Critical Considerations for Frontline Workers in Retail

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08/31/2020
Vijay Krishnanji is Director, Digital and Customer Experience Innovation at NTT DATA.

The role of the retail worker was changing long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic has accelerated the need for retailers to significantly alter and enhance their operating models, incorporating best practices and technologies that empower employees to function as high-value, knowledgeable, customer-oriented members of the team.

RIS sat down with two NTT DATA executives to explore in detail this and other critical considerations for frontline workers in retail and other consumer-facing industries.

RIS: What changes do you see in the nature of the work frontline retail employees do, and how should retailers engage labor differently as a result?

Vijay Krishnanji, Director, Digital and Customer Experience Innovation: As retailers respond to the pandemic and beyond by restructuring their operating models, it is imperative to ensure that frontline employees remain safe, empowered, and motivated in their job. A fundamental business truth is that motivated employees lead to satisfied customers, increased brand value, and accelerated growth. In the current pandemic situation, motivated employees are vital to ensuring a safe environment, keeping operations uninterrupted, reducing risk to brand reputation, building customer trust, and enabling a resilient organization.

Take a moment to think of the experience with a popular brand, Starbucks. Starbucks trains and motivates employees to see the big picture — the company’s mission — and to convert day-to-day tasks into moments of surprise and delight for customers. This can be as simple as greeting and recognizing customers, but it has had a transformational effect for the business. The role of frontline retail employees was already changing before the COVID-19 pandemic, from that of performing low-value, repetitious tasks to a high-value, knowledgeable, customer service-oriented one.

Frontline employees must be ambassadors for social distancing and safety and health protocols while building customer confidence to return to stores.
Vijay Krishnanji

Frontline employees have to wear many hats. They may be an empathetic, knowledgeable consultant or influencer helping customers, gaining trust, and building relationships. But in a post-COVID world, they may also be an ambassador for social distancing and safety and health protocols while building customer confidence to return to stores.

For retailers, the basics are still important: hire, retain, and grow talent by showing employees that you understand them, support them. and want them to succeed and grow in their career and life aspirations. In short, in the current environment, retailers must commit to making frontline employees feel safe and engaged.

Laura Keller is Senior Director, Customer Experience at NTT DATA.

RIS: How can retailers ensure the health and safety of frontline employees for a safe return to work?

Laura Keller, Senior Director, Customer Experience: The advice that experts share with the public regarding social distancing, wearing masks, hand washing and staying at home if they feel symptoms holds for retail employees as well. But retailers must take additional actions because of the nature of their business and the many interactions their employees have with customers. For the reciprocal health and safety of employees and customers, retailers should make guidelines for safe interactions clear on their websites and mobile apps and in in-store signage. For example, retailers such as Kroger have published a blueprint for businesses based on their learnings on reopening stores. This makes customers confident their health is a priority and sets the right expectation before shopping. Customers should not be surprised with requests to wear masks, have their temperature taken, or use credit or debit cards rather than cash.

It’s critical that retailers make employees feel safe as well. For example, sanitizing registers, counters and other store surfaces during shift changes and overnight may minimize disruption to your business. However, doing all of those tasks more frequently and visibly during work hours can help retailers make employees and customers confident in the policies they are using to keep people safe.

Employees will also need updated health and safety training on their responsibilities in terms of sanitizing the retail space and protocols for customer interactions, such as social distancing and mask requirements.
Laura Keller

Employees will also need updated health and safety training on their responsibilities in terms of sanitizing the retail space and protocols for customer interactions, such as social distancing and mask requirements. Just as importantly, they may also be monitoring customers’ compliance with corporate-stated health and safety guidelines, which is an entirely new accountability. Employees will need training on how best to approach customers who are not wearing masks, etc., and how to handle situations if shoppers do get contentious.

RIS: What technologies will be critical for the frontline retail employees and stores of the future?

