Post-Covid Prediction 5: The leaner, distributed, and more productive workforce

July 7, 2020

In the “new normal” post-Covid, organizations will improve workforce productivity, efficiency and collaboration by leveraging technology and automation. The retail industry will welcome distributed workforces, and the ability to collaborate remotely with leaner teams will be a necessity. You can see the rest of our post-Covid predictions here.

The distributed, work-from-home (WFH) job force got a big push from the pandemic worldwide. Even before Covid-19 became a factor, an increasing number of companies were transitioning to more remote workforces in order to cut costs, offer employees more flexibility and work-life balance, and attract better talent from a wider geography pool. For retail, however, WFH was rarely an option. But in March 2020 when the world stopped and stores closed, many employees were furloughed and the remaining workforce was forced to figure out how to work from home. 

We’ve all faced the challenges of adjusting to working from home. However, retail companies with little prior experience with remote work have had a particularly difficult time adapting. They have to access mounds of data from multiple siloed systems, collaborate on projects within and across distributed teams, and make decisions about physical products completely virtually. And for most, all of this has happened with a significantly reduced workforce, a change that many expect to be permanent. While some retail businesses have now reopened and a handful of non-essential workers have gone back to the office, the reality of subsequent waves of the virus means this whole process of shutdowns and furloughs can happen all over again. 

Organizations will need to break old paradigms to make way for a new wave of workforce transformation. In order to survive, retailers will need to figure out a way to do more with less, remotely. Winning companies will look to technology to support better information sharing and collaboration among remote teams and automate wherever they can to maintain productivity with a leaner workforce.

Access to data and actionable insights will be life or death for retailers

As a quick recap from our past post-Covid predictions, the world of retail is changing fast and we don’t have any guide rails as the country continues to reopen. Brands and retailers will need to ba able to react quickly to new information, but the teams tasked with doing this will be smaller, working from multiple locations and using an increasing array of devices, be it a desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone.

Having easy access to real-time information in order to make data-driven decisions in the short term and create plans for the future will be critical. With less staff on hand to manually comb through and decipher raw data, companies will need to adopt tools to help them transform data into insights so they can focus on strategizing and executing. Business intelligence systems that centralize and visualize data will be key. However, analyzing is just a small part of the equation. Creating dynamic plans across your retail organization, executing on them, and having the ability to adjust in real-time will be critical to success. This will require companies to look beyond BI tools to more robust and automated planning and ERP technologies.  

New collaboration and communication technologies will be institutionalized

The classic Monday sales review meeting. While it was once conducted with the entire team around a conference room, many employees will remain working from home indefinitely, so organizations will need to figure out how to virtually facilitate these meetings in a sustainable way. To make this transformation seamless and maintain productivity among internal teams, companies will standardize and institutionalize collaborative communication, project management, and note-taking technologies across their entire organization.

External meetings that have traditionally been held in-person will also see sustained change. The entire retail ecosystem will need to leverage digital collaboration solutions, and frankly, most of these solutions are probably long overdue. Many wonder if there’s still a need for press and buyers to travel all over the world every season to review collections, arguing that virtual runways and showrooms could reduce the need. Wholesale platforms such as Joor and NuOrder have started solving for this and we predict more digital solutions to emerge for creative development, supplier management, and factory interactions, all of which have historically relied on face to face interactions.

Automation will no longer be a nice to have 

Lastly, in addition to data sharing and collaborative digital transformation, automation will become a necessity in the “new normal” post-Covid. While automated workflows have become more accessible over the years through SaaS technologies like Enterprise Resource Planning and Email Marketing Automation tools, many companies including enterprise and digitally native retailers still rely on siloed information systems and manual, redundant tasks to plan and execute on many of their operations.

One area that has been particularly slow to adopt automation is merchandise planning. Most buyers and planners still download data from one system, analyze or adjust via spreadsheets, and then upload results to another software which is an extremely manual, cumbersome, and error-prone process. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and as companies are forced to produce the same level of output, operating with leaner teams in a more competitive landscape, companies will evaluate and implement every opportunity for automation. Retailers will look to technology to help automate manual processes so they can focus all their time and effort on strategizing for the future, keeping their customers happy and driving their business forward.

Takeaway

The future of retail may seem uncertain and even scary, but it is also exciting. As we begin to rethink what the industry and its supporting workforce will look like post-Covid, there’s an opportunity to embrace technology and increase net productivity.  As cashflow is tight for many retailers, change will be difficult in the short term, but arguably a way to save money in the long term. Technology and automation empower organizations to gradually increase output while keeping labor costs constant and making better, data-driven decisions faster.

Where do I start?

Transforming your tech stack can seem intimidating -- there’s a lot of different software companies out there supporting various operational functions, but we strongly (and maybe a little biasedly) recommend starting with planning. Adopting a merchandising platform like Toolio will help you not only automate critical workflows, centralize your data, and make better data-driven decisions, but also foster remote collaboration among your merchandising and planning teams. If you’re ready to learn more, request a demo of Toolio.

Summer Stewart
Head of Growth