There are certainly concerns that growth in what many dub ‘one-sided flexibility’ is worsening conditions in some quarters.
While flexibility has long been a key draw for many in retail, recent studies show the sector has more people on short-hours contracts than any other UK industry, says the RSA’s Fabian Wallace-Stephens. “We’re also seeing that retail workers are worried about changes to their hours,” he says.
At Asda, for instance, workers have staged industrial action after being given new terms and conditions that would give the company greater control over when and how staff work, including a right to change shift patterns ‘with reasonable notice’.
“Retailers are getting pushed and challenged from all directions, so they then push down on the wage bill with a move to casualisation and zero-hours contracts to help the business manage cost,” says Salford University Business School’s Gordon Fletcher. “But this casualisation goes against developing people with great customer experience.”
Such one-sided flexibility affects women particularly, explains the BRC’s Liliana Danila. “Women make up a much larger proportion of the retail workforce than the UK workforce as a whole,” she says.
“And that’s because retail is seen as flexible and close to home so it fits in with the UK social model that women are still the main caregivers so need more flexibility with work.”
The female workforce has also been hit hardest by the sector’s digital transformation. Of the 108,000 retail jobs lost to automation between 2011 and 2018, 70% were held by women, according to RSA research. And of the 40,000 new warehouse and distribution jobs created, three-quarters were taken by men.
“Women have historically been in the roles that have declined – like sales assistant roles, whereas warehouse roles are more typically seen as male,” says Wallace-Stephens. “Data science and tech roles are also typically weighted towards men, so women could also lose out here.”
Other working conditions issues include violence towards workers (more than 100 retail workers were attacked every day at work last year, according to the BRC), and bullying and harassment, with Topshop boss Philip Green exposed in parliament over allegations for such behaviour at the end of last year.
“I think historically there has been some undesirable practices and behaviours that are now being made more transparent, and that means the culture has to change,” says the Oxford Institute of Retail Management’s Jonathan Reynolds.
“With retail employees it becomes word of mouth, so if a retailer gets a reputation for not protecting staff from customer assaults or dealing with bullying, then people aren’t going to work there.”
There are signs of some high-street brands taking positive steps. Marston’s, for example, has ditched zero-hours contracts after the practice came under fire at retailers such as Sports Direct.
“We decided to move away from zero-hours contracts and instead give people a choice of contracts such as a reliable-hours contract,” says HRD Liam Powell. “We recognised that what was going on in the market meant teams wanted certainty in their jobs.”
Technology can also be key to ensuring that flexibility works for all parties. Shift scheduling software allows workers to swap shifts, and systems can now analyse weather and online traffic to forecast store footfall and allocate staff shifts in line with demand.
This same commitment to fairness and employee wellbeing should be adhered to when the worst happens and a retailer goes under, feels Iain Lewis, who worked at Woolworths when it went into liquidation and made 27,000 employees over 800 sites redundant overnight.
HR took the unusual step of setting up a recruitment website so fellow retailers could advertise jobs to Woolworths staff. “It was a relatively unique situation at the time,” Lewis recalls. “Often when organisations go into administration the doors shut and people don’t know where to go or what to do as they’ve worked there for years.
“HR has a responsibility to people and to the brand. Yes, people had been made redundant, but… it’s about treating people as human beings.”
This piece appears in the December 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk