CHICAGO — If the COVID-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is that the modern-day workplace is not what it once was. Today's employers are concentrating on company cultures that structurally touch upon all aspects of the employee work/life balance, such as honoring authenticity through effective diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) practices and implementing hybrid work models that provide flexibility.
A recent webcast, "Expanding the Goal: Women and Their Allies Fight for Workplace Equity for All," hosted by Convenience Store News discussed how organizations can reach these goals. The speaker panel included Lisa Koenig, head of Global Communications at Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT), and Melanie Isbill, chief marketing officer for RaceTrac Petroleum, who are CSN Top Women in Convenience (TWIC) Women of the Year honorees. The panel also included TWIC Advisory Board member Sarah Alter, president and CEO of NextUp (formerly the Network of Executive Women).
Here is what these female leaders had to say about their commitment to diversifying their organizations across gender identity, ethnicity, age, and other attributes, as well as how advancing women and minorities in convenience retail for the betterment of the industry:
DEI is a Journey
Like many other organizations, ACT has placed a greater emphasis on DEI in the past few years. For its efforts, the global retailer recently received the 2022 Gallup Exceptional Workplace Award (GEWA), which recognizes the world's most engaged workplace cultures. ACT, which was the only convenience retailer among this year's honorees, was recognized for its "One Team" culture focused on putting its people and customers first.
However, as Koenig pointed out, ACT's DEI journey has started, but it's far from being completed.
"The work we've done with diversity, inclusion and sustainability focus on bringing your authentic self to work and that's being felt across the organization and seen in our engagement scores. We had our highest engagement scores in the last two years on our annual Gallup survey and we're honored for being an Exceptional Workplace in 2022," she said. "But we still have far ways to go, especially in figuring out what the pipeline is to move from very diverse frontline employees to less diverse leadership."
According to the executive, ACT's DEI journey kicked off with the establishment of the Women's Council. Over the past few years, this institution has helped evolve many business resource groups (BRGs) globally that cover topics such as race, disability, Pride, and culture.
Isbill echoed a similar sentiment. She knows RaceTrac will not reach a definite moment of accomplishment on its DEI journey, but believes the company is on the right path with organizational BRGs such as LEAD and EMBRACE, which focuses on women and people of color, respectively.
"I strongly urge companies to consider business resource groups within organizations," she emphasized. "We're not where we need to be but I'm excited about where we're going and the momentum we're seeing. The industry has made great strides, too. It wasn't very long ago I'd go to an industry event and see very few women represented and now that is far from the case for not only women, but for other minority groups."
A DEIB (diversity, equality, inclusion, belonging) mindset is an important building block of companies' culture that impacts an organization not only internally, but externally within stores and support centers, among other places, Alter added.
"It's less about business leaders asking, 'Hey, should I be doing this?' because they're there [in that mindset] and get it intellectually," Alter said. There is a 25 percent greater return at companies that embed DEIB into their strategies and cultures, and allyship plays a large role in this journey by answering the question, 'How should I do it?'"
A Shift in Dynamics
Many individuals across the industry — if not the world — can agree that the COVID-19 pandemic was in and of itself a social experiment because no one had ever been in this unique position before as a customer, frontline employee, business leader and so on. What the pandemic did do is shift the employee/employer dynamic to be more flexible, inclusive and empowering.
"It's clear that how we were running our businesses pre-COVID didn't work and now we need a fresh approach and to transform the norm," said Alter, whose organization advances gender equality and diversity across many industries, including retail, consumer goods, financial services, and technology. "There are different dynamics at play to innovate in terms of how we take care of our employees. Employees are now saying, 'I don't want you to do something to me, but do something for me and with me,' and it's pushing employers to develop and empower employees no matter where they work within the organization."
An example of one of these new dynamics is employers offering hybrid work models to provide employees with more flexibility in where and when they work. Even the convenience channel has adopted such policies, despite being a 24/7 business.
"Some roles by nature are less flexible because they need to support a 24/7 business model. However, we're trying to navigate a hybrid work model within our company culture," RaceTrac's Isbill explained. "We work to ensure this level of flexibility doesn't create inequality among different groups. It's something challenging but we continue to evaluate this kind of model. It's an exciting positive that came from COVID that's more widely recognized as a not-one-size-fits-all approach."
A hybrid work model can particularly help employers serve their female employees who may be moms trying to juggle the balance between life and work. To accommodate its working moms, ACT offers three days in the office and two days remote at its offices, for example.
"I've been a working mother most of my life and my team is made of a lot of young working moms. If I were a young working mom, I'd appreciate the flexibility," Koenig noted.
The pandemic-era trend known as the "Great Resignation" remains a prominent feature of the labor market, as favorable conditions lead workers to quit their jobs at near-record levels in search of better, and ample, opportunities elsewhere. One study reported that nearly 40 percent of women who are actively looking for a new employer cite "burnout" as their reason.
According to Alter, burnout has prompted much of the Great Resignation because employees want to find a path, journey or company that will provide them with what they need and want. Businesses need to be open to flexibility and recognize that there are multiple dimensions to individuals beyond providing medical, dental and vision benefits, she expressed.
"A component of burnout is the fact that employees have reset their expectations. We had a collision of work and life, in addition to social, political and economic dynamics at play," Alter said. "It was the 'great enlightenment' as I call this period of time because as employees, employers and business leaders, we were enlightened to the fact that this more than just our job. Our identity has broader dimensions to it than our job and employers have to recognize that and serve the employee and what they offer personally and professionally."
The convenience channel is not exempt from labor hardships and high employee turnover, especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left the 24/7 business model with employees picking up the workload that others may have left behind.
"Burnout is definitely a thing," Isbill acknowledged. "As far as what we're doing, we look at pay and how we can reward team members in different ways than we have before. We are celebrating accomplishments like taking on extra work while we back fill shifts because feeling acknowledged is important. Radical candor is an important piece to minimize burnout and to create a functional culture that keeps communication open."
"Expanding the Goal: Women and Their Allies Fight for Workplace Equity for All" was sponsored by Altria Group Distribution Co.