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Four ways grocers can boost enthusiasm and dedication in their workforce

Stressed employees, high turnover rates, quiet quitters – here’s what retailers should know
engaging employees
Employees’ current state of discontent points to the need for an even greater focus on engagement.

If you ask employees what’s on their minds, there’s a good chance they’re mulling a run for the exits. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report, 51% of workers globally are watching for or actively seeking a new job, and stress rates are at historic highs. 

In the U.S. retail sector, the “quit rate” for employees is more than 70% higher than in other sectors, according to McKinsey & Co. And in a survey by employee communications platform Nudge, 37% of Canadian retail workers said they want to quit their jobs. 

The stats may not come as a shock to grocers, who have long struggled to attract and retain staff. But, employees’ current state of discontent points to the need for an even greater focus on employee engagement. It’s a critical aspect of retention that can also lead to higher productivity, less absenteeism and better customer experiences.

“We used to always say the customer comes first, which was a lie,” says Kevin Graff, president and founder of Graff Retail, a firm that provides sales and leadership training for retailers. “The reality is staff come first because if the staff aren’t happy, how well do we think the customer experience is going?”

READ: Randstad Sourceright’s Veronica Frisch on what it takes to win the war on talent

On the frontlines, Graff says the challenge for grocers is how to make their store a great work experience that’s more than just another shift. “If the store environment sucks, do you really want to go to work? No,” Graff says. “If the quality of the relationships that you have with your teammates and, specifically, your bosses is not very good, do you want to go to work? No.” 

However, if it’s a great work experience – and this applies to both the frontline and head office – “you’re probably going to be engaged, work harder and stay [with your employer] longer,” Graff says.

In fact, when Gallup asked “quiet quitters” – employees who do the bare minimum just to hang on to their jobs – what they would change about their workplace to make it better, 41% said engagement or culture. That ranks above pay and benefits (28%) and well-being (16%). Gallup also puts a price on low engagement, estimating it costs the global economy US$8.8 trillion, or 9% of global GDP. 

With so much at stake – and no end in sight to the country’s labour crunch – retailers should double down on helping employees feel more connected at work. Here’s a look at some new as well as tried-and-true rules of engagement.

Hire really great managers

“I know this sounds screamingly obvious, but quality of management [is key],” says Stephen Friedman, adjunct professor of organizational studies at Schulich School of Business, York University. “So much engagement begins with attention to hiring the best managers that you can and spending time revamping the recruitment process.” 

These days, employees want bosses who are down-to-earth and relatable, Friedman explains, “people who are willing to show themselves and who they are in an effort to create relationships and rapport with the people who work for them.” He suggests retailers conduct better interviews for both frontline and corporate management positions, advising they should spend more time and energy “ensuring there’s [a] fit in terms of their personality, sociability and likelihood that they’re going to be approachable, humble and vulnerable.” 

READ: How grocery leaders are inspiring and motivating their employees

Graff notes that one truism in the work world is people don’t quit companies, they quit bosses. While an employer could be viewed as a “cold, inanimate corporate being,” it’s bad bosses and poor relationships that can force people out the door. His suggestion is to do away with the hierarchy and lead from a more human perspective. “You’re not a manager dealing with an employee. You’re a human being talking to another human being,” he says.

The approach rings true for high-end Toronto grocer Summerhill Market. “Our key to successful employee engagement is taking a human-centred approach,” says co-owner Christy McMullen. “We genuinely want what’s best for our employees, whether it is career stability and growth at Summerhill Market or [if] their stay with us is only a short part of their career journey. We have excellent managers who care about their employees and maintain open communication with them in a very transparent way, which our employees seem to really appreciate.”

Level up your rewards and recognition program

Employees want to be seen – it’s only human. And recognition is a great way to boost engagement and retain talent. A recent study by Gallup and Workhuman found that employees who receive great recognition are 20 times as likely to be engaged as those who receive poor recognition. What’s more, when employees have “thriving well-being” and “the best recognition experiences possible,” they are less likely to be actively looking for new job opportunities. 

At the store level, Graff’s advice to managers is this: “Your store is open probably 363 days a year. You need a war chest of ideas for rewards and recognition.” He also has what he calls the 90/10 rule for managers when they’re giving feedback: 90% of what they say should be positive and supportive and 10% should be corrective. When managers start “catching employees” doing all the right things – from helping someone at the self-checkout to building a great display – “you create this phenomenally positive, encouraging environment,” Graff says. 

Schulich’s Friedman says retailers should consider constructing a program that includes not just recognition from the boss, but from peers, customers and suppliers. “When it’s all about impressing the boss, or the boss thinks I did good, those get a little tired,” he says. “I like the idea of being able to say ‘this colleague helped me out a lot this week.’”

READ: POLL: What’s your top business priority for 2024?

Ontario-based grocer Longo’s has a recognition platform that covers the entire organization – from the stores to the distribution centre to the commissary to the support centre (or corporate headquarters). Liz Volk, the company’s chief human resources officer, says all operating units use the platform religiously. 

