March 25, 2020

Managing the retail workforce and maintaining business continuity during COVID-19

Our SVP of Retail Strategy and Execution John Orr reflects on the current state of the retail industry during COVID-19, and shares what retailers can do to manage their mission critical workforce and maintain business continuity.

The world of retail is no stranger to change. Retailers are experts in overcoming hurdles while managing to stay relevant and successful.

In light of COVID-19, this is now being tested more than ever. We have seen many retailers across the world take dramatic steps to prevent the spread of the pandemic by closing stores, reducing hours, all while communicating openly with customers. It has also been heartening to see many retailers maintain exemplary communications, pay, and benefits for their employees despite having to shutter physical locations.

As well, some grocery stores, like Target, are dedicating certain hours for those more vulnerable, to ensure a well-stocked store and low populated areas to reduce contagious spread.

The retail workforce has undoubtedly taken a hit – and employers and employees alike are most definitely feeling the effects. From layoffs and furloughs to reduced hours and remote work, the future seems uncertain.

There are actions retailers can take right now to effectively manage the workforce during this strange and unprecedented time. Here are a few tactics for retailers to consider during this pandemic.

Consistent communication

While this may go without saying, as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, you must treat your employees as your internal customers. This is especially critical during a time of crisis – how you manage and treat your employees during times like these indicates how your company is positioned as a corporate citizen.

If you have to lay people off or furlough employees to maintain the health of your business, you need to work with your business leaders to establish a consistent, clear, and sensitive message. The COVID-19 pandemic is a very personal issue as it will affect many peoples’ personal lives, so maintaining a consistent message across the organization will help protect brand image along with morale.

Don’t shut your employees out. Now is the time to over-communicate, be clear about your plans, and help employees understand why some hard decisions have to be made.

Prioritize the safety and well-being of employees

Brick-and-mortar retail is a very high-touch, human interactive field. During this time, it’s critical to ensure your employees are social distancing as best they can while at work, and away from work. Specifically, most grocery stores remain open during this time, meaning many (likely hourly) employees are still working.

Here are some things you can do to promote social distancing:

  • Limit the number of customers that can be in the store at any given time. This promotes proper social distancing.
  • Follow and abide by the CDC and WHO guidelines for proper social distancing – if your business is non-essential, certain retailers may be mandated to close to ensure the safety of employees.
  • If you haven’t already, move all HR, payroll, and time tracking functionality to digital as much as possible, like switching from paper cheques to direct deposit. Mobile and web clock technologies let employees punch in from their own devices or a web-enabled device, and other forms of self-service will help reduce amount of human interaction. Consider implementing flextime to stagger employees and reduce amount of time they spend together.
  • Lean into digital commerce wherever possible. While we’ve been seeing retailers working to harmonize the digital and physical consumer experience, COVID-19 will surely accelerate retailers’ transition into an omni-channel approach. Train and empower employees to support online shoppers to handle the volume as it is likely to increase. As we know, superior customer experience and service transcends channels – that’s how the best brands set themselves apart.

Lastly, keep your employees up to date with latest legislation and how it can help them – organizations like NRF and Retail Council of Canada have FAQs and resources that are constantly being updated.  

Maintain payroll and workforce management

Be open and transparent about the status of employees’ payroll. As we know from Ceridian’s 2019 Pay Experience Report, keeping your employees informed and up to date on their payroll situation maintains trust amongst employees. It’s also important to make sure your employees are equipped with the proper information on how they are paid and the way in which they are paid.

Encourage your people to leverage electronic direct deposits as much as possible. There are many benefits to moving from paper cheques to electronic direct deposits – namely reducing the amount of human interaction. As well, electronic deposits eliminate lag and delay in payroll processing, avoids the administration of transacting deposits, provides more flexibility in real-time access, enables on-demand pay access, options for free chequing accounts (i.e. online banks), and further reduces overall costs and efforts. If electronic direct deposit is not a possibility for your employees, employers should switch to delivering cheques at home. Now more than ever, employees need flexibility in managing their finances, and doing so using HCM technologies and on-demand pay software lessens the burden.

As well, using HCM technologies, employees who are working from home have easy and quick access to their personal information, including paystubs and tax forms, and can easily access their calendar and time-off requests should they need to. These technologies can also act as learning and resource hubs and can help employees stay in the loop with the organization, their teams, and peers, thus helping with productivity and engagement.

Plan for and maintain business continuity

Most businesses should have a crisis plan – but in this unprecedented situation, things are changing daily, including federal and state legislations. If a retailer needs to do mass lay-offs or furloughs, the use of an effective HCM system can help employers more easily manage off-boarding and forecast what their company may look like after. And – HCM systems can be flexible enough to handle special pay codes and tracking to be prepared for absences during COVID-19, and for any federal or state relief for wages paid for non-work, training investments, etc.

It is also inevitable that there is going to be a major uptick in workforce absences as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread – organizations must be prepared to cover for these absences. While we expect more details on government assistance to individuals and to retailers, retailers need to be prepared. Retailers should immediately start tracking hour and wage by a specific COVID-19 code identifier within their workforce management tool. This accounting will help with accessing compensation relief, and/or tax benefits.

Be ready for life after COVID-19

Many retailers have been pushed into a new “normal”. Whether an urgency to reconcile their slow logistics and inventory systems investments, acceleration of their digital and BOPIS operations, faster shakeout of already failed models, etc., there will be no shortage of change to adapt to when all is said and done. There is no question that the ramifications of this new normal will persist and re-shape retail going forward. 

It’s critical that retailers begin to develop a plan for when workers can get back to work in full operation mode, and to communicate this planning to all employees. It will be focused on mission critical projects but will re-evaluate processes and their supporting systems for scalability.  Operations will need to continue complying with the lingering requirements when headcounts are reduced, while it begins to ramp up the business operations as stores re-open. Distribution centers and warehouses will be recovering from overload and burnout as they recover from the excessive demand during the pandemic.  Lastly, HR will be left with a talent gap that will eventually need to be filled – how this is communicated will need to be handled with sensitivity.

To conclude, I think that many retailers have been exemplary in managing this crisis. I give kudos to all retailers as they navigate this strange, uncertain time.

Matthew Shay, President and CEO of NRF, eloquently described the situation, in a statement made on March 15:

"This is an unprecedented situation that demands an ‘all hands-on deck' approach, and community retailers are eager to do their part. Whatever the challenge, retailers have prepared in advance to serve the critical needs of their customers and employees. They can quickly and thoughtfully adjust a wide variety of practices, including supply chains, stores, and policies impacting communities they serve."

John Orr

John Orr is SVP of Retail at Ceridian. John is a passionate advocate for Dayforce as the best HCM solution that empowers retail and hospitality organizations with real-time visibility for talent, workforce, and payroll management.

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