Panel Deep Dive: Delivering Change through People

What is the irreplaceable, added value that staff can bring that will never be replaced by technology?

It’s no secret that the retail industry is facing huge challenges, with declining footfall and increasing property costs making our frontline workforce extremely vulnerable. Many companies are exploring reducing headcount in favour of digital alternatives. Is this sound strategy or short sighted?

On Wednesday 27th March, our panellists will take to the Main Stage to explore this theme. Confirmed to speak are:

  • Anna Blackburn, MD, Beaverbrooks
  • Dr. Beth Butterwick, CEO, Karen Millen
  • Paul Titterton, Head of Retail Distribution, Virgin Money 
  • Adam Freeman, CEO at Freeformers

This panel discussion looks to uncover how best to prepare our workforce for the future, and some practical steps to enable change.

Ahead of the panel, we take a deep-dive into this topic and explore some of the key considerations. 

The Future of Work in Retail

Although technology will take a reported seven million jobs away from the UK economy, it will create much more than that in its place. We will be asking the panel their thoughts on what this means for frontline staff in the retail industry. Adam Freeman, CEO at Freeformers, highlighted that preparation for the future is key. He said, “Whether they need to take new roles, or manage new automated tools, by getting their mindset in the right place, they can adapt to whatever conditions present themselves.” 

This view is also supported by Dr. Beth Butterwick, CEO at fashion retailer Karen Millen. Dr. Butterwick noted, “Those that succeed in new roles will be those most open to learning new skills [and have] the ability to transition well into new roles emerging.” Whilst the consensus of the panel appears to be unified in that the frontline workforce of retail needs to be prepared for change, there is some uncertainty about what the future holds. 

Anna Blackburn, MD at jewellery specialists Beaverbrooks, provided some insight on why the human element of retail will have a place in the future of work. “I believe that customers want to deal with people, not machines. We have to be prepared, and help our colleagues prepare, for whichever way the market moves.”

The Workforce of Tomorrow

According to an 2018 Ipsos Mori report, 28% of the UK's future workforce see retail as a career destination. However, there is an expectation gap between employers and employees leaving the education system, and the human attributes needed for the future of work. As Freeman said, it’s not all doom and gloom. “In the same study, the second most highly ranked skill for both employers and employees was the ability to continue learning. This is positive, as I think it reflects that a lot of people now realise that ‘change’ is here to stay”. 

If those joining the workforce are prepared for a changing world, what does this look this for retailers? “Beaverbrooks recruits to its values and looks for people with great personalities that will shine within the business,” said Blackburn. “This ability to be open and honest stands our business in good stead and ensures people know who we are and what we stand for.” This clear direction is important, as whilst those entering the workforce from the education system may have a desire to be ‘always learning’, company strategy and values need to be articulated by the employer. Dr. Butterwick added that self-leadership is key to making this work in practice. “I would always want to employ a ‘self-leader’, however there needs to be an aligned reality between employee and employer as to how this is applied to the job-in-hand.”

The Culture Needed for Success

Whilst most retailers consider speed to market and flexibility as competitive advantage, it’s onboarding of frontline workforces is no different, and people need to be competent in the role as quickly as possible. As Blackburn noted, “It’s important to remember that retail is constantly changing and there is always something to learn.” Freeman added, “Whilst the nuances of the delivery model will always be different from retailer to retailer, what does need to change is how we prepare people for change, not for work in a single point in time.” 

Dr. Butterwick identified that employees at Karen Millen must embrace, “A culture and processes of agility.” They are enabling change by, “Letting individuals test, fail fast and move on”. When applied to any induction for retail employees, this means that the mindset of needs to be developed in partnership the competencies of ‘doing things’.  As Blackburn said, “A culture of accountability and a collaborative approach ensures shared responsibility, helping people to feel valued and safe in the knowledge that they are contributing to the direction and success of the business.” 

It’s evident that the panellists agree that a certain mindset is key to any employee having a role in the future of retail, but what practical steps can be taken to drive change within retailers?

Agents of Change

As frontline workforces of retailers are often much closer to customer sentiment and desires, there is hypothesis that some of the most innovative ideas come from them. Freeman points to his extensive work with the clients of Freeformers to back this up. “I have heard from some large retailers that this is absolutely true, and the better ones capture the ideas, make some happen, and explain to workers why other ideas have to wait. The key thing is for the board to empower those closest to the customers to be part of the change process.” 

Collaboration, openness, forward thinking and creativity need to flourish within an organisation's workforce to allow the free movement of ideas and change. “For this to be executed successfully, the board have to demonstrate this behaviour and endorse otherwise you don’t get the staff changing their ways,” said Dr. Butterwick. The ability for the socialisation of one's work and creativity need to be led from the top. What practical steps has she taken to enable this to happen? “We capture new ideas through such things as ‘a breakfast with Beth’, an employee forum who meet once a month. We are also about to launch an innovation wall where anyone can suggest an idea.” 

As Dr. Butterwick outlined, the platform to getting people involved is just as crucial as the mindset. Blackburn and Beaverbrooks are also doing some interesting things to connect with its frontline workforce. “Through the introduction of the social networking platform Yammer, we are bringing together 70 store teams and office colleagues together. We’ve worked incredibly hard to encourage membership and in just 12 months, 92% of our people have joined. People love to feel part of something bigger, to share celebrations and achievements, but to also share best practice and to have the opportunity to feedback thoughts and ideas to the wider business.” 

If you’d like to hear more about this pressing conservation from our panellists, the live discussion will take place on Wednesday 27th March at 11:25 on the Main Stage at Retail Week Live.

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