The workforce of the future

As a new world of work emerges, how can grocers prepare for the changes and challenges ahead?

Nearly 18 months and four waves into the COVID- 19 pandemic, businesses are faced with a tsunami of a different kind: employees leaving their jobs in droves (or wanting to) in search of something better. Dubbed “The Great Resignation,” this phenomenon bubbled up as people found room to reassess their work situations and life priorities during the pandemic.

Multiple studies suggest workers in Canada and around the world are seeking a job or career change. To wit: a Microsoft study found that 41% of the global workforce is likely to consider handing in their resignation within the next year; 57% of Canadians would change careers if given the opportunity, according to a survey by tech education company Lighthouse Labs; and 33% of generation Z and millennial professionals in Canada plan to pursue a new job, reports global staffing firm Robert Half.

Stephen Harrington, a partner in human capital at Deloitte, describes the current state of mind as an existential crisis. “It’s not surprising that people sitting in their home office on endless virtual meetings or hauling themselves into a workplace that doesn’t feel safe are having a bit of an existential crisis,” says Harrington, who also leads Deloitte’s Future of Work advisory business. “Some people are making a big change by moving house, while others are changing jobs to try to regain a sense of control over their lives.”

While there’s no data on how the grocery sector specifically might be affected by The Great Resignation, there’s no doubt that recruiting and retaining people is a formidable challenge. In the Food Industry Association (FMI)-Deloitte “Future of Work: The State of the Food Industry” study, food retailers named talent availability (44%) as their most pressing challenge, followed by talent retention (40%), and retraining and re-skilling employees for new technology (39%).

On top of the philosophical shift, COVID-19 disrupted the when and where of work—at least for people with office jobs. “It disrupted it so fundamentally that many people who used to think there was only one answer to the when and where of work changed their minds,” notes Harrington. “And so, in the shorter term, we’re going to see organizations change their workforce and workplace strategies to accommodate new ways of working.”

For Jean McClellan, who leads PwC Canada’s national people and organization practice, the opportunity for organizations to reimagine their workforce strategies is one business-related bright side of the pandemic. “As people are disrupted, they’re also open to a lot of possibilities they never were before,” she says. “And so, that’s a wonderful opportunity for organizations to design strategies that lead to a great experience for their people and for their customers as well.”

Reimagining the work environment

One of the more immediate needs is to figure out a new workplace model for office staff. Many companies are pivoting to a hybrid model, which allows employees to combine in-office and remote work. This is the post-pandemic model most desired by employees, as they seek greater control and flexibility in their work life. In a recent survey of 2,000 Canadians by the Angus Reid Institute, 44% said they preferred a hybrid work model, while 29% would like to continue working from home and 27% want to return to the office.

Longo’s is one grocery retailer that’s pivoting to a hybrid model. Chief human resources officer Liz Volk notes that in an internal survey, 60% of employees indicated they’d like a hybrid model, ideally working in the office two to three days a week. Currently, employees are asked to come into company headquarters (or support centre, as Longo’s calls it) once a week, and the retailer will eventually move to a minimum of two in-office days a week.

“We feel it’s important to bring people back in and we’ve tried to communicate the reasons for this face-to-face interaction,” says Volk. “The overarching reason is the importance of our culture—we are a relationship-driven culture. But we really feel it’s important for connection and creativity, and to create community.”

To prepare for the new hybrid work environment, Volk says the company’s leaders are getting upskilled. For example, they’re attending workshops on how to run meetings effectively when some team members are in person and some are virtual. “We will be focused on how to really operate in a hybrid world and how to keep everybody connected,” says Volk.

Giving employees what they really want

When it comes to developing new workforce strategies, Deloitte’s Harrington strongly believes in the ‘something for everyone’ principle to attract and retain employees. “This is not just for people who work in the corporate office,” he says. For retailers, that could mean scheduling flexibility to make it easier for store-level workers to balance their work and life. “We can even go as far as crowd-sourced scheduling so that store employees can schedule amongst themselves through a portal system,” suggests Harrington.

Just as important, retailers need to foster a culture of autonomy and trust to engage employees at all levels. “It’s about how to show people that their job is more than a set of processes to follow,” says Harrington. “There are dynamic outcomes that organizations can ask of them and they can achieve on their own. They can feel that trust and accomplish something that they’ll wear on their sleeves.”

As part of Longo’s talent attraction and retention efforts, the retailer has partnered with the Good Jobs Institute, a social enterprise that helps companies improve the jobs and lives of their employees, while boosting their company’s performance. “We’re very focused on providing a good wage and making sure our team members are getting consistent hours, both at the full-time and part-time level, so it’s not disruptive to their lives,” says Volk. In addition, Longo’s has an employee assistance program, so employees across the organization—even students—can get help with their physical and mental health.