Krishnanji: To facilitate a safe return to work, NTT DATA has developed a suite of Back to Business solutions that leverage the IoT, automation, advanced data analytics, and mobile technologies. Consider Lisa, a frontline stocker/picker who works at a dark retail store that serves as a fulfillment center for click-and-collect and home delivery:

  • Sensors check for temperature and mask compliance when Lisa starts her shift.
  • She completes a secure form on her mobile device, noting and tracking any symptoms.
  • She wears a Bluetooth-enabled wristband or tag that enables contact tracing, which tracks whom she meets during the shift.
  • Protocols are in place around alerting, employee communication, and cleaning and sanitization, while protecting Lisa’s privacy.
  • Lisa is trained to be an “ambassador” who builds confidence with customers and receives regular communications around policy updates and training through online channels.

In this way, technology can help employees feel safe while also empowering them to make customers feel safe. The solution has a positive impact on revenue, ensures compliance, and reduces risks for retailers.

The ability to connect consumers with expert associates through mobile technologies, while empowering associates with access to customer histories and preferences as well as inventory information, will enable them to delight customers and build trust.
Vijay Krishnanji

Creating a safe, quick, and easy shopping experience will be key in the new normal. The ability to connect consumers with expert associates through mobile technologies, while empowering associates with access to customer histories and preferences as well as inventory information, will enable them to delight customers and build trust.

Another area where intelligent automation can drive efficiency and lower costs is the use of robots for real-time inventory management processes in stores and distribution centers. As consumers use click-and-collect to reduce exposure to COVID, it has become especially important for retailers to improve both the accuracy of product availability data in stores and order-picking performance while reducing errors and returns through a combination of automation and mobile tools for stockers and pickers. A combination of IoT technologies such as RFID, smart shelves, mobile robots, and drones, combined with cognitive analytics that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning, can provide actionable insights to store managers to monitor the health of the entire store operations in near real time. Employee utilization, productivity, and satisfaction can be improved through flexible staffing models and smart shift management. Ultimately, such solutions help set the platform to enable a “digital twin” of store and supply chain operations. NTT DATA is helping retailers and manufacturers in this regard by conducting proof of concepts/pilots with such robotics and “digital twin” solutions.

The store of the future will require a flexible and dynamic collaboration of human and virtual workforces. This will necessitate a mind shift from “robots versus humans” to “robots empowering humans” by focusing on the value that humans bring to the table. Self-checkout is a great example of this; humans can handle more complex checkout processes and exceptions while automation handles quick, smaller transactions.

RIS: With so much change happening in the retail industry, what tangible steps can retailers take to prepare for the future?

Keller and Krishnanji: While we have been focusing primarily on customer-facing employees, all employees in a retail business are affected by COVID-19. They may be finding it challenging to work from home, or they may be uncomfortable about returning to the office, store, or distribution center. The key is to put employees, whether frontline or corporate, at the center of your decision-making. An employee experience assessment can help you develop a workplace strategy by identifying:

  • How working from home and store or DC has impacted employee productivity
  • What technologies can improve collaboration and productivity
  • How policies need to change
  • Why employees may desire a return to an office or store
  • Employees’ comfort in returning to an office or store
  • What meaningful KPIs are needed

Outcomes of an employee experience assessment help to build a phased IT strategy aligned to the store models and customer needs, addressing:

  • Building resilience into operations
  • Enabling a full digital business ecosystem
  • Modernizing store operations and omnichannel design
  • Enabling a flexible, dynamic human and virtual workforce through AI and automation
  • Addressing foundational requirements such as cloud and network security and dynamic workplace services while reducing technical debt

Resiliency is about keeping retail operations uninterrupted and agile. It is also important for retailers to think about enabling individual employees to be resilient at all levels, in physical, mental, emotional and job skills, while helping them connect to a higher motivational cause. The outcomes of an employee experience assessment can help retailers be more agile and think out of the box about workforce flexibility.

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NTT DATA Services, a global digital business and IT services leader, is the largest business unit outside of Japan of NTT DATA Corporation and part of NTT Group. With our consultative approach, we leverage deep industry expertise and leading-edge technologies powered by AI, automation and cloud to create practical and scalable solutions that contribute to society and help clients worldwide accelerate their digital journeys.