Voltedge Co-Managing Director Joyce Rigby-Jones is chatting with Linda Ward, MD at Retail Renewal about how retailers can support their employees and what you need to put in place before you can open the doors to your shop.
This podcast is all about helping retailers to come to terms with the new reality of trading during a pandemic. When can you reopen? What do you have to do before you reopen? What level of turnover can I expect? When will trading be back to pre-pandemic levels? How can I make my customers and staff feel safe?
Linda: So what are the most important steps that people need to take now in terms of retailers going back trying to re-open their stores and thinking about all the things that they have to do? In relation to the staff that they employ, what are the most important steps that they need to take in that area?
Joyce: The most important thing is to look at this as a major continuity plan and put in place a plan and appoint a contact. We are advising all our clients to appoint a Covid-19 Coordinator; that person will take on the role of making sure that the organisation is in tune with what’s happening or that they’re following all the government and HSE advice that’s coming down the line. So the Coordinator is really pushing out information to the employees, keeping them on track, being a point of contact if they have any concerns.
So if an employee is worried about something, they can go directly to this person. In a small retail environment, that’s probably going to be the owner, but in some organisations is going to be a senior person who will take on that role and very much drive it. The really important thing is to make sure that employees know what they’re doing in terms of Covid-19 and how to deal with that in the workplace, and this Coordinator will drive that behaviour and remind them constantly of what is important in terms of the social distancing, the hygiene aspects but also how to deal with each other and customers, as they start going back to work.
Linda: So before they get to that point of going back to work, what are the three steps, what is the sort of preparation that an employer can do and what sorts of things do they need to be thinking about before they open the doors and before they bring the staff back in?
Joyce: The employer has a duty of care to provide a safe workplace for their employees so it’s vital that they think about this. They should do a risk analysis, they will be putting in all the physical issues and actions that you’ve been going through with them in terms of shields of prospects but really they need to look at the risk analysis if one employee has backup support, have they kept maybe a couple of employees separate so that they are doing either shifts or having people coming in at different times so they’re not in contact with each other, and may want to look at checking their employees’ personal details – do they have their emergency contact person, have they got their correct addresses and phone numbers etc. and also they need to be looking at whether their employees have any issues with regard to coming back to work, perhaps they have an underlying illness themselves or maybe they’re living with someone they have concerns about.
The employer needs to be empathetic about this and actually understand personal situations, so we really need to be very close to employees and understand what’s going on in their personal lives. They may be delighted to come back to work or they may be quite scared so the owner/manager and the Covid-19 Coordinator, whether they’re the same person or not, they really need to be talking to them one-to-one and finding out how they’re going to come back. We have a pre-return to work questionnaire which is a questionnaire just checking if the employees are ready to come back and that they haven’t got any reason not to come back, and that is always important to check out as well.
Linda: So that is like a questionnaire you’d give out to your employees before they come back to make sure that they’re ready and happy to come back and not suffering from any symptoms presumably?
Joyce: Exactly. They’re confirming that to you and obviously, on an ongoing basis, you’re going to be checking this with employees but it means when they come back, you know that there is no issues and you are not going to worry about them coming back.
Linda: And what about any sort of induction training that you need to give staff or anybody that is coming back to work in your organisation?
Joyce: It’s very important that you have a plan of action to ensure that you’re giving them all the information they need in terms of the protocol of return to work which the HSE and the gov.ie have given. The NSAI also have a very detailed document which goes through this but basically, what we’re trying to do, is reinforce the safe hygiene elements of returning to work but also talking to the employee about whether they need to bring in their own lunches, whether they need to look at how they’re going to get to work because potentially they shouldn’t be using public transport and also things like how do they deal with a customer if they’re in a retail environment, perhaps if they come up too close to them, how do they actually react, what do they do about this; so it’s a practical view as well of the issues that will arise in the workplace when that employee starts back again.
Linda: It sounds like communication is going to be really really important.
Joyce: Communication is key and I think that every owner or manager should be putting a Covid-19 communication discussion on the agenda every single day, so reminding employees what they need to be doing in terms of their own hygiene and also reminding them about what they need to do if customers come in, to say what they need to say to them and also talk to them about any risks or concerns they have, so it’s really a daily issue. Owners shouldn’t assume that employees know this and understand everything; they should assume that they need to be talking to them every single day until they’re absolutely confident that this is just a natural part of our normal working life again.
And I think the other issue is just being careful about how they’re looking at other things like holidays, and this has been a big issue for many employers – what do we do about holidays? We can’t go away, we can’t go to Spain or anywhere else so all the employees who had planned their summer holidays are going to say – well I don’t want to take them because I don’t have anywhere to go. Employers need to have a plan in place that addresses this, so they need to look at potentially asking employees to maybe take a couple of days a month away and also planning for at least a five day break from work in the next few months because we all need a break away even if we are going to be sitting at home, we need that break from work. So planning holidays, looking at the number of holidays that all the employees have, do an assessment, look at what you need to do about this and then start talking to the individuals and tell them that you may not be able to carry holidays to any great extent in 2021, so they need to be aware about this.
Linda: I think that’s true. I think the last weeks have been quite intense in many ways and, just talking personally, I had planned to go away for two weeks at Easter time to see my family and I couldn’t go because I couldn’t travel so I worked through those two weeks but I really miss the break and I really feel now that I haven’t had a break since last September really. I am going to take a break in ten days time and I am going to spend it sitting in the garden reading a book but at least it will be a break from the day-to-day routine and it will be a different way of being in the same place I suppose. I think it’s quite important that people actually do take that time just to be, because it has been a really stressful time for an awful lot of people and a very worrying time; living with uncertainty is not easy.
