Working practices have changed beyond all recognition for many classed as frontline staff, be they in retail, healthcare, tourism or construction.
After lockdown measures were announced in mid-March, food retailers were one of the first to feel the effects, when a tsunami of customers started panic buying and supermarkets had to quickly jump into action in order to put measures in place to protect both staff and customers.
Terms such as social distancing, personal protective equipment, good hand hygiene and cough etiquette quickly became part of our daily parlance and the public discourse and recognition of the importance of customer service work increased, particularly for supermarket staff.
One supermarket chain that swiftly took decisive action was Lidl. Ciaran Delaney Covid-19 Task Team lead at Lidl says they were lucky in that they had gone through some level of emergency in the past and had a business continuity team in place. However, plans for every eventuality did not include a pandemic, and they quickly created a dedicated Covid-19 team.
“Our staff adapted so well to it all. The main impact was that they were now frontline workers, and of course with the surge initially – there was a run on stores,” he says.
Since then Lidl has had to overhaul the way staff work.
“We had to give flexibility when it comes to rostering and split teams into pods, as well as offering staggered lunch breaks. Our staff is noticing a change in how they are interacting with colleagues,” he says.
Lidl previously had a health-and-wellbeing programme in place and staff are communicated with daily via an employee app.
Physically, shops have changed in order to protect staff and make customers feel safer while shopping.
“We have barriers around tills now. PPE is available to all staff but it’s not mandatory to wear so it is up to the individual. More frequent cleaning of common touch points is important too,” he says.
Lidl now has a queue management system which is being trialled in eight stores but will be rolled out across the country too.
“It’s a traffic-light system to manage customers in and out of stores. Sensors count the numbers going in and out so you stop at red and go at green. There is a trolley and basket cleaning station and signage everywhere around maintaining social distancing. Our sound systems regularly make announcements around people maintaining social distancing too.”
Lidl was one of the first to designate shopping hours for elderly or vulnerable customers, from 9am to 11am every day. They have also created a WhatsApp system where customers can message the store to find out the quietest time to visit.
Meanwhile, construction sites closed down due to not being able to maintain safe social distancing, but it has given some in the industry the time to re-evaluate. Donnacha Neary, founder and managing director of fit-out company Sonica says it has launched new standard operating procedures using the guidance of the Construction Industry Federation.
“We made our complete workings available for download across all of our wide-reaching social channels as we firmly believe that expert group knowledge-sharing benefits the entire industry,” he says.
They have used the downtime to focus on further upskilling in preparation for a return to work.
“We are working to redesign office spaces that focus on maintaining productivity and collaboration in a post-Covid-19 world, establishing a design and feel that is comfortable as a working environment and doesn’t make you feel imprisoned with plastic screens and ill-conceived dividers.
“In partnership with our facilities and property management division, Preempt, we are also working on preparing and maintaining safe, hygienic environments for our clients,” he says.
For Three Ireland employees, they saw a complete shift from how they operate normally but staff made their best efforts to embrace it, says Mark Gardiner, Three Ireland's head of products, services and logistics.
“The health and safety of both our employees and our customers is the most important thing to us and we have implemented a range of measures in our stores to do everything we can to make sure that they are as safe as possible. We have installed Perspex screens, new signage and floor markings to encourage social distancing and we have also introduced enhanced cleaning across all stores,” he says.
While many bricks-and-mortar shops closed their doors, online shopping took off and the enforced closures helped customers to further adopt online shopping and recognise that it is an easy process.
“We saw a significant increase in online orders, and this is still a threefold increase even though our stores have reopened. For Three, the online experience is as important as the in-store experience and with services like next-day delivery available, we’re glad that customers are moving to embrace this. To adapt to this increase during the lockdown period, we introduced ‘Retail Chat’, which gives our customers direct access to our retail teams who are able to provide one-to-one support on purchase queries or upgrades. Due to its success, we have extended this and the tool now operates seven days a week and includes video calls, live broadcasting and file sharing with customers,” Gardiner says.
Lidl’s core focus remains the physical stores but they have been “dipping their toe” into online shopping by teaming up with Buymie, an Irish start-up company that provides a similar service to Deliveroo, but for groceries.
“There has been a steady uptake in it, month on month we have seen a 39 per cent growth in customers interacting. It currently services Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare and we are looking to extend our partnership with them,” he says.
There is one major shift arising from all of this that is to be welcomed, says Dr Maeve Houlihan, the public esteem now given to those working at the front line in retail services.
Dr Houlihan, associate dean at UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business, says:
“Many retail workers now report greater occurrences of customer appreciation. However, there has been significant incidences of stressful encounters with customers, or breaches of social distancing rules too. It was good and important to see retailers strongly back their staff in public messaging and social distancing arrangements.”