Building Trust in a Retail Workforce Threatened by Automation

Mathew Donald By Mathew Donald | 24 Oct 2019

The retail sector has adopted technological change for many years, be that in the form of a scanner, cash register replacements or auto inventory replenishment. The next rounds of technology will likely emerge with significant advances in hardware, software, logarithms or artificial intelligence.

It is likely now that the 5G rollout will assist in speed and even location accuracy, so may enable robotics to emerge quickly. Workplaces are likely to be significantly different if AI or robots are widely adopted in retail, so may require a rethink of leadership and management practices.

It is now more likely that the new age will evolve as an evolutionary change, rather than as a single change that displaces millions of workers almost instantly. The technology ahead is likely replacing human thought and decision making, so emerging with capabilities that are far more sophisticated than mere improvements in accuracy and reliability. AI is already visible in call centres, outsourced processing centres as well as in social media. It is quite possible that robots for the retail sector could soon pack shelves, serve customers, do driverless deliveries or be responsible for maintaining customer home stock levels.

So how will the retail sector be impacted?

Human work is likely to be eroded as technology replaces and transforms work with the introduction of AI or robot, it may be only the degree and timing of change that is unknown. Robots are likely to replace human work initially whenever that work is currently mundane or easily replicable, or where human decision making and learning is limited. In the retail sector, one can easily imagine how robots could unpack boxes or pack shelves or could find product, especially if the tasks were performed at night without customers. Over time, it is conceivable that retail robots could answer customer questions, or pick goods for customers, or even create new store layouts to improve sales. All is not lost for retail staff, as there will still be work that is impractical or impossible for robots to perform, or for work that requires expertise, creativity and innovation.

Staff stress and confusion … from too much change?

Competitive pressure may force management to adopt robots, especially if they are accepted or liked by customers, or if there are significant financial and other benefits. Recent research indicates that management and leadership factors are important to change success, so retailers may need to consider how best to prepare for this new age. Constant change from the waves of new robots and models may become confusing and stressful to retail staff, especially where leaders and managers have failed to adequately explain the new environment. Leaders are important to change, as they can influence staff towards the new directions through their communication and built up trust. Should leaders fail to adequately prepare for change and inform their staff it is likely that staff will lose trust, or staff may believe that their leaders do not care sufficiently.

So start preparing for new ways of working

The number of iterations of change, new procedures and policies may even go so fast that staff are unable to see clear directions or make decisions. In new environments, with fewer humans and robots it is possible that staff may find workplaces difficult to work in. The new operations may have considerably more data, more logic with less social interactions than workplaces of old. The whole nature of work may be less social and interactive for many retail staff, especially if the remaining staff are merely kept on to do the work that robots cannot do.

Leaders and managers in this new age should consider how they maintain trust in a new age where they are not in control of the environment. New technology of the future may be adopted based on capabilities and market competition rather than emotion or empathy, so staff may feel under constant threat if they are not understanding of the reasons for the change. Leaders and managers may need to constantly explain the new age and their associated reasoning for adopting further technological change. New staff relations are likely to be required in this new age, where staff are encouraged to be included as decision-makers with knowledge, views and options. Managers and leaders may not yet be ready for the changed staff relations, so they may need training on communication, negotiation and inclusion if they are to build successful closer relations with staff. Failure to address and prepare for the new age may risk staff feeling disengaged and untrusting of their leadership.

Dr Mathew Donald’s (Dr Mat) specialist topics are leadership, management and organisational change and has over 35 years of business experience. As the principal of Dr Mat – The organisational Health Doctor ™ his global services include consulting, mentoring, presentations and advice. Author of “Leading and managing change in the age of disruption and artificial intelligence”. For information on Dr Mat’s book or engage his services here.

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