Joyce: I totally agree with you, and even though we sort of think – well, if I take a day off, I might just gonna sit at home – well, maybe that’s what you need to do, maybe you just need to relax and do something different; we’ll have some of the shops open again shortly and we need to really be supporting our local retailers as well so maybe we go out and go to the garden centre and do something like that. It is something an employer needs to plan and they need to be talking to the individuals about this.
The other issue that Voltedge was looking at, when we were looking at the whole Covid-19 issue was the Covid-19 Curve and this is a curve that was originally devised for people going through a bereavement or a major grief and it was developed by a lady called Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 and it shows the way we go through different phases when we’re going through a major crisis which we’re going through now, and we start off at the shock phase, which I think we all did way back in February when we heard that this virus was coming, and then we move into some sort of denial and we think it’s not really going to affect me, and then we realise that it is affecting all of us hugely, and then we end up moving into the frustration part of the curve, we maybe have never worked at home before, or maybe we’ve been laid off and we have to sit at home, we’re very worried and really concerned about what’s going to happen to our jobs. Often some people will go deep into a depressive time and feel very low, we’re missing our friends and family, we can’t see our close family and that’s been extremely difficult for employees, so again, employers need to be thinking about this.
We’ve all been through a lot of stress, we all need support, this isn’t a time for being difficult, we all have to help each other. When we’re coming out of the curve though, we’re moving into experimenting and thinking of innovative ways of how we’re going to live and deal with this uncertain world, and we’re seeing wonderful ideas coming through in the retail and other sectors where people are thinking of ways to make sure we can move forward and get used to a different reality. And we will get there, we will eventually get to a stage where this is the new normal and we will be used to it, but it’s interesting, some people will fall backwards, down the curve again, they’ll have a bad day and they’ll feel very low, and it’s up to us to understand that and bring them back up and help them move along the curve.
Linda: I can identify with that. I identify my feelings along that curve too. Just to get back to another practical thing of what retailers need to think about, what should they do if somebody comes in the shop one day and they say ‘I think I might have some symptoms, they might be Covid-19 symptoms but I’m not sure’ – what should the retailer do in that situation?
Joyce: I think the immediate thing is to refer them to the guidelines in the HSE and they should immediately self-isolate if they think there are genuine risks of a Covid virus case. The employer should be saying to that individual ‘you need to go home, self-isolate, call your GP immediately and talk to them about what happens next’.
Linda: It also really highlights the need for social distancing and all the hygiene measures that there are advised during various protocols and how important they are, and how, if you follow them, they actually do work. There’s still a chance that, even if you have the right protocols in place within your workplace, some of your employees could still be exposed to the virus somewhere else, but if everybody did their bit in trying to keep the protocols in place, then we’re going to minimise the spread of the virus.
Joyce: Yes and we know that there are lots of businesses that have continued to run the essential businesses and they have managed to control this really well and there is no reason why even a small employer can’t ensure that their workplace is very safe. But it is a constant reminder, it’s constant communication, and if you have a case that arises, that maybe somebody has picked up the virus somewhere else, you’ll have a plan and a risk analysis done so that if Joyce or Linda are going out sick, you have replacements, you have a back-up plan, you’re ready to run with it, so it’s all about the planning, preparation and communication.
Linda: What I’ve been taking from our conversation is the fact that communication and empathy is really important to understand where your co-worker or employee is coming from and to really reflect back to what their concerns are and make sure you address them. Empathy is needed because everybody is in a different situation. Some people might have a difficult home life or they might have a vulnerable person at home, so as an employer, you need to be aware of that and to respect that in a way that possibly pre-Covid we may not have done in quite the same way.
Joyce: You are quite right, pre-Covid we would have been saying there are GDPR issues, for example that we shouldn’t known a lot of information, we don’t need to know information about our employees, their home lives, but actually, with Covid-19 upon us, this is the time when employers need to have enough information to ensure that they can manage the employee, support that employee, and if it means knowing a bit more about their personal lives than before, that’s what they need to be doing.
So when employees will hopefully be very open and say ‘listen I had difficulty getting into work or I am worried about a vulnerable relative’, that needs to be talked through and it needs to be looked from a risk assessment, but most employees are looking so forward to getting back to work, that it’s something they’re really happy to do and we want to facilitate that, but we have to, as employers, ensure that we are providing a safe and healthy workplace for them to return to.
Linda: And also in terms of it’s going to be safe and healthy for the customers too, because otherwise the customers are not going to come in, if they don’t feel confident that the precautions are in place, then it’s going to be difficult to attract people to come into your store.
Joyce: I think we’re seeing that already. Some stores are really excellent in terms of the way they manage their customers coming in and out and others aren’t and I believe that those stores that are really thinking through this and have good planning in place, they are the ones that are going to benefit from sales because customers will come to them first. And I know myself, even going to different supermarkets, I would be very conscious of the ones that are good and really looking after my health and safety when I go in as opposed to the ones that maybe aren’t so good.
Linda: It’s sort of bringing the whole transnational nature of retail into a very human space.
Joyce: I think so, and it will make us very different in the way that we treat employees and customers and that’s actually not a bad thing, I think it’s really good that we are knowing that we need to be looking after each other more and be much more considerate and careful and that’s a really nice thing so there are good things that will come out of this crisis.
Listen to the podcast episode here.