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Innovating to meet the needs of the retail deskless worker

Arron Lock, Retail Industry Lead, Global Industries Group, VMware EMEA

How, and more specifically, where we work, is once again the subject of national scrutiny. The new Omicron variant of Covid has increased calls for working remotely as a precautionary measure but when it comes to workplace location, we’re a long way from where we were in 2019 – no pun intended.

Hybrid working – the combination of in-office and remote, was around long before the pandemic but its proliferation has been rapid and many big businesses are now adopting this model as standard. There are notable exceptions, like Goldman Sachs, but these companies are in a minority and the fact is hybrid work is a reality now

A digital divide

But for the deskless workforce, remote or hybrid work remains a far-fetched dream. Given there are 2.7 billion deskless workers around the world, comprising over 80% of the total workforce, this seems somewhat insane. Companies invest less than one percent of their enterprise software spend on these workers and this needs to change if they want to retain them.

​​Data shows that nearly 60% of companies have little to no flexible technology solutions for their deskless workers and in light of the wider socio-economic changes to workplace roles, this is becoming a big issue. This is particularly relevant to the retail industry where deskless workers are required from everything from pickers in the warehouses, to store assistants and delivery drivers. These workers are critical to the success of the organisation – not just from a fulfillment perspective, but also as the face of their brand and, in many cases, with direct responsibility for the consumer experience. But the balance of reliance and appreciation simply doesn’t stack up. According to the latest annual study into hours and earnings, those in retail remain some of the lowest-paid workers in the country.

The combination of low pay and inadequate tools to do their job means workers are now voting with their feet -a trend dubbed as ‘the Great Resignation’ – and given their importance to the entire retail ecosystem, employers have no choice but to listen and act. Put simply, it’s time to start thinking about a strategy for the deskless worker.

Retail being reborn

Increasing salary is a component but not the solution. Instead, retail organisations need to be looking at attracting the right people, keeping them engaged within the organisation with a progression path, supporting their general health and wellbeing, and making them as productive as possible. This is particularly pertinent as we’re in the midst of the end-of-year shopping bonanza and people are returning to stores. Perhaps not in the same volume as pre-pandemic and it would be remiss not to highlight the big-name casualties in retail in the recent past. The Arcadia Group is a good example. Yet we’ve since had confirmation that its flagship Topshop store on Oxford St. isn’t going to stand empty as a totem of retail failure. It has been bought by Ikea and will be open in 2023. This is symptomatic of a bigger trend and apt for this time of year – high street retail isn’t dead, it’s being reborn.

We’re seeing amazing innovations when it comes to in-store strategy as retailers equip themselves for commerce today and attract more shoppers back to high streets. It’s now common to see; cashier-less check-outs, pop-ups, limited edition sales, and exclusive events all in-store. But central to the delivery of all of this, are the deskless workers. How do retailers ensure these individuals have the ability and desire to bring these innovations to life…? Easy, you cheat.

Cheating in retail

In this instance, cheating is a five-factor focus to ensure retailers are activating on a number of areas that will improve the experience of their deskless workers and, by proxy, consumers. The first element of the cheating process is ‘culture’. Retail businesses must place this as central to their proposition and this means staff members being closely connected to the organisation and feeling like they belong. According to Forbes, 84% of deskless workers feel they don’t get adequate communication from their company and this needs to change through things like; personalised notifications, the ability to communicate with other areas of the organisation, and shared learning capabilities. The second is ‘health’. A report by the charity Retail Trust has found that 84% of retail workers said their mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic. Equipping staff with the devices that offer reminders to take breaks, easy access to online tutorials and ways to report and ask for help is vital.

Next comes ‘engagement’ – something that, according to the 2021 State of Employee Engagement report, has declined for workers on the frontline over the last year. Addressing this starts with onboarding right through to access to virtual bulletin boards, easy to access (and change) shift information and individual and store KPIs. After this is the role of ‘ambassadors’, namely enabling those on the front-line to deliver the best embodiment of brand excellence and this needs real-time information in the palm of the assistant’s hand supporting all consumer-facing business processes. Finally, we have ‘trust’. According to a report from Red Points, cybercrime against retail brands was up 41% during the pandemic. Empowering deskless employees must come with invisible security, clear statements about what can and cannot be seen on personal devices, and geo-fencing.

Key to all of it is having the appropriate tools and technologies in place from the get-go, all accessible securely on an individual’s mobile device. And underpinning it requires a single console to manage, maintain and understand the experience, one that is tailored to the retailer in question and with security intrinsic to the proposition. It’s precisely why our WorkspaceONE platform is widely used within retail. It allows a full ecosystem of partners to access and connect to provide a truly valuable deskless workforce experience. For example, Migros – a Turkish retail brand with over 45,000 employees uses Workspace ONE so its employees can access company resources from any device easily and securely.

Innovators always win

Retail is changing so fast. From how consumers buy, try and collect goods to how retailers stock, store and ship them it’s a world turning faster than a delivery driver’s tyre. But to have the ability to adapt, and to ensure deskless workers are not just able to cope with the speed of changes, but capitalise on them, retailers need to adopt the right technology as the baseline. When it comes to success in retail, it will be the innovators that win.

For more information about how VMware can help with your retail modernisation journey, email me  on alock@vmware.com or my colleague Lenka Kanakova on  lkanakova@vmware.com or visit us here


James McCann-Ellerington

B2B technology content expert


7 Gordon Road


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