Roadmap to Restoring Employee Trust, Regaining Competitive Advantage

Restoring revenue, pent-up consumer demand—there is a lot to look forward to as retail reopens. But efforts to capitalize on post-pandemic sales opportunities should be accompanied by a renewed commitment to our people, advised Elaine Palome, director of human resources at Axis Communications.

Elaine Palome
Elaine Palome

“It would be easy to focus on the business and not the people, but without the people you’re not going to have the business,” warned Palome. “Retail relies on the customer experience and if your employees aren’t feeling good—if they don’t feel secure, taken care of, and listened to—it’s nearly impossible to service customers in a way that is going to serve the retail organization.” If retailers want to retain and build their customer base versus losing them to online retailers, she advised, “then a positive customer experience must be the differentiating factor.”

To support the industry and help it regain footing, Axis Communications has outlined a personnel roadmap for reestablishing trust, demonstrating respect, and providing flexibility post-COVID. Retailers are at a critical business juncture, but it is an equally delicate time for people—and helping employees work through the anxiety, fear, and unknowns is an important part of a successful return to operations, said Palome. “Your employees are your greatest competitive advantage, and you need to take care of them holistically, to care for them mentally as well as physically,” she explained, noting a direct correlation between employee attitudes and productivity, loyalty, turnover, and even theft.

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Palome outlined a range of significant personnel challenges now facing retailers, including:

  • Employee health fears and unknowns—“Is this really over?”
  • Dealing with angry customers—“Why can’t my spouse come in with me?”
  • Contending with new store processes and policies, such as for safety or cleanliness.
  • Concern over job security. Furloughed workers may return harboring resentment and exhibiting negative attitudes. Some employees will be experiencing significant personal hardship, such as missed mortgage payments or perhaps even loss of a loved one.

Elaine Palome, Director of Human Resources at Axis Communication, discusses culture, employee trust, and re-gaining the competitive advantage in today’s climate.

“Start with the idea that people want to work and provide for their families. Then think about what you can do to show respect to the returning workforce, and of ways to increase employee engagement and motivation,” advised Palome, adding that meeting employees’ needs starts with listening to them. Palome is a strong proponent of holding informal get-togethers with employees. Throughout the crisis, Axis has been successfully leveraging virtual “Fikas”—a sort of Swedish coffee break—to keep in touch with staff. She is also a fan of supervisor “walkabouts” as a way to conduct a cultural audit of your workgroup.

“In times of crisis, workers want to see management—and not just get emails. This is really a time when management-by-walking-around is necessary to get a sense of what people are thinking about, to listen to the words people use, to see if they’re communicating, and to gauge what’s working and what’s not,” she said. “Talk to people, so you can hear if someone is going through a really tough time. You can’t do that from behind a desk.”

Palome and Axis outlined additional action items that can help retailers and LP managers help forge a healthy work culture despite heightened anxiety.

Consider creating a “dashboard” indicator of workplace climate so that managers will know when problems in the culture develop. This could include the number of workers’ compensation cases related to stress; number of complaints made to HR or hotlines regarding workplace culture issues; number of absences; and an increase in requests for transfers from a particular store or supervisor.

Conduct a focus group of employees with management to talk freely about issues that affect them. “Consider doing this without supervisors present so employees feel free to talk,” suggested Palome.

Look at employee well-being holistically—not only their physical, but also their mental and emotional well-being, said Palome. “Embrace mental health support. Consider pre-shift meditation sessions or implementing a cost-effective employee assistance program.”

Practice empathy. “Understand that there will be some employees who were not affected while others suffered greatly. Even if you have an employee who is overacting, don’t react. We don’t know what they have personally been through,” said Palome. “In tough times, the leaders who stand out communicate clearly, stay calm and strong, demonstrate empathy, think long-term, and take appropriate decisive action.

Consider celebrations, both in groups and one-on-one. And don’t sweep personnel issues under the rug. Especially at this time, a passive management approach is not advisable, said Palome.

“In the last five years there has been a significant and welcome shift in the leadership community to focus on taking care of the whole person and recognizing the importance of capturing employees’ hearts and minds and to make them feel a part of the business,” Palome explained. Operating in the aftermath of COVID-19 will be a crucial test of this management mindset, and she believes it is more important than ever to show respect for employee well-being if stores are to successfully reengage them.

“This is a great time to define what sets you apart as an employer and reinforce those values on a weekly, daily, sometimes hourly basis,” she said. “Employees will be comforted to know that managers are using a strong set of values to define their behaviors and that it remains consistent in good times and bad.”

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