As UK retailers gear up to enter what is traditionally their busiest period, they face a very different Christmas this year in an uncertain, post-pandemic climate. 

Here, Toma Pagojute, Chief HR Officer at workforce management solutions provider Quinyx, outlines why retail bosses need to adopt a people-first approach in order to succeed this season, and how they can help retain their staff during ‘The Big Quit’.


Supply chain issues, low stock levels, declining sales, worker shortages – it’s no exaggeration to say that the UK retail industry is currently facing a tumultuous time.

As an HR professional, I tend to take a ‘people-first’ approach to most business problems. But what happens when a shortage of people is one of your biggest challenges? Latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows that job vacancies soared to 1.1 million between July and September 2021, the highest level since records began in 2001 – with one of the largest increases in the retail sector. 

Industry bosses could therefore be forgiven for thinking that staffing problems, like supply chain disruptions, are somewhat beyond their immediate control. 

And while it may be true that there’s no quick fix, unfortunately, for the sector’s recruitment issues, I would argue that people management – with a focus on flexibility and motivating and empowering existing staff – is one business area that bosses can get a real handle on in such uncertain times. And it may have the biggest impact – employees are the greatest asset of the UK’s retail sector, after all.

The impact of inflexibility

Each year, Quinyx runs its annual State of the Deskless Workforce study, a large global report of deskless workers, including those in the retail sector.  

It highlighted that more than one third (35%) of retail workers value a flexible schedule in their job above higher pay, and a third (32%) have left a job because their employer did not allocate shifts with enough advance notice, making work/life balance difficult.

A lack of flexibility can have a negative impact on employees’ health. Worryingly, more than half (53%) of retail workers said they found it difficult to swap shifts with co-workers when unwell, and almost two thirds (61%) said that rigid work schedules had forced them to forgo essential ‘me time’ activities like exercising and relaxing.

More than a third (37%) felt that asking for a schedule change for personal reasons would be perceived negatively by their employer.

An app for happier staff 

The importance of protecting our health, our mental health and wellbeing is much-discussed, but we need to ensure that this translates into practice for retail staff, helping them stay motivated ahead of the industry’s busiest season.

Utilising an app-based scheduling system can provide staff with flexibility that they can control themselves: they can easily request alternative shifts and offer to cover for co-workers, for example, without having to check with managers first.

Bosses may also want to consider a company-wide ‘respect policy’ – meaning that shift swapping and leave requests are received without judgement, so no-one feels awkward asking for time off. 

Minimise the stress of understaffing

The vast majority (86%) of UK retail workers in our study this year said that understaffing leads to more stress at work, as well as having an impact on customer waiting times and overall service. 

It’s a scenario facing many businesses right now, and it’s therefore vital that retail bosses get their ‘ducks in a row’ to make the most of the resources they do have. 

AI-fuelled workforce management systems help make staffing processes much more efficient, helping with scheduling, time reporting, communicating, budgeting, forecasting and more. 

Don’t overlook the basics of internal communications 

Open, active communication across teams, and addressing concerns and suggestions is key in helping employees feel valued and empowered – this might be done via messaging apps, a traditional suggestion box or noticeboard in the canteen or a monthly ‘you spoke, we listened’ update. 

Recognising and rewarding great work is essential too, whether its via team leaders or line managers, or through peer nominations. 

A brighter future

Despite the doom and gloom forecasting, our research found that just over half (53%) of UK retail workers said they hope to stay in the industry long-term. This compares to just 39% and 28% of workers in Denmark and Norway respectively. (We poll more than 10,000 workers across 10 countries each year. Retail workers in the Netherlands were most likely – 66% – to say they plan to stay in the sector.) This suggests that any investment in people that companies make today is likely to ensure a return in the future, and bodes well for an industry upturn – something we might all want to raise a glass towards this Christmas.