Another way retailers can Great Resignation-proof their businesses is through career pathing, which provides an overview of an employee’s skills and competencies, and charts a course for their career development. “Communicating that you have clear career paths that are tailored to the individual can be an effective attraction tool,” says Donna Koop, an executive relationship manager at ADP, a global HR services firm. “It’s also important to build a succession plan and communicate with your high potentials that you see a great path in their future, and this is often overlooked.”

Also on the recruitment front, Koop’s advice to grocery retailers is to align with school programs and attend career fairs and speaking engagements to raise awareness about their organization and the benefits of choosing a career in grocery, as well as get involved in the community. “If they don’t already have community-related initiatives, they should find one or two that they become known for,” she says. “This speaks to employees’ personal interests and builds your employer brand as well.”

The power of purpose and values

In addition to helping out in the community, retailers will also have to look inward. Well before the pandemic, people cared about their employers’ purpose and values—essentially how they’re a force for good. But with pressing societal concerns and environmental issues, this has climbed higher on employees’ wish lists.

“People want to be connected to the same social values their employers are connected to, and that’s going to become increasingly important for both attracting and retaining employees,” says Myles Gooding, national consumer markets leader and global consumer markets advisory leader at PwC Canada. “Social values are quickly becoming a business currency.” For organizations to be successful, they need to clearly articulate what their values are and clearly live up to them—not just market them, advises Gooding. “For example, if you’re known for sustainability and great training programs, you have to be able to deliver on that.”

That’s because employees will see through their employers’ empty promises and start eyeing the exit signs. In fact, a 2020 survey of U.S. employees by communications firm Porter Novelli found the vast majority (93%) of employees today believe now, more than ever before, companies must lead with purpose. In addition, 88% of employees believe it’s no longer acceptable to just make money, but companies have to positively impact society as well.

What’s more, Porter Novelli’s 2021 “Business & Social Justice Study” found that 43% of employees are reconsidering their current position because their company is not doing enough to address social issues externally. Generation Z workers are more likely to say they would want to work for a company that speaks up for, or addresses social justice issues (64% versus 59% of the general population).

Generally speaking, PwC’s McClellan notes that connecting to purpose and social values is certainly important to younger generations. However, she cautions retailers not to paint employees of any age with a broad brush. “Be cautious about generational characterizations because you may very well have tech-savvy seniors and career-oriented younger folks who are motivated by money,” she says. “Catering to a number of different personas within your employee group is an important consideration.”

Training for tech skills, keeping the human touch

Technology and lightning-fast consumer behaviour shifts are also impacting the workforce in the grocery industry. According to the FMI-Deloitte report, three change drivers—the shift to online shopping, evolving customer service demand, and curbside and in-store pickup—are mostly affecting the nature of work itself.

“Consider that promoting items on a website or app is a different kind of work than building attractive end-aisle displays, or that rapidly picking items while inherently making decisions on behalf of consumers, engaging with them in chat through the app, and delivering groceries to a vehicle curbside is different from operating a cash register,” the report states. “Executives also report that the skills required to do this work are changing and so are the physical locations, which might include a dark store, which is used only for fulfilling online orders.”

New skills will also be required as grocery stores become increasingly more automated thanks to technologies like self-checkouts and robotic devices. “Whenever you add automation into a grocery store, you then have to add the technical experience to manage that automation,” observes Peter van Stolk, CEO of Freshlocal Solutions, the parent company of; Blush Lane Organic Market and Be Fresh Market/Café; and FoodX Technologies. “So, I think there is a shift to a higher knowledge workforce when you add automation.”

That’s not to say he’s a proponent of eliminating the need for humans. “Grocery stores require an element of theatre and customer service,” says van Stolk. “If customers are looking for an item or multiple items, that requires service. They like human interaction and people asking about their day ... I don’t think that will go away.”

Deloitte’s Harrington echoes the importance of people—and people skills—even if a grocery store becomes more futuristic. “How long will it take until every grocery retailer has exactly the same human-replacing technologies?” he wonders. “In the short term, those technologies create value for the whole industry, but they don’t create a sustained advantage for a single employer.” That means retailers will need a much more human advantage.

For instance, if a grocery store becomes more automated and employees aren’t needed at the checkout, they can be deployed elsewhere. “You might have an opportunity to have people working in that store doing very different things for customers, such as helping them plan a meal or discover a new product,” says Harrington.

Whether a grocery retailer is reimagining a workforce strategy for store-level employees or head-office staff, the key is to figure out what skills they will need in the future that they don’t have today. “It’s not just about technology, it’s about a whole platform of skills,” says Harrington. “And both for a business advantage and to take care of their employees and customers, companies need to start building these future skills in people now.”

Generation Next Thinking is an ongoing series that explores cutting-edge topics that will help grocers gain the knowledge they need to tackle the future of this rapidly-changing industry.

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