Giving frontline workers a digital identity can positively change the culture of a Retail business

Overview

Charlie Rozentals, our Head of Workspace Delivery draws on previous experiences in retail, to explore the impact that giving a digital identity to frontline workers has on the culture of a retail business.

The difference between retailers who empower shop staff to make a sale vs those who don’t is quite stark these days.

Remember the olden days when we actually left our houses to do some shopping? It was always very telling which retailers were on the front foot with technology and those who were not. Picture the scenario, you go into a shop and ask if they've got a shirt in your size. The shop assistant pulls out a mobile device and tells you instantly whether they have it in stock. If not, they’ll tell you the nearest store that does have it. Sale made - cha-ching. In contrast, think about the assistants who would look straight through you like you’re asking for the moon on a stick, or when they actually go into the stockroom and return 10 minutes later empty-handed. Sale failed. 

I know what it’s like - I spent the first five years of my working life at Ted Baker, starting as a part-time sales assistant and leaving as a Store Manager. We used walkie-talkies in those days to communicate with the stock room on a busy Saturday, to ask if something was in stock. Cutting edge! Except it wasn’t. The stockroom manager was supposed to be unpacking the delivery and your request was interrupting him. He radio’s back to say we haven’t got it. So, you try to access a till to check stock at local stores. If the till isn’t being used to sell something, it’s clunky and slow to do a stock lookup. Things have barely moved on for many retailers (although admittedly and thankfully, this isn’t the case for all).

Some retailers may argue that it’s not worth their time looking things up on the till or in the stockroom - if it’s out, buy it. If it’s not, don’t. But doesn’t every sale count?


Desk workers are getting what they need to do their jobs, frontline workers are not.
The role of technology in converting every potential sale into an actual sale is bigger than ever. There’s one thing to check stock, but another to understand the product, understand the customer, and turn information into profit.

The people working to get me my shirt in the right size are ‘frontline workers’. Within the IT industry, they are sometimes referred to as “deskless workers” According to  Emergence, 2020 frontline workers are employees ”who do not sit behind a desk to do their jobs” and makeup 80% of the global workforce. They exist in all sectors and the types of roles conducted vary widely. Although our minds may first think of someone working on checkout or a waiter/waitress, consider warehouse operatives, healthcare workers, construction workers just to name a few. 

In the mentioned study, 70% of frontline workers said they want better tools for communications, operations & logistics, onboarding, and training. Compare that with 87% of information workers saying it was “very/somewhat easy” to access the technology and equipment they need to do their jobs from home. Put another way, desk workers are getting what they need to do their jobs, frontline workers are not.

But giving someone a mobile device on a shop floor doesn’t turn a retailer into the front runner. Just like a dodgy local pub that gets a fancy makeover - it still gets the same punters after the refurb. It’s the punters that need to change to make it a nicer place. And that’s where culture comes in.

Culture vs Strategy
Culture can’t be ‘switched on’ or imposed. It has to be lived, breathed, and believed in. If you have to teach an employee how to fit in with your company culture, you’ve hired the wrong person.

I once worked on a project deploying Google Workspace (or Google Apps as it was known at the time) to a very well-known high street retailer. The company wanted to change its tooling because it recognised that it needed to shake up the culture of the company and modernise. Outsiders might think “what does Google Workspace have to do with changing the company culture?’. A lot.

The partner-run organisation wanted to improve the way that head office collaborated with their store-based colleagues. For the first time ever, frontline workers were given a digital identity i.e a Google Workspace account - and that gave them data, reports, product information; it all started to flow seamlessly between head office and the stores. Cheese counters were photographed on mobile devices and shared with colleagues nationwide using Google’s social network tool, and before anyone knew it, cheese counters became sexy! Product knowledge became aspirational, customer insight became the retailer's superpower and store employees felt more part of the business than ever. 

I was also once involved in a project to deploy Google Workspace to a supermarket. At the time, they hadn’t yet rolled out Workspace to all frontline workers, just at Head Office. A common feeling from store workers was one of resentment for head office “in their ivory towers”. As the Change Manager on the project, I assured them there was definitely no ivory in the building. But, there was very much an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture. 

After I left, a current CTS colleague who has since worked at the supermarket, explained what happened when store workers were given Google accounts/digital identities. He said that it gave them a voice and an ability to connect with head office that was never previously possible. The cultural divide fizzled away over time and frontline workers felt truly part of the business. Store managers were no longer confined to their office that had no windows, and became more visible on the shop floor, able to respond to colleagues and customer requests and communications whilst on the go. This made store managers feel better about their jobs and their lives. Attracting new talent became easier too because workers were happier, more connected, and felt more empowered. 

Access to merchandise plans became easier and more mobile, meaning stores looked more consistent. Feedback on promotions became more transparent so head office knew what was working and what wasn’t.

The tools store workers used (Gmail, Google Drive etc) were tools they also used in their personal lives, so getting set-up was quick. The BYOD devices were secured with mobile device management, ensuring that if a device was lost or stolen company data was kept secure. And despite significantly more devices being managed, the workload was less than it was when store managers were issued ‘dumb’ phones.

If the right tools aren’t issued to frontline workers in the first place, they’ll find their own. 53% of frontline workers currently use unapproved messaging apps for work-related communications e.g Whatsapp etc. This is risky territory as a business has no control over what gets said or shared. There’s no data loss prevention (DLP) functionality with Whatsapp like there is with Google Workspace, so sensitive data gets thrown around without care. Compare that with the experience of Workspace, where security teams get freed up to focus on important challenges, instead of tactical fire fighting. 

All of these things that change when you implement the right tool, contribute to a new culture in the organisation. It must be said that most of these things don’t happen completely organically, but instead thanks to a well-thought-out change management plan. Ultimately, culture still eats strategy for breakfast.

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