It was a really warm morning in April, not unusual for the season. What was unusual was what three of our leaders were doing. They were sitting, each in their homes, in a meeting with forty Retail Sales Officers on their laptop. Many of the sales people were linked through their phones. It was the launch of a training program on video selling – a new concept for all the participants. The interest & excitement among the participants was palpable. Interestingly, everyone was dressed like they would be on a normal day at work. The program was to have multiple modules including role plays & assessments and a certification – all conceptualized, designed and delivered in-house. Right through the nearly 2+ months of the Phase 1 & 2 of the lockdown, while all our stores were shut, our employees in our stores were busy with connect meetings, training programs on various skills, capabilities and a deep dive into the products and categories we operate in. Many of the newer staff got to understand the organisation better.
The coronavirus pandemic, like every crisis, has had a far reaching impact on everybody, No matter who you are, no matter where or how big, these are testing times for everyone alike. The extent of impact will vary depend on multiple elements. Some totally external and quite possibly uncontrollable and some internal and totally controllable.
The current times pose a curious challenge for organizations like ours with a large retail presence. Business and work life as we knew it suddenly stopped with no visibility on when we would open our doors again. The categories that we are in are all purely discretionary. Nobody was going to be in a hurry to buy another watch or a piece of jewellery or a saree for that matter. With that, while worrying about cash flows and costs on the one hand leaders had to ensure employees were engaged and energized. Our 4 C formula came in handy:
While it seems a fairly obvious thing to do, it is easier said than done when it comes to a large, spread-out workforce that is only used to connecting in person. Quickly converting physical, in person routines to digital and virtual and throwing in some new ones was key. Morning meetings, Coffee Conversations, Employee cascades and even open houses and farewells became virtual. Employees suddenly were seeing familiar faces more often and connecting with them! Updates, especially from Regional & Corporate Offices were more regular! Farewell parties for retiring employees went virtual with over 300 people in attendance at one. Last, but certainly not the least, the cascades by the Managing Director, CEOs and other senior leaders, apart from building connect with large groups of employees, helped in retaining confidence among employees, especially in the backdrop of an uncertain external environment.
In these months of WFH, organisations have used technology extensively and in many different and new ways to ensure that managers and leaders build effective ‘multi-way' communication with employees. Multiple virtual internal platforms have also been developed to enable employees to stay connected with each other. Most if not all of these are here to stay and those can result in stronger, faster and hopefully more effective multi-way communication in organizations, especially in the retail industry where teams are spread out and in many cases far away from offices.
A drive to collect all details of employees' situation & circumstances was undertaken to quickly understand who needed help and support and of what kind. This helped managers and HR teams ensure that help was given where needed. Somebody needed help with accommodation, another with food, someone else with healthcare. Detailed and strict protocols being put in place before we opened stores and offices helped employees feel that their health and safety came first.
Caring for our employees, customers, society and other stakeholders is at the core of who we are as an organisation. This pandemic has brought concern for safety and health to the fore like never before. Showing and feeling a deep concern for the sustained wellbeing of employees will be increasingly essential for any organisation to attract and retain talent. While some might argue that this has been an obvious one for a long time, I would argue otherwise. With the accelerated adoption of technology, many routine, repeatable tasks in the HR function will get automated. The opportunity for us, as a function, is to leverage this automation to ensure excellence in the human element of the organization.
This was one area, where a big problem was turned into a fantastic opportunity. A large part of the workforce had nothing to do suddenly. They certainly couldn’t do their work, of selling, from home. On the other hand you had a large number of people who struggled to attend training programs suddenly available, almost a captive audience! Our training teams went into overdrive. They huddled together with business managers and leaders and created a large variety of programs ranging from products to concepts to skills such as the video selling example I started the article with, and customer delight to wellness (yoga, ergonomics to investing). All of these have helped develop some fine skills on the one hand and catapult the digital quotient of a large group of employees on the other. Importantly it has really helped democratize learning and improve curiosity and the appetite to learn – a big cultural shift among a large group of employees.
The Digital Quotient, more specifically the Digital Learning Quotient, of most employees in front line retail has gone up dramatically during this period. I would also daresay their appetite to learn has also gone up. We will also see the contact & connect between customers and sales people will increase though the frequency of the customers' walk-in will reduce. The mode of connect will shift to virtual platforms. While this may still be a thing of the future, increasingly frontline sales people will also be far more adept with using data and analytics in their conversations & sales pitch with customers. All of this will see a big shift in the capability requirements of employees in retail. This hiatus has accelerated this shift, which was happening anyway!
Interacting with customers and making a significant and positive impact on them is at the core of what employees in retail do on a daily basis. Suddenly that opportunity disappeared or seemed to. After a few weeks of the lockdown our teams started a systematic customer connect program with a simple objective – let us find out how our customers are doing. Each employee in the store started calling customers, enquiring about their health and wellbeing. The impact of this effort has been significant in terms of ‘feel good' amongst our customers. This can be gauged from the significant posts from many customers on social media. As our stores opened, we heard very positive feedback from our customers too. The opportunity and the resultant positive feeling that employees experienced substantially increased their own ‘feel good' factor.
Employees strictly adhering to the stringent safety and hygiene protocols in the stores opening after the lockdown has really helped build confidence amongst our customers. It has significantly helped in making our stores a safe place to come to and buy from for all our customers. The heightened concerns on safety will continue for many years to come. HR has a significant role to play in ensuring that safety protocols are adhered to, constantly reviewed and upgraded.
While keeping Connect, Care, Capability and the Customer at the core of everything we do, HR as a function will need to play a significant role in the digital transformation of organisations. We will also need to bring in flexible work models that not only leverage and adapt the concept of Work From Anywhere, but also bring in policies and processes that enhance how a diverse workforce experiences the organization and find it a joyful place where they work to their full potential on the one hand and live a full life on the other.