“We’ve got engaged leaders who take that tool very seriously and they go in and do on-the-spot recognition, which in some cases is tied to points for team members,” Volk explains. “It also gives us the ability to see what really good behaviours look like across the business… It’s nice because you get to see what happens in store XYZ or you get to see that somebody did something great in the HR function.”

Carol Leaman is co-founder and CEO of frontline enablement solutions provider Axonify (Longo’s is a client). One trend she’s observed is recognition and rewards are being used for frontline workers, which wasn’t historically the case. “Giving shout-outs, publicly recognizing [people] and instituting rewards programs is now happening,” Leaman says. “We’re starting to see how the frontline hourly paid associate is treated converging with how [a retailer] would historically have treated their corporate salaried workforce.”

Offer flexibility on all fronts

By all accounts, the future of work is flexible. For desk-based employees, that usually means the option to work remotely or in a hybrid environment, and with a flexible schedule. Now, the flexibility tide is reaching the frontlines. According to the 2022 Gartner Frontline Worker Experience Reinvented Survey, 58% of organizations that employ frontline workers have invested in improving their employee experience, with another 33% intending to do so in the next 12 months. 

Gartner notes that as organizations look to offer more flexibility for their frontline workforce, employees are looking for control and stability over their work schedule and paid leave. Frontline workers are also looking for other types of flexibility, such as what they work on, who they work with and the amount they work.

For many grocers, this requires a mindset shift. For example, Schulich’s Friedman advises retailers to start thinking about offering alternative hours for frontline workers. “In other words, not necessarily having eight-hour shifts, but allowing people to co-ordinate and customize shifts in a way you haven’t in the past,” he explains. 

READ: Pay increases expected to edge lower in 2024, report says

For instance, consider the single mom with kids at home at certain times of the day or, perhaps, someone who is a caregiver for their elderly parents or someone who has a disability and is unable to work for long stretches of time. “Why aren’t people able to do a two-hour shift?” asks Friedman. “If you really want to broaden your employment pool, maybe it’s worthwhile reaching out to people who can’t work an eight-hour day, who could be just as good employees.” 

Longo’s has been taking a hard look at work-life balance, trying to figure out what it means and what the company can do differently. Recently, Longo’s began piloting a four-day work week in its stores. Volk says it’s early days, but it’s one example where the company heard team members “loud and clear” about a different approach so people can manage their home lives and work lives. In its support centre, Longo’s has shifted to a hybrid model, with employees working from home and in the office throughout the week. 

Another aspect of flexibility at Longo’s is how employees across the organization get paid. “We actually have the ability to pay on demand now,” Volk says. “We work with our provider and people can work a shift and get that paid into their bank account immediately.”

At Summerhill Market, McMullen says the company strives to balance the business needs and accommodating employees whenever possible. For example, “we try to offer set schedules so employees can plan for their time off in advance,” she explains. “We also have a ‘disconnecting from work’ policy that encourages employees to fully disengage from work during their time off. For those working on holidays, we try our best to make this time at work memorable with special activities, lunches and by offering additional time off in the future.”

Clear a path for advancement

For grocery retailers, career pathing – another critical engagement tool – doesn’t necessarily mean advancing people up the ranks. “Don’t forget the lattice – it’s not just the ladder,” says Schulich’s Friedman. “In other words, there’s only so far someone can move up. But, you can enhance people’s motivation and have them think about their career in a different way – not just by moving them up, but by moving them across. Sometimes people will be just as excited by a change in the way they work without a change in a job title or salary.” 

For frontline staff, Axonify’s Leaman says historically there wasn’t a lot of investment in career and skills development. Many organizations just expected employees to quit in three to six months, and so they were reluctant to spend money on encouraging them to grow and develop in the organization. That’s changing. “We’re seeing more consistency in [employers] putting that lens on those workers because the cost of turnover is enormous,” she says. “If you can keep somebody around for the long term, it’s so much better for your organization all the way around.”

READ: Leaders share how they’re attracting and retaining talent amid a labour crunch

At Summerhill Market, McMullen says the company is very invested in employees’ personal and professional growth and development. “We offer several opportunities for employees to be cross-trained in multiple departments, to learn new functions or incorporate new technology in their roles and to organically engage in mentorship programs with some of our senior leaders,” she says. The company also prioritizes promoting and growing its internal team and has had many employees successfully transfer to new roles and areas of the business, McMullen adds. 

It’s a similar story at Longo’s, where team members can be cross-trained in different departments at stores and in the support centre. For example, a cashier trained in guest services at the front-end might express an interest in working in the bakery or becoming a cake decorator, and they can be trained for more technical roles. “We make sure people are having good career conversations about what they want to be doing and how they can get exposure to different areas of the business,” Volk says. “It doesn’t always result in promotional opportunities, but it certainly does result in more exposures and building your skill sets.”

Ultimately, Longo’s employee engagement efforts ladder up to a better customer experience. “We want to have a culture – whether you’re working in our support centre, our distribution centres, or our stores – where everybody feels they’re treated well and they feel proud to work here,” Volk says. “That’s going to translate into everybody rallying around and making

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s December 2023/January 2024 issue.

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