Walk into any retailer and to some extent, you walk back in time. For most, the retail work environment hasn’t progressed much over the last century. Retail itself has come a long way with technology infusion in ambiance (lighting and music), sizing kiosks and RFID tags. But for those working in retail, not so many changes-except for the need for higher level technical skills, and getting to wear cool badges. Most retail employee time is still spent walking, talking to people, hanging things up, checking things out and hanging out waiting for people to come in. People working in retail spend long hours on often hard floors servicing customers who are often less than polite if they notice you at all. Because of relative low pay and less-than-ideal working conditions, retail is a high-turnover labor market. Latest numbers from the a Hays Group report saw a median turnover rate of 67%, rising 33% over 2011.
So what to do? The methodology in Management by Design offers guidance. First, the work experience needs to be co-created. People working in customer-facing roles need to participate in the design of their work environment. This means that they are no longer 100% dedicated to customer-facing work. They need to be given time to provide feedback, engage designers and confer with software engineers. They need to achieve a balance between work and creation-and through this find variety that will intrigue them, but with a clear emphasis on what is important.
They also need to be brought into the rhythm and motion of the business. This means connecting their work to the strategic goals of the organization. If people understand why they do what they do, and the value that they contribute, they are more engaged. As I outline in the book, and the Atlantic goes into depth about here, Wegman’s Supermarkets flips the customer-first model into an employee-first model. That means co-creation and bi-directional engagement. It also means empowerment.
Wegman’s provides 40-hours of training before cashiers go before customers. Employees are brand ambassadors. The stores boast high customer service numbers, low prices and half the employee turnover of rivals. That means applying equability, flexibility, simplicity and forgiveness to systems, policies and practices (which include sending butchers to Colorado, Uruguay and Argentina to learn about beef) and the space in which people work.
At the core of Management by Design is the belief that we don’t spend enough time designing our work, but rather let work happen to us. Wegman’s designs its work. When I look at the Hays Group report, I don’t see work co-creation as a retention or recruitment tool. It is time to rethink what attracts people to a job, and more importantly, what entices them to keep coming back day-after-day. And with signs of a recovery, attracting and retaining talent is going to get harder, not easier, which means unique approaches beyond pay, training or career growth will need to be introduced. I encourage you to start personally designing the work you control today (like thinking about how to design your next meeting.) And if you are an employer, especially a retail employer, rethink your workforce strategy so that “employees being the biggest asset” becomes more than a slogan.