How times have changed – and how quickly. In early 2020, the prospects for Australia’s army of retail workers could scarcely have looked bleaker, as Covid lockdowns and economic anxiety kept customers out of the shops.

Fast forward 18 months and the outlook is very different. Employers across multiple sectors, from hospitality to agriculture, are struggling to fill advertised vacancies and putting pressure on the federal government to restart skilled migration programs.

The talent shortfall has created an opportunity for individuals weary of the high stress, lowly paid retail environment, who fancy trying their hand at something new.

Conversely, it represents a significant challenge for retailers. As restrictions ease, borders reopen and the Christmas season draws near, retail businesses need all hands on deck, and they stand to lose out economically if they can’t secure and retain sufficient personnel to fill shifts.

Bearing the brunt

That many retail workers are feeling a little jaded is hardly surprising. It’s been a tough 18 months for those on the frontline. Social distancing, long queues and panic buying resulted in frayed tempers aplenty in the early days of the pandemic and very often it was shop assistants who ended up copping a serve.

More latterly, they’ve had to contend with QR code check-in regulations and mask mandates – wearing the latter for hours on end themselves and enforcing the rules with customers who aren’t always civil and cooperative. It’s been a big ask for workers who originally signed up to standard store duties: stacking and tidying shelves, serving customers and ringing up sales.

Smart employers have done what they can to ease the load; providing training and mentoring to ensure their teams have the skills and the confidence to deal with these new challenges, and to reassure workers that they have their back.

Retailers that hope to maintain a stable, experienced workforce will need to keep up the encouragement and support, as our economy and society continue to open up and individuals begin assessing their options in the new year.

Creating a culture of belonging

The sense of belonging and inclusion, or lack thereof, which they feel in relation to the organisations they work for will play a key role in determining whether retail employees stick around or say ‘so long’ in 2022.

Employees who consider themselves integral to an organisation are twice as likely to be engaged, committed and productive as those who do not, according to Achievers’ 2021 Culture of Belonging Report.

That’s why fostering a company culture which acknowledges, celebrates and rewards employees for the contributions they make can improve productivity and engagement levels and go a long way to preventing staff churn.

Some of the country’s leading retailers already know this and have pulled out all the stops, when it comes to recognising the extraordinary effort frontline workers have made in the last 18 months.

In June 2020, Woolworths, for example, announced it was giving $750 worth of company shares apiece to 100,000 team members in Australia and New Zealand, in recognition of their contribution.

Adopting a formal rewards program

In many organisations, however, the recognition and reward that underpins a culture of belonging and inclusion may only occur haphazardly, if it’s left to the discretion of individual managers.

Instigating a formal recognition and reward program, which utilises digital tools to manage the process, can ensure all leaders within an organisation engage with and acknowledge employees for their efforts, in a timely, positive and meaningful way.

As Australian retailers prepare to tackle the new challenges of a post-Covid economic landscape, it’s an investment in continuity and customer service that’s likely to pay for itself many times over.

Matt Seadon is general manager for Asia Pacific at Achievers.