep information and messaging consistent and accessible.
    • Enable frontline workers to directly communicate with leadership and provide a consistent, timely response.
  • Strengthen connections between employees:
    • Build and support communities aligned to shared functions, interests, and values to promote networking, knowledge sharing, and a sense of belonging.
  • Host forums for company-wide engagement:
    • Make company meetings more accessible by allowing employees to join online across devices or asynchronously via recordings.
    • Use platforms with accessibility features such as translation, transcription, and closed captions.

Elevate the voice of the frontline

  • Promote and facilitate ongoing feedback:
    • Implement solutions to facilitate consistent and proactive outreach to employees for feedback on individual and team sentiment, company culture, leadership performance, and process improvement.
  • Reward and recognize colleagues:
    • Encourage managers and their teams to provide recognition, share accomplishments, and give thanks across teams and departments.
  • Ensure digital tools are accessible to everyone:
    • Implement solutions with broad accessibility features such as multi-lingual support, recording, transcription, and closed captions.

Reinvesting in your frontline is the best way to safeguard your business’ future

However businesses decide to invest in their workforce, the benefits will always outweigh the cost. As retailers look to navigate the next frontier of economic changes and evolving customer demands, they will continue to rely on their frontline workers for the knowledge, experience, and care they provide our businesses and customers. Armed with a greater understanding of frontline needs and aspirations, businesses now have an opportunity to support their workers more holistically than ever—with the tools, training, and engagement they deserve to sustainably grow and thrive with the businesses they support.

Learn more

To learn more about driving better business outcomes by investing in your frontline, check out the Microsoft Teams for Retail website. Learn more about the WTI Special Report referenced in this post. And for the latest on how Microsoft and our partners are helping retailers elevate the customer and employee experience, follow Microsoft Retail on Twitter or download the eBook.  

WTI Special Report: Technology can help unlock a new future for frontline workers

New data shows that now is the time to empower the frontline with the right digital tools.

CEO of large manufacturing company discussing a project with operations manager and foreman.

1Technology Can Help Unlock a New Future for Frontline Workers, Work Trend Index Special Report.