Retail’s frontline workers have experienced significant pressure during the pandemic. They’ve kept businesses open in the face of risk to their own health, pivoted to evolving safety directives, taken on new roles with the influx of fulfillment and curbside pick-up options, and borne the brunt of customer frustration over supply chain-related shortages—all against the backdrop of extreme labor shortages.

Retailers have made major technology investments in support of customer experience during this time, but there is an opportunity to bring this innovation to frontline workers.

Survey results from Microsoft’s Work Trend Index show that 60% of these employees are excited about the new opportunities that digital tools bring to retail. But 34% feel they still don’t have the right technology. That tension isn’t new, but it does contribute to many considering a job change, according to WW retail and consumer goods industry corporate vice president, Shelley Bransten.

“The survey of frontline workers across industries, conducted in October and November 2021, sought to better understand the pandemic’s impact on frontline workers and the role technology plays in their jobs. Among retail industry respondents, it showed three important ways that digital tools can help staff support customers, grow their skills, and feel connected and valued on the job,” she said.

Employee empowerment drives customer service

Customer experience and employee experience have always been two sides of the same coin. While they haven’t always received the same level of attention, there is a shift to more employee-centric business models with promising potential benefits for worker wellness, retention, and enablement, according to Bransten.

The survey shows that almost one in six (59%) expect their stress level to stay the same or worsen over the next year. Meanwhile, supply chain issues and labor shortages are making their jobs more difficult, with challenges that impact customer service.

“We’re at an inflection point, and there is a real opportunity to reduce frontline workers’ stress by empowering them with the right digital tools and data. Retail frontline workers said it themselves. Nearly half of those surveyed responded that having better tech tools would make their jobs easier,” she said.

“Retailers like Boots Opticians, a member of the Retail Pharmacy International Division of Walgreens Boots Alliance, are transforming the experience of their frontline workers. By using Microsoft Cloud and Teams they are improving communication and collaboration for nearly 6,000 team members across the UK.

“These tools can empower associates by surfacing information such as stock and supply chain data on mobile devices, giving them tools to better respond to customer needs in the moment. These technologies are creating cultures in which customer care and employee support go hand in hand.”

Automation frees workers for higher-impact tasks

Many frontline workers in retail are digital natives who expect technology at work to be as accessible as it is at home.

Survey results show that two-thirds are excited about the job opportunities that technology offers, but only one-third say they are equipped with the right tools. They say technology ideally would offer more control over schedules, options to limit time on menial tasks such as manual inventory, and avenues to grow skills.

“With Microsoft Teams, retailers can automate certain tasks and simplify scheduling by enabling workers to easily communicate their availability and swap shifts. Microsoft Viva provides context-appropriate resources to help employees take more control of their development. We’ve seen engagement soar among workers using these tools, with more than 400% growth in monthly usage of Microsoft Teams for Frontline since the pandemic began,” Bransten said.

Canadian Tire innovated to provide a safe space for customers by using Microsoft Teams to quickly create a reimagined curbside delivery capability. “We’ve had rave reviews from our customers about the great experience using our curbside pick-up at the store. They’re blown away by the communication and the level of service they’re getting via Teams,” Canadian Tire associate dealer-owner, Paul Medeiros said.

An engaged workforce attracts top retail talent

A more rewarding on-the-job experience is critical for retention, and workplace culture is a major ingredient.

The younger generation fueling retail’s frontline puts a premium on that, craving connection, belonging, and recognition from leadership. Yet 62% of frontline workers in retail say it’s not a priority for leadership at their company, and 61% say communication from leaders isn’t trickling down to them.

Marks & Spencer are succeeding in making meaningful connections between the top floor and shop floor using Microsoft Teams to create a positive feedback loop. “From the very top of the business, we use Teams to communicate to specific groups, individual departments, and even single employees. It’s a big step forward and it helps us provide better customer service,” Marks & Spencer group property store development and technology director, Sacha Berendji said.  

Using Microsoft tools, retail associates can share ideas and provide customer insights, and communicative leaders can drive deeper engagement, sending the message that every individual’s contribution is valued.

Image: Frontline workers in the manufacturing, auto/transportation, and energy industries are the most concerned that stress at work will not improve over the next year.