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What if the CEO asks me about… the people implications of our growing online presence

Published on 21 July 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to numerous changes in the retail sector, with one of the key ones being the growth in online sales – according to the ONS as of January 2021 online sales represented 35.1% of total retail sales versus just 19.5% in January 2020 (though the latest figures from May 2021 show that this has dropped back to 28.5% as things have started to open back up).

What are the potential benefits for your workforce?

All change brings opportunity, and some of your people may relish the chance to move into a new field (whether on a flexible or a permanent basis) - such as moving from the shop floor to an online customer services role which can be performed from home - or to shift focus in their existing role. This could be a win-win solution:

  • Retaining valued employees is likely to be one of your key employer objectives
  • The skills an individual has learned from one role may well be readily transferrable to a different role 
  • Many people relish the opportunity to learn new skills and develop in a way which enables them to remain motivated and future-proof their career.

What are the potential workforce benefits for you?

A growing online presence brings opportunities not only to reshape and reskill your existing workforce, but also to become a more diverse and inclusive employer.

  • Could a reframed business model allow you a window to attract more people with different skillsets?
  • If you now have roles which do not require face-to-face interaction, is this an opportunity to become a more neurodiverse employer by recruiting those who might have found face-to-face interaction difficult, but who would excel in creating and running an online catalogue of products?
  • From a social mobility standpoint, with depots not having to be in the same location as your stores, is this an opportunity to tap into employment "cold spots", where, traditionally, unemployment has been high?
  • Could a role supporting online sales enable you to attract those with physical disabilities or caring responsibilities that may have prevented them from seeking work with you owing to difficulties attending physical premises for core hours?

A growing online presence could be grasped as the opportunity to enhance your reputation as a responsible and equal opportunities employer, committed to inclusivity both in respect of your customers and your people.

What are the legal implications of this growth in online?

When growing your online presence to support your physical stores, you may need to:

  • Implement headcount reductions in certain areas
  • Invest in retraining and reskilling your people into different areas
  • Recruit in other areas (where you cannot retrain / reskill)
  • Renegotiate existing employment contracts
  • Re-draft future employment contracts to allow for an increase in flexibility to enable you to move people between channels, to quickly respond to the shifting landscape and consumer habits.

These processes will bring with them several legal considerations and constraints, alongside the associated operational challenges. So before implementing any changes you should consider:

  • Whether your employees' contracts contain mobility clauses
  • Whether it is reasonable for you to require them to work from an alternative location
  • Whether alternative roles are different enough to trigger a potential redundancy situation and the associated obligations that places on you
  • How you will discharge consultation obligations, including whether you are subject to additional legal obligations regarding collective consultation.

Any proposals should also be assessed through an equality lens at an early stage (and on an ongoing basis), to identify any potential discrimination risks arising as a result of the new model impacting disproportionately on any protected groups. 

What are the potential challenges?

Of course, as well as opportunities, new ways of working impact your people and bring challenges - these might include:

  • An impact on your organisational culture. This is inevitable, and if addressed proactively, could cement valuable aspects of your culture and lead to new ways of doing things
  • In the bricks and mortar world, it may be easier to demonstrate the connection between your business values and the customer's experience of the organisation. How can this visible commitment be maintained as central to the brand proposition when moving more online?
  • To many customers, your shop floor workers are synonymous with your brand. How can this personal experience be maintained through your online presence with fewer individual touchpoints?   
  • If you intend to have people, who are supporting your online presence, working from home or on a hybrid basis, you will need to:
    • provide appropriate equipment for homeworking to avoid health and safety pitfalls
    • overcome the challenge of building team rapport with those homeworkers, protecting their mental health and preventing them from becoming isolated
    • consider how you effectively supervise homeworkers and appropriately measure performance, whilst respecting privacy and work and home life boundaries?

And finally…

The pandemic has demonstrated that businesses and individuals are capable of extraordinary change. Retail has always needed to be nimble, to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Now, more than ever, being able to pivot when needed, capitalising on opportunities and overcoming challenges is vital as restrictions are lifted and we enter a "new normal".

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