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Can technology resolve the skills shortage in retail?

Through 2021 and leading into 2022, the skills shortage in the UK became agonisingly prominent.

A combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, and additional contextual change left almost every sector struggling in staffing, with record numbers of job vacancies accompanied by high unemployment. It has become clear that the workforce is searching for improved working conditions, especially after the uncertainty of the pandemic. Businesses must listen to this demand and utilise technology to improve working conditions and remedy the current gap between supply and demand.

What has caused the current skills shortage?

The dominant factor in the current skills shortage is undoubtedly Covid-19 – lengthy periods of lockdown throughout 2020 and 2021 resulted in many businesses laying off staff to save costs. While businesses remained closed or limited, many previous employees moved on, often retraining or finding work elsewhere. With the added complication of Brexit reducing immigration, staff shortages became inevitable.

The pandemic also opened new opportunities for workers in the UK, particularly the potential to work from home. For many, this provided them with a prospective healthier work-life balance and the ability to manage other commitments. Long hours and the threat of Covid exposure, particularly with the emergence of more transmissible variants, are driving people away from frontline retail jobs. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the retail industry is struggling to meet staffing demands.


What will help resolve the skills shortage?

Skills shortages are impacted by a range of issues and must therefore be tackled via several approaches. Businesses must evaluate their image, particularly in recruitment, and need to re-evaluate their methods for employee retention. This includes improving scheduling systems, communication, and employment opportunities to create a positive work environment.

Diversity and inclusion should also provide a key focus for businesses looking to attract and retain staff. When facing a skills shortage, businesses must attract employees from all backgrounds, and provide the correct diversity and inclusion training to ensure bias and discrimination does not occur.

How can technology contribute to these areas?

Improved scheduling

Technology presents businesses with the opportunity to provide efficient, flexible online scheduling. Employees can keep their availability digitally up to date, and employers can accommodate employee needs where it is most necessary. Enhanced, centralised communication can also allow more efficient shift-swapping between colleagues, ensuring that shifts are covered wherever possible. Once a swap in shifts has been agreed, managers can swiftly review the updated staff schedule and ensure all employees know their hours for the week.

Opportunity to input availability and effectively swap shifts gives employees increased flexibility, which is increasingly desired in the current job market. Through advertising these job features, businesses are more likely to attract new employees alongside retaining current staff.

Optimised scheduling also allows businesses to assign shifts based on higher or lower in-store footfall, meaning that the busiest business hours are always appropriately staffed. In an environment where skills shortages and job vacancies are high, this is incredibly important to maintain profits.

Improved communication

Effective communication is vital to both maintaining efficiency and positive workplace culture. The presence of clear communication ensures that employees are confident in their roles. Important information can be immediately distributed where required, with assistance or advice on hand wherever necessary.

It also allows employees to better connect and interact with each other, regardless of their job role. This extends to employee feedback – effective communication should also facilitate bottom to top employee feedback. This both helps businesses to identify where there are issues within the workforce and reassure employees that their voices and opinions are heard. Employee feedback can inform businesses on how to retain and attract staff.

Feedback is also vital for maintaining diversity and inclusion policy. Digital feedback channels should also provide employees with the opportunity to report breaches of diversity and inclusion policy directly to management, anonymously if they wish. Without these direct communication channels, employees are likely to feel intimidated by the process of approaching management directly, which could lead to the prolonging of diversity and inclusion issues.

Employee opportunities

To attract and retain employees, businesses should utilise technology to provide enhanced education and training opportunities. This should include mandatory diversity and inclusion training for all. The provision of badge or qualification-based courses help employees feel supported and encouraged by their employer, and they can be awarded through internal promotion to reflect their progress.

These opportunities are incredibly impactful in staff recruitment and retention – employees are more likely to remain with a business if they feel it is assisting them in progressing in their role and supporting their journey.

These internal training courses also provide businesses with data on employee progress, allowing them to make promotional decisions based purely on merit. This helps businesses combat the effects of unconscious bias in the recruitment process.

As Managing Director, Mark Williams is leading WorkJam‘s expansion in EMEA. Before joining the company, Mark held the position of Global Enablement Manager of Retail at Shell, where he was responsible for all frontline digital transformation projects. Operating with different structures across the globe, Shell’s challenge was to provide consistently excellent service through a fragmented workforce, without a large directly managed footprint. Under Mark’s leadership, the Enablement Team rolled out WorkJam to 100,000 employees across 35 global business units. Unifying communications, learning, and task management revolutionized how Shell Retail worked, improving turnover, compliance, and employee experience.