Today's employees in the convenience channel are looking for more from their employers than they were in the past in order to feel content and satisfied in the workplace — and ultimately remain employed with the company. Whether it's a flexible schedule or easy access to change it, open lines of communication from the top down, or availability of training to grow, c-store operators are needing to up their game when it comes to employee satisfaction.
In the post-pandemic world, there are labor shortages in all areas of retail. A recent study by Forrester Research commissioned by WorkJam and released in January found that 63 percent of retailers are short frontline staff. As these labor issues continue, keeping employees satisfied is more important than ever, and many retailers are turning to technology to help.
"There has definitely been an increase in interest for workforce management technology post-pandemic because at first people thought the labor shortage was a temporary phenomenon, but when it didn't go back to pre-pandemic levels, employers realized they needed to raise the bar on the employee experience and in the efficiency at the store," said Sanish Mondkar, founder and CEO of Legion Technologies, a provider of artificial intelligence (AI) powered workforce management products, based in Palo Alto, Calif.
Workforce management (WFM) has existed in c-stores going back to the days of punch clocks and cards, but advancements now enable a much more seamless, sophisticated and efficient way of managing time and attendance, tasks, communication and more.
WFM benefits both employers and employees. Happier employees trickle down the line to better customer experiences, which is always beneficial to a retailer, noted Louise Clements, chief marketing officer at WorkJam, a digital frontline workplace provider headquartered in Montreal, with a U.S. office in Cincinnati.
"The frontline workforce is the last mile of the customer experience and if they are well-trained, happy, understand your inventory and feel part of the organization, then your customer is going to have a great experience," Clements said. "Retailers often invest in customers and forget about the people on the store floor. If you are not training them and investing in them, your customer experience will not be as good."
Additionally, by digitizing communication and task management with a WFM system, organizations often see increased efficiency and productivity. For example, when implementing new planograms or endcaps, rather than sending communications manually through printed materials or binders that need to be mailed to each store, updates can be sent digitally via a WFM platform and tracked to make sure every store in the chain implements the changes correctly, according to Gary Stonell, senior vice president of operations at Opterus, a provider of cloud store communications and task management solutions, based in Toronto.
"What might have taken 30 days can happen in a moment with digital communication and task management, whether it's pricing promotions, food safety updates, a new endcap, bathroom cleaning instructions or a new display," Stonell explained. "The right worker can be notified when something needs to be done and it will show up in an app or through a push notification. Then, once they complete a task, they can take a photo and upload it as proof."
The essential reason c-store operators turn to WFM systems is to be more efficient and productive, and to retain employees. But today's systems go above and beyond to include demand forecasting and so much more, Mondkar pointed out. "Today, you can use the system to make sure the number of employees you deploy at any given time is proportionate to the demand, as well as the roles and skills of that employee," he added.
Having a WFM solution can take time, attendance and scheduling to a whole new level.
Today's workforce is looking for easy access to their schedules, the ability to make changes and swap shifts, and to have more control over when and how they work. In fact, it's become a top priority for many, according to Mondkar.
"Employees want a say in their schedule," he said, citing that in Legion Technologies' annual State of the Hourly Workforce survey, a key finding was that employees having the ability to make their own schedule is the No. 1 driver for retention. "Besides pay, the most important thing employees say an employer can do to retain them is schedule flexibility."
[Learn more: How Legion WFM powers intelligent automation]
WFM systems allow employees to swap shifts and work at multiple stores in an area — often making changes right from their mobile phones. Managers can simply approve changes digitally, which significantly speeds up the process and frees them up to do other tasks.
"Schedules are complex when dealing with thousands of employees across a chain, so offering [employees] the ability to swap shifts that can be easily approved digitally instead of having to wait several days is a big advantage," said WorkJam's Clements.
Another helpful aspect of a WFM solution when it comes to labor is the ability to forecast what staffing will be needed at individual locations based on demand. This is especially helpful with the current labor shortage, according to Mondkar.
