ALEXANDRIA, Va. — When the novel coronavirus hit the United States in late winter, it became clear that as essential businesses, convenience stores needed to come up with a plan of attack.
While the playbook may have differed from retailer to retailer, all had the same objective: keep employees and guests safe.
Speaking at the "Motivating and Protecting Your Frontline" virtual panel during the 2020 NACS Crack the Code Experience, Pilot Co. Chief People Officer Paul Shore said since February, the role of human resources at the Knoxville, Tenn.-based chain has centered on team member safety and health — "making sure we are able to keep the doors open and continue to serve the professional truck driver."
Meanwhile at Des Moines-based Kum & Go LC, its Critical Response Team has led the retailer's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And similarly, Casey's General Stores Inc. formed a multifunctional task force to tackle the pandemic.
The focus of Casey's task force, according to Sherri Hart, vice president of Total Rewards at the Ankeny, Iowa-based company, has been to not only keep its c-stores open and its employees safe, but also to come up with new strategies and ways to protect its team members with "a dynamic that was changing on the hour some days."
Throughout the pandemic, one of the biggest goals for all convenience retailers has been to make sure they are creating a compelling employee experience and making sure team members feel appreciated.
"At a time where social distance, quarantining and virtual everything has become the norm, here at Pilot we think it is important more than ever to keep those team members feeling connected, part of the team. We think camaraderie and belonging is really important, so we go out of our way — as I know Kum & Go and Casey's does as well — to make sure our team members feel a part of the larger organization," Shore explained.
As an essential industry, c-store employees are critically important to a company's overall success, he added.
"It's a critical time for the industry, and making sure that our team members understand their importance and making sure that applicants understand the importance of the industry is more important now than ever," Shore pointed out. "And it's critically important that all of us do everything we can to motivate and keep those team members coming in every day."
To that end, c-store retailers have implemented several new policies during the pandemic. According to Shore, this has included:
Thank you pay;
Team member appreciation events;
Additional time off;
Benefit eligibility adjustments; and
"The thank you pay was appreciated by our associates, and I think it's important that that is what we called it," said Matt Spackman, senior vice president of Grow People at Kum & Go. "In the industry, sometimes it might be called hazard pay, and certainly our associates were placed in a hazardous position having to be on the frontline working as essential workers, but we really viewed it as an act of appreciation or a thank you. I think they received it in that way, too."
From an overall health perspective, job security perspective and safe environment perspective, the majority of c-store retailers — if not all of them — went into "hyper-mode" on team member health and safety beginning at the end of February, Shore observed, predicting that this will continue to be the No. 1 priority.
"I think the industry, by large, did a great job reacting and reacting quickly, and being fluid when they needed to be fluid," he said.
In addition to the pandemic, 2020 also brought civil unrest this spring, as the country continues to grapple with issues of racism and diversity that impact c-store associates, according to Spackman.
"As we look to the future and begin to consider what the long-term impacts are, I think it is clear this pandemic is going to affect all aspects of our associates' lives — mental, physical and financial," he said.
Motivating the Frontline for the Future
The reality is things are changing, including societal behaviors like handshakes, large group gatherings, online shopping and curbside pickup, Casey's Hart pointed out.
"Human behaviors are going to change and with that, we are going to have to change — how we offer our product, how we engage with our customers, and how we engage with our employees," she said.
Noting that humans do not do well with change, Hart advised the industry to ground itself in the fundamentals of change management.
"We are not going to business as usual; we are not going to get back to normal. So, what is the new normal?" she posed.
The fundamentals of change management — regardless of what the new normal looks like for the c-store industry overall or for an individual retailer — are grounded in success when someone is in control of that change, according to Hart.
"It's thinking about how do I allow my team members to really feel like they are part of that change instead of it happening to them," she said, adding that listening to team members and guests is a key strategy, but not the only one.
"Motivation is truly pandemic agnostic," she said. "If you think about the things that motivated your or your team members in the past, those are the things that will motivate team members and motivate you in the future — and probably even our customers."
Among the biggest motivational strategies, the panelists agreed, are:
Clarity in expectations;
Explain the whys;
Recognition and appreciation;
Coaching with timely and specific feedback;
Empowering team members; and,
Focus on being a leader.
The NACS Crack the Code Experience is a five-week digital event that is bringing together convenience store industry retailers and suppliers virtually in lieu of an in-person NACS Show this year. It continues through Dec. 4.