How the retail sector can adapt to the demand for hybrid working

The way people work in retail has changed as a result of Covid and that could also affect frontline workers. Lucie Mitchell investigates.

Blurry image of people shopping carrying bags


If the pandemic has taught us one thing in the world of employment, it’s that many employees can perform their jobs perfectly well remotely and, in many cases, there is no longer a need for staff to return to the office full time.

For some sectors, the transition to remote work has been pretty seamless, yet for others, such as retail and other customer-facing industries, it hasn’t always been as easy. However, with so many employees favouring a hybrid working model as restrictions ease, the pressure on employers to build more flexibility into working practices is growing.

A survey earlier this year by Claromentis found that 73% of UK employees want to split their time between the office and home, while a Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development report revealed that around 40% of employers expect over half their workforce to work regularly from home after the pandemic.

Meanwhile, LinkedIn’s Workforce Report in July 2021 found that the retail industry – which had low levels of remote roles a year ago – has experienced an eleven-fold increase in advertised remote jobs compared to 2020.

As employees return to work post-pandemic, and with growing demand for more innovative approaches to flexible working, many retail firms are now striving to embed flexibility into the organisation and embrace hybrid working.

Hybrid working

Some big retailers are already taking a hybrid approach. In July, supermarket group Asda confirmed it will be introducing a permanent hybrid working model for 3,500 of its head- office staff. The initiative, called ‘Work where it works’, will enable employees to choose the best location to do their job on any given day, whether that is from home, head office or an alternative location such as a store or depot.

Jacki Simpson, Asda’s vice president of people operations, says they have learnt a great deal over the last 16 months about working patterns, with staff working productively across different locations.

“Having consulted extensively with [colleagues] about future ways of working, we know they welcome the increased flexibility of remote working. However, they also acknowledge there is some work that is simply better done from the office, so as we move forward a hybrid working model is the right approach for our people and the business.”

It has also been reported that Apple will be implementing a pilot programme later this year – called Retail Flex – to test a hybrid working model on a small number of its store staff.

According to Bloomberg, the pilot will see employees working some weeks remotely, dealing with issues such as online sales and tech support, and working at the retail store as usual at other times.

The John Lewis Partnership, parent company of John Lewis and Waitrose, has also announced it will be introducing flexible working for all its head office employees, following feedback from staff; while retailer Dixons Carphone will be introducing hybrid working at its London headquarters.

“The pandemic has proved, in so many cases, that many tasks don’t have to be completed in the workplace,” remarks retail business coach Jamie Goral. “Retail employers therefore need to discover what balance of working works best for the benefit of the business. A hybrid working situation is a benefit to many people and offering a flexible way of working will ensure you remain inclusive to everyone.”

Online retail

The growth of online retail during the pandemic, coupled with the move to hybrid working, has created a push for upskilling workers to develop digital skills for the future, points out Dr Volker Patent, a chartered psychologist and lecturer at The Open University specialising in business psychology and coaching.

“Investing in digital skills will create more flexibility to adapt to future changes in markets, consumer behaviour and so on. It depends on the specific jobs too, as front-of-shop staff will have different issues to back-office roles, so it may be easier to consider hybrid working for back-office staff.”

Wizz Selvey, founder of retail and brand strategy agency WIZZ&CO, says there really is no way back for many retail roles, as a result of the last 18 months, so it’s important for retailers to embrace technology to support the move to hybrid working.

“There has been so much innovation and development around remote working; for example, there is a platform that connects online customers to people working in-store, to optimise efficiency of people in store if they’re not as busy. The customer gets face-to-face interaction and more effective customer service. This can be done in store or at home, making it really easy to implement too.”

Patent believes that the last year has highlighted that working parents, older workers and those vulnerable and shielding have had significant cause to seek out more flexible working practices.

“We are at a point now where we can reflect and reset, to think more critically about who is affected, consult staff, and make reasonable adjustments to implement flexible working,” he comments.

To ensure hybrid working models are a success for retail staff, Patent adds that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, and flexible working must be individualised. “Consider the social aspects of the organisation,” he says. “It’s not just about making people happy, but more about how people form and enact relationships, in particular for new hires. Ask people what they need.”

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