The 'Best Companies to Work For' All Have This One Thing in Common
In December, HBR took a look at what makes the “Best Companies to Work For” different from their competitors and uncovered a few common themes. The researchers found that these companies focus on their employees’ “life satisfaction,” not just job satisfaction. They provide ample opportunities for team members to build a highly matrixed career around their own personal passions. And they go to great lengths to enable employees to communicate authentically with one another on a regular basis.
When a company decides to fully commit to the culture and well-being of its entire workforce, that’s a daunting task. But when that company is a brick-and-mortar retailer — with thousands of part-time, front-line workers spread across the country — that task becomes even harder. It’s hard enough to engage a co-located workforce and rally them behind the same mission and goals. Surely, empowering a distributed, hourly workforce would be impossible, right?
Except, it’s not. Retailers like Patagonia, Wegmans, REI, and The Container Store have done it. In the process, they’ve reached an almost cult-like status with both customers and employees — and outperformed their peers. According to Great Place to Work, companies that engage ALL employees successfully realize greater business benefits. They have better stock market results, less employee turnover, more customer loyalty, higher productivity, and a more engaged workforce.
Best-in-class retailers are willing and able to engage and empower all of their employees, including their hourly front-line associates. By investing in all employees — not just some — they’re able to capture passion and innovation at scale, essentially fueling their business from the inside-out.
Innovation Doesn’t Start in the C-Suite
According to Michael O’Malley of HBR, companies that “find ways to arouse people’s passions through special programs” are more likely to be named a “Best Place to Work.” Making space for employees to innovate is key to driving not just a better company culture, but also a more successful and sustainable business. After all, good ideas can come from anywhere.
In retail, store employees are seen as “the voice of the customer.” They’re the ones on the ground, experiencing shoppers’ reactions in real time. It makes sense that these employees are also the best source of new ideas that have immediate and tangible impact on the customer experience. However, too often these workers are kept out of the loop when it comes to programs that drive innovation.
Front-line workers, especially in retