Holiday shopping in full swing and frontline employees are exhausted

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Holiday shopping in full swing and frontline employees are exhausted

By J.D. Dillon - 12/17/2020

The holiday shopping season, with long hours, crowds, and a rushed pace, is typically tiring for frontline employees.

But the 2020 season is very different. To get through this holiday season and beyond, retailers must ensure frontline employees have the skills and support they need to be engaged, rested, and resilient.

The holidays came early this year. Amazon rescheduled Prime Day in October, and other retailers followed suit with a pre-emptive sales push. Consumers started shopping early to avoid any possible in-store crowds and avoid delays in online purchase deliveries.

Even though many retailers are now in high gear for the holidays, frontline employees have been in high gear most of the year. Retail associates in essential verticals such as grocery and hardware went into crisis mode in March, developing and following health and safety protocols, keeping shelves stocked, and adjusting to new procedures such as curbside pickup and delivery. Frontline employees in other retail verticals have experienced the stress of working in non-essential businesses and struggling with reduced hours and furloughs.

With everything that’s going on, who isn’t exhausted? Nonetheless, businesses continue to rely on frontline employees. They’re the ones on the floor, on the phone and on the move, working directly with customers. They must also play a critical role in helping companies build new levels of operational agility.

Managers need employees with the knowledge and skill to meet new customer demands. They must be ready to deliver great shopping experiences in-store, at the curb, at home and online. They must be willing to keep themselves, peers and customers safe by executing guidelines around masks and physical distancing. And they must be able to approach difficult customer situations with confidence and empathy.

To make this happen, businesses must put their frontlines first, but not just through the close of business on December 24. This must become a foundational part of long-term business and brand strategy.

How to build frontline resilience

There are immediate steps managers can take to build frontline resilience and enable maximum performance.

Provide hourly employees with schedules. Scheduling is one of the leading causes of stress on the frontline.  Employees are juggling multiple responsibilities, including education, extra jobs, homeschooling their children, and supporting their families. Providing reliable schedules early helps employees anticipate and address their needs, especially because they can determine the value of their next paychecks.

Communicate fast and often. Managers must prioritize communication so frontline employees aren’t left guessing or unprepared to do their jobs. They should reduce reliance on traditional, in-person tactics, such as bulletin boards and huddle meetings, in favor of digital messages that can be accessed at any time, anywhere. After all, employees cannot execute a new business strategy or sell a new product without the most up-to-date information.

Upskill employees now. Associates are being asked to fundamentally change how they do their work. Rebuilding skills and habits that have been developed over months or years on the job requires more than a meeting. Managers must have cross-training programs ready to go for key roles and skills. By proactively cross-training and upskilling employees, they will be ready to staff critical business areas in a crunch. And employees will have new opportunities to increase their engagement and career mobility.

Make it O.K. to step away. It’s hard to stay motivated when stores are busy and customers are on edge. Managers must insist that employees take time to themselves, especially during scheduled breaks and lunches. Long-term employee well-being and mental health must take precedence over operational efficiency. Managers must help employees prioritize themselves and give them time to recover from their public-facing responsibilities.

Remember to celebrate. It’s the holiday season for customers … and employees. Make time for (safe) celebrations. Recognize employees for their efforts, big and small. Provide opportunities for employees to connect, especially if they are unable to be with their families this year.

Build resilience skills. Resilience is more than a buzzword. It’s a skill set that anyone can develop with the right focus. Managers can help their people bend but not break under pressure by focusing on concepts such as:

  • Working through change by approaching situations with a renewed perspective and focusing on what they can control.
  • Managing their time and prioritizing tasks so they don’t become overwhelmed.
  • Leveraging resources, such as on-demand information, peers and managers, to get help before problems escalate.

De-escalation: Today’s most critical frontline skill

Frontline employees often find themselves on the defensive. Basic customer issues are escalating faster than ever due to added stress and fear. This is especially true when it comes to mask and physical distancing requirements.

This version of customer service is not covered in most frontline training programs. Therefore, managers must prioritize de-escalation training so employees are prepared to head off potentially dangerous situations.

This year will define what companies stand for, not based on their products and services but on how they treat people - customers and employees. To provide a holiday and ongoing shopping experience that keeps people safe and brings customers back, retailers must put their frontline forward and provide communication, training and support that enables them to do their best work during a very difficult time.

J.D. Dillon is chief learning architect at Axonify.

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