Australia’s retail sector was impacted heavily by COVID and, as trade picks up, it’s a good time to acknowledge and reward the employees who pitched in to do whatever it took to keep the doors open.

Taken the time to reflect on the efforts your staff put in last year, to help steer your organisation through the tumultuous pandemic period?

The arrival of COVID-19 heralded the best and the worst of times for the businesses that collectively comprise Australia’s $30-plus billion a month retail sector.

On the one hand, supermarkets, liquor outlets and hardware stores found themselves doing a roaring trade, as stuck-at-home Aussies dived into DIY projects, drowned their sorrows and got busy in the kitchen.

Their employees, classed as essential workers, found themselves doing double shift in many instances, in frontline roles that potentially exposed them to the virus. Meanwhile, over in the warehouses and logistics centres, their fellow colleagues were up against it, trying to keep food – and toilet paper – moving onto the shelves.

Conversely, many specialty retailers saw their turnovers plummet after being forced to shutter their bricks and mortar premises. Some scrambled to respond by pivoting to digital; others found themselves desperately treading water while waiting for lockdowns to lift. Meanwhile, scores of retail employees were forced to make ends meet on reduced incomes, courtesy of the JobKeeper scheme and JobSeeker payments, while they remained in limbo.

State of emergency

Against this backdrop, staff engagement and satisfaction took a backseat to sheer business survival in many organisations, perhaps understandably so.

Research commissioned by Achievers in 2021 reveals the consequences of a year spent operating in emergency mode. A study of 755 Australian organisations with more than 50 employees showed that managers estimate staff engagement, recognition and job satisfaction levels are between two and three times higher than they are.

Thus, while 26 per cent of managers across all industries ‘strongly agreed’ that employees felt engaged in their overall work experience, just 14 per cent of those in the ranks felt the same way.

Surprisingly, however, retail was a happy exception on this front. Managers significantly underestimated their teams’ level of engagement, despite the myriad of challenges the past year has thrown at the sector.

It was a rather different story on the recognition and reward front though. The study found employees were between 1.8 and 3.6 times less likely than their bosses to affirm that they were receiving appropriate levels of recognition in the workplace overall.

Looking after the people who looked after your business

Does it matter that employees may be feeling a little unnoticed and under-appreciated at this point in time? In my opinion, it most definitely does. Because, while the retail industry may not boom again any time soon, other sectors of the economy are looking rather more buoyant.

While governments and economists feared the demise of the JobKeeper scheme on 28 March would presage a surge in unemployment, that hasn’t happened. Instead, the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.1 per cent and employers up and down the country have taken to the airwaves to bemoan the employee shortages that now beset them.

Restauranteurs have found themselves unable to offer as many sittings as they’d like to because they can’t fill rosters, farmers are struggling to get the harvest in and the construction and mining sectors are crying out for labour.

With unskilled and semi-skilled work now seemingly available in abundance, it’s a sellers’ market in many locations and industries. That means retail employees who are less than satisfied in their current positions have more options open to them than they did a year or two prior.

Recognising and retaining a great team

Recognition is key to employee satisfaction and after a business has weathered an extended period of challenge and uncertainty, it’s vital. 

Highly engaged employees are less likely to fly the coop than those who feel disconnected from their employer and unacknowledged for their contribution.

If your retail business has a great team who’ve stuck with you through the thin times of 2020, now is the time to acknowledge and reward their efforts.

Matt Seadon is general manager for Asia Pacific at Achievers.