Features, Insight, Opinion

UAE retailers must look to the daily challenges of their frontline associates

By Tariq Halawani, Executive Director, Enterprise Solutions, Microsoft UAE

UAE retailers are under pressure to transform and transform fast. Evolving customer expectations catalysed by pandemic-related economic headwinds have dragged decision makers into a new culture of disruption. In e-commerce, it is safe to say we have seen maturity leaps in the past three years that normally would take decades. So many legacy sales centres are now, in essence, “experience centres”. In other words, focus on how to keep the customer entertained and engaged rather than compete on the lowest price.

None of this happens without people. Technology is an extraordinarily powerful tool, but the soul-spark of experience comes from one-to-one interaction between the customer and a human agent. It is all well and good to focus on employee productivity, but improving the overall employee experience will deliver a workforce that is ready and willing to serve rather than opting for quiet quitting.

The failure to recognise this need presents itself in studies such as the recent Microsoft-sponsored “Empowering Retail Associates in the UAE” from IDC. This study shows retail managers in the UAE struggling to find talent and 41% of HR managers citing skills as a key challenge. These observations take place against a backdrop of workforce attrition in which 27% of retail associates – the frontline workers, also known as “the deskless workforce”, that must be physically present at brick-and-mortar stores – have changed job in the past two years.

Why? For the answer, we return to IDC’s survey, which reveals accentuated stress across the nation’s in-store retail workforce. When interviewed, 61% of retail associates said their working hours were long, and their schedules were rigid. Is it any wonder that the same study discovered that 61% of HR managers were concerned with how to keep employees motivated? There is a reason that “A happy workforce is a productive workforce” became a meme. Any business function is only as good as the employees who deliver it. But ask those workers what they think, and they will tell you that their ability to deliver is predicated upon the tools available to them. Almost all (93%) of those polled by IDC researchers believed technology would enable them to do their job more effectively; and they also think that a little digital transformation would lead to them being more engaged with their organisation. What is being described here is a happier, more motivated workforce.

Around a third (33%) of the UAE retail sector’s knowledge-workers are currently based at home at least some of the time and that figure is expected to soar to 62% in next two years, according to an IDC HR Managers Survey from November 2022. And yet associates, who will never share in this option, find their workplace challenges on the rise while being underserved by technology.

IDC’s report urged UAE retail businesses eager to attract and retain talent to focus on productivity through digital tools and the development of skills rather than demands to dig in and work harder. If the attrition is to end, retailers must equip frontline associates with the right skills and tools.

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