Redesigning the Grocery Workplace

Axonify CEO Carol Leaman details labor priorities for the post-pandemic food retailer
Gina Acosta, Progressive Grocer
Redesigning the Grocery Workplace
Axonify CEO Carol Leaman

As the pandemic enters year No. 2, the question of how grocery workers should be supported by their employers is making national headlines.

Cities across the United States have passed new ordinances requiring food retailers to provide bonus pay to grocery workers. Retailers are pushing back against the trend by filing lawsuits, closing stores and raising prices.

But the public battle over wage mandates eclipses even larger workforce challenges unfolding behind the scenes at food retail, according to Carol Leaman, CEO of Waterloo, Ontario-based Axonify, which offers modern training solutions to Walmart, Heinen’s, Longo’s and other food retailers. Leaman says that food retailers looking to win the next evolution of the pandemic will have to focus on five key workforce areas: turnover, pace of change, training, communication and employee rewards.

“The grocery space is seeing more turnover because people are afraid, frankly, to work in the stores,” Leaman notes, “so grocers have challenges with turnover and constant recruitment that I think were unexpected.”

Even before the pandemic, turnover for hourly retail workers was already at its highest rate since the Great Recession: 65%. According to WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based nonprofit association for human resources professionals, only 33% of the 1,154 North American employees surveyed expected to stay at their jobs in 2020, which is down from the 47% who said they were staying in 2019.

The WorldatWork survey shows that the perception of leadership’s commitment to communication, training and employee experience declined also, with only 23% of employees surveyed saying that senior leaders are “very committed” or have “more than average” commitment, compared with 31% who said the same in 2019.

“From a training perspective, it is a whole new world in terms of what you need to get in front of people, how quickly that changes,” Leaman says. “Suddenly, it is critically important for every grocer to know people have understood [their training] and are putting into practice the things that have been trained on.”

Leaman adds that the next biggest workforce issue that food retailers are dealing with right now is the pace of change, which she describes as “the pace at which you need to know new things every single day, whether it’s new information about the virus or how people are eating more at home, and what does that mean from an inventory point of view and keeping the shelves stocked, how is it impacting hiring and mental health and the way people are feeling? Just the pace of change of all of that has taken regular store operations next level.”

The new front-line worker may have to enforce mask rules, deploy increased sanitation procedures or bring out grocery orders to car trunks. He or she may have to talk to customers about supply chain issues or delivery issues. Some associates may even be putting vaccines into customers’ arms every 15 minutes as well.

“What do you need people to do? And how do you get them to know it in the moment, immediately?” Leaman muses. “How do you disseminate information so quickly that is so rapidly changing and know that you’ve got the mechanism with which to do that?”

When it comes to training in 2021 and beyond, Leaman says that grocers need to be thinking of new processes and going back to square one.

“Many of them have to go back and understand that you can’t just have a band-aid solution,” she asserts.

Leaman observes that food retailers have to think about transforming their processes to access people in the moment at any given moment, easily, seamlessly and consistently.  

a person standing in front of a store
Some associates may be putting vaccines into customers’ arms every 15 minutes, so ensuring that employees have the right training will be more critical than ever before.

“This is not the only time we’re going to be going through this,” she says of the pandemic. “It won’t surprise me [if] 10 years from now, we’re all doing exactly the same thing with the next COVID.”

To prepare for that next crisis, Leaman believes that grocers should be laying the foundation now for a future-proof workforce and investing for the long term. That involves asking the following questions: What do we need people to know? How do we need to get it to them? How do we know they’re doing the things we need them to do? And how does that translate into the outcome we’re looking for?

One of the innovative approaches that Leaman is seeing grocers adopt when it comes to training includes allowing employees to use their own mobile phones.

“The biggest shift is putting learning and training in the moment in the workflow, in the hands of that employee and not making it an event where you have to carve out time,” Leaman notes. “The growth in the use of technology to achieve that is something we’re seeing rapid adoption of, for sure. And also more receptivity to having the individual learn on their own device versus having it on a kiosk or in a break room.”

Leaman is also seeing retailers think through the needs of the job in more detail than they ever have before, and then aligning the training to be more specific and less “one size fits all.”

Grocers are now “thinking deeply about job titles and the skills and abilities that roles need to have, which, again, are much more broadened now than they ever have been,” she says. “And then, how do we align our training efforts to achieve a multitude of objectives, which is to get people, keep people and not have them turn over?”

Further, Leaman has observed a mindset shift in food retail in which companies are focusing more on career development, including deep, transformational thinking on many levels in career development that should be a best practice industry-wide.

“Grocers are thinking about, how do we actually provide a career path for the cashier or the deli associate, and have them stay with our organization long term and potentially take on new roles?” she says. “If grocers are able to shift their mindset to investing more in that person, it means that instead of staying four months, they stay for four years. Not having to retrain 30 people in four years to do that one job saves tens of millions of dollars.”

Another best practice for food retailers should be communicating in real time with employees regarding safety in the store and customer service in the COVID era.

“Grocers are using video, they're using micro learning and something we’ve seen, to our great delight over the last year, is this little thing we called broadcast messaging when we built it several years ago,” Leaman points out.

Broadcast messaging is a way to communicate with all employees immediately.

“When COVID hit, we even saw CEOs of organizations jumping on recording a broadcast message about what they were doing as an organization to keep their people safe, that they would post immediately through the [Axonify] platform,” Leaman says.

The tool became a way to deliver a reassuring message of, “This is what we’re doing, this is the training that we're going to give you, etc.,” she asserts. What’s more, Axonify customers were able to leverage modules on whatever was happening with COVID.

Axonify is currently working on new communications tools such as a content assistant that uses artificial intelligence to take existing content and immediately create modules; enhancing some of the game mechanics and engagement tools on its platform; and creating a way to distill an employee’s skills into a sort of digital resume within the organization.

Finally, as the controversy over wages shows no signs of simmering down anytime soon, Leaman advises retailers should be recognizing and celebrating their employees after a year of extreme turmoil.

“Reward people tangibly,” she counsels. “It starts with how do you put that employee in a position where they love the organization they work for, are rapid brand ambassadors for you, do all the right things, are excited to come to work. What are the pins you need to put in place to achieve that and have them stay long term and have a career there?”

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