Helping Support Retail Frontline Employees’ Mental Health

·8-min read

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and many companies are using it as an opportunity to reconsider how they promote employees’ mental health and well-being. For retailers and brands with large frontline workforces, investing in improving workplace culture and engagement can help. It’s not just the right thing to do to support hourly employees’ mental health but a necessity for attracting and retaining staff in today’s tight labor market. Although there have been some notable retail industry layoffs in recent months, the majority of the cuts have been in corporate roles, and with the U.S. unemployment rate ticking back down to 3.4 percent in April, many retailers and brands are still struggling to hire enough store associates and other frontline workers.

To better engage hourly staff and improve the frontline employee experience, Steven Kramer, WorkJam chief executive officer, said companies should take a more holistic view of mental well-being and equip store staff with the kinds of digital tools that desk-based workers rely on each day. WWD recently spoke with Kramer about how leading companies are boosting frontline workplace satisfaction and retention by investing in technology that empowers hourly workers and addresses their top workplace priorities.

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WWD: What has changed for store associates that are affecting their mental well-being? Why is it so challenging to be on the retail frontline today?

Steven Kramer: Many retailers and brands are still struggling with a frontline staffing shortage and store associates are juggling additional tasks that weren’t key to operations years ago, like fulfilling orders for in-store and curbside pickup. Also, inflation is high, margins are squeezed and consumers are pulling back their spending in some categories, meaning management is focused on doing more with less and increasing productivity and efficiency.

Meanwhile, customers’ expectations are higher than ever and their fuses are shorter than ever. On top of that, many hourly workers are still feeling the fatigue of dealing with COVID-19 for more than three years and, of course, they’re struggling with an increase in crime, including theft and violence.

All of these factors are making retail more complex and challenging and taking a toll on associates’ mental well-being. Given this new reality, it’s more important than ever that employers demonstrate they support, respect and value the essential workers who are on the front line delivering an excellent customer experience every day.

WWD: Some CEOs are working a few shifts on the front line to better understand their employees’ experience. Is that enough to lead to real improvements?

S.K: Certainly, walking a mile in another person’s shoes can be enlightening. I think even leaders who worked the retail front line early in their careers and then came up through the ranks can benefit from experiencing firsthand what hourly associates’ day-to-day work lives are like today. Because although the fundamentals of delivering a great customer experience are timeless, the retail environment has changed pretty dramatically. I think any CEO who works a few shifts on the front line quickly sees that hourly employees need to be able to access the same kind of communications and productivity tools that corporate office staffers use each day.

Steven Kramer
Steven Kramer

WWD: How can frontline workplace technology improve employees’ day-to-day work experience?

S.K: Frontline workplace tools boost employee engagement, autonomy, knowledge and productivity, to start with. All of which help drive overall job satisfaction and retention. One key way WorkJam helps companies improve the frontline experience is by giving hourly workers more flexibility and control over their schedules through a flexible shift-swapping module.

WorkJam’s solution helps solve a perennial pain point by enabling associates to swap shifts with colleagues without having to go through a manager. Our module also lets employees pick up additional shifts if they want to, whether at their home store, another location or even a sister brand’s store. It empowers associates and helps close the equality gap between hourly frontline staff and salaried desk-based workers.

Consider, for example, how many corporate employees are able to take a mental health day whenever needed as part of their benefits package. It’s much more challenging to roll out that policy in stores because providing a great customer experience requires having an appropriate level of staff on site during business hours. Store managers know how many employees they need on a busy Saturday to provide a great shopping experience and if a few people are absent, the immediate effect on operations can be much more disruptive than if a few office employees are out on a given day. At HQ, it’s typically easier for teams to cover the most pressing, time-sensitive tasks for a colleague and there may be more wiggle room on deadlines. If a store is short-staffed, it immediately impacts the customer experience.

Think long lines, misplaced merchandise, empty shelves and customers wandering aisles looking for help on the sales floor…that kind of experience makes customers not want to come back.

By giving associates a way to easily swap shifts when they need to, employers can provide more of the flexibility we all need to balance our work and non-work lives. If an hourly employee needs a day off for their own mental well-being or to take care of a sick child, a car repair or any other unexpected issue, the open-shift marketplace gives them options beyond calling out sick.

WWD: There’s an increased focus on collaboration among teams in large organizations today. How can frontline workplace tools help with that?

S.K: Two-way communications solutions can help teams work together and align more closely across store locations, geographies and all organizational levels. They drive employee engagement by giving hourly associates a voice and a way to reach decision-makers in corporate offices directly. Employees want to know that they’ve been heard and their needs and wants [are being] considered in organizations. In the old days, frontline staff had few options for communicating with senior leadership, except for maybe during the occasional executive store visit. Digital communication solutions solve that issue.

Our app’s communications module also gives leaders a way to share the same consistent message with everyone across the organization at the same time, translating the messaging into dozens of languages, if needed. This capability is a major advantage for large enterprises, which may have tens or hundreds of thousands of frontline employees working in thousands of stores, warehouses and fulfillment facilities across the world. Leaders can use the tool to communicate about the organization’s mission, building a shared sense of purpose and encouraging a sense of ownership by helping associates understand how their efforts contribute to the company’s overall success.

WWD: What else can the tech do besides help with flexible shift-swapping and communications?

S.K.: WorkJam also offers Express Pay, task management, training and learning, and other modules and features. Retailers and brands can choose whichever solution solves their most pressing issue and then turn on additional modules as their needs grow. It’s modular by design to help enterprises improve the employee experience right away and future-proof their frontline digital transformation strategies.

Our Express Pay module, for example, gives associates early access to wages they’ve earned, which can be a significant stress reliever when unexpected expenses pop up. Employees can arrange to receive their pay on a flexible schedule or right after a shift rather than every two weeks or twice a month.

Our task management module ensures jobs are assigned to the right associates, who have the knowledge and training needed to complete them, boosting productivity and efficiency. And our employee learning module is a key to retention for our retail partners, as so many frontline workers are looking for career development opportunities.

WorkJam’s learning solution not only helps with initial associate onboarding and training, but also with cross-training, upskilling and mapping out different career development paths. A McKinsey study from last year found that more than 70 percent of frontline employees have applied for a higher-level position, either at their own company or outside, so retailers and brands that clearly lay out and facilitate advancement opportunities can significantly boost frontline engagement and retention.

WWD: How does frontline digital workplace tech help store managers?

S.K: The open-shift marketplace is a huge help to store managers, saving them hours of work each week that they used to have to spend rejiggering schedules and approving change requests. And the digital two-way communications tool enables them to communicate more quickly and efficiently with their own store team and with teams nearby when needed. Considering the retail industry’s traditional employee communication channel was a printout on a clipboard hanging in the store breakroom, having the ability to quickly send a consistent message to the entire team is a big time-saver for managers.

WWD: Aside from boosting engagement and productivity, what other ROI do companies see when they roll out frontline workplace tech?

S.K: Investing in frontline tech directly impacts the bottom line, in addition to supporting employees’ mental well-being. Employees who feel engaged, knowledgeable and productive provide a better customer experience, which drives revenue growth and customer loyalty. They’re also less likely to leave the company for another job if they know the career paths available internally and have access to upskilling training and career development opportunities, reducing attrition.

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