Last week I wrote about the importance of furloughed employees looking after their own health and wellbeing during these turbulent times. Judging by the overwhelming response to the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which saw 140,000 companies apply for support on the first day alone, many millions of people across a range of industry sectors find themselves in this particular boat.
At the same time, there is a large cohort of people, many of whom work in retail, that continue to go to their place of work every day. From supermarket workers and pharmacists to distribution centre staff and delivery drivers, and not forgetting the army of workers employed further down the supply chain in farms and factories, people are setting aside the risk to their personal health to keep essential supplies such as food and medicines flowing.
These workers may not get the (deserved) acclaim of healthcare workers but they are playing a vital role in the collective national effort to escape the threat of COVID-19.
This week, B&Q announced plans to reopen a number of stores on a trial basis in a sign that retailers technically classified as providing essential services but which have thus far chosen to keep stores closed are tentatively looking to resume trading.
Quite rightly, B&Q has made employee safety a priority by introducing social distancing controls similar to what we have witnessed at supermarkets with limits to the number of customers in-store at any one time, two-metre floor markers, and perspex screens to protect staff at checkouts.
These are all necessary, practical measures, but it’s equally important staff have the emotional support they need to carry out tasks that can be stressful at the best of times. People have an incredible ability to adapt to new and challenging situations but we shouldn’t expect workers simply to set aside feelings of anxiety or unease for the periods they are on shift.
Now, more than ever is the time for businesses to have structures in place that ensure employees can express their concerns, along with feedback mechanisms that make people feel as though their views are being listened to.
It’s also a time for managers to offer more informal support above and beyond what they would normally provide. A quiet ‘Are you alright?’ or ‘Is there anything you need?’ can go a long way in making frontline staff feel looked after and appreciated.
Gratifyingly, the vast majority of retailers have reacted in exactly the right way with many offering frontline staff bonuses and pay rises while taking steps to ensure the risk to their health in the workplace is minimised.
Such actions won’t be forgotten by employees when we do emerge from the coronavirus crisis. By contrast, the minority of businesses that have failed to put the needs of their people first have looked uncaring by comparison and will most likely pay the price through low rates of retention.
Businesses often preach the mantra that their employees are their most valuable asset. The COVID-19 crisis gives them the opportunity to prove they mean it.