"The machine learning and artificial intelligence available offers a level of accuracy that did not exist years ago," he said. "Using demand forecasting can predict how many customers you will get during a certain period and what they will buy, so you can build a precise labor schedule to meet that."
The location of a store, the weather forecast, seasonal sporting events and other indicators can all be factored in, along with sales history, to predict the amount of traffic and reveal the level of staffing needed. The accuracy is much higher than when done manually, with the technology "averaging the last five years to predict what is going on now," Mondkar stated.
"Most organizations plan labor budgets for the next 12 to 18 months in a simplistic way, but using technology and automation, you can pinpoint exactly your attrition rate per store, the skills you will need to replenish at what rate, and what your hiring plan should be," he said.
Infographic: The Key to Scaling C-store HR Roadblocks
Digitalizing workforce management using solutions powered by artificial intelligence enables operators to minimize or overcome obstacles.
Efficiency & Productivity
While scheduling is often top of mind when managing a workforce, a robust WFM system can increase efficiency and productivity as well, allowing an employer to do more with less staff.
Today, many WFM systems run on an app downloaded on an employee’s mobile phone, enabling corporate communications to be delivered directly and securely, and enabling retailers to track the messages to see who has read the notifications sent. The same is true with assigned tasks, enabling store managers, district managers and corporate-level employees to track what has been done and who completed the tasks.
"A store manager can see all her associates in a dashboard to uncover what tasks have been completed, what notices have been read, and the same is true with a district manager who can view multiple stores," Opterus' Stonell said. "Also, a store manager can digitally assign tasks they want to get done and, in some cases, use gamification to inspire employees to get those tasks done."
Additionally, digital communications and task management allow district managers to perform store audits quicker than doing it manually with paper checklists. In the past, district managers would walk the store for an audit, jotting down notes, and schedule time with the store manager to go over them. Now, tracking this digitally with the ability to upload photos means notification can be sent directly to store managers without a time lag, Stonell explained.
"With store audits, district managers can go through with a digital checklist on their phone and send the report directly out, instead of a non-digital world where they have to fill out a paper audit, send it and then there is a delay that impacts productivity," Clements echoed.
Digital communication benefits employees, too, because they are able to communicate directly with their store managers, district leaders and others, which creates greater engagement and empowers employees with the ability to provide feedback, she said.
"Connecting your frontline employees to corporate allows them to feel part of the company, and they are often more motivated and will stay with a company longer," Clements noted. "Going digital with communication and tasks also allows a company to measure engagement. If they see disengagement with a certain staff member or in certain regions, it could be an indicator of a problem that needs to be addressed."
Onboarding & Training
Yet another beneficial aspect of a WFM system is simplified onboarding of employees and training — including for those who want to grow and expand their skills. Development opportunities are something many employees are looking for in today’s job market. WFM systems can track what training has been completed and what each employee is certified in, allowing managers to assign tasks based on this information.
"We see a lot of emphasis on skill development for employees, especially for new technology introduced like automated checkout or other machines needing to be maintained in the store," Legion Technologies' Mondkar said. "WFM system training can help upscale a workforce, and allows employees to learn new skills and be more relevant in the workforce overall. And chains can schedule employees not just by workload, but also based on certain skills."
It's easier to onboard and train new employees as well because it's all housed in one solution, according to Stonell, and the same system can allow for additional training and tracking of employees as they achieve new objectives. "Different levels of employees in the chain will have different views of what the system looks like and this can often be set per geography, so people are only seeing certain stores and employees," he explained.
Training is another area where gamification and rewards can be implemented to keep employees engaged and satisfied. Many WFM systems allow rewards based on completion of training. This is something important to the Generation Z population, who are increasingly entering the workforce.
"Doing it digitally also allows new hires to take training without having to come into the store because it can be done at home on a mobile device," noted Clements.
Overall, investing in store-level employees not only benefits them, but it also benefits the company — including the customers shopping the stores. When companies fail to invest in the frontline workforce, customer experiences tend to fail, she cautioned.
"The data clearly shows the correlation of companies investing in the frontline sales experience and a direct line to growth," said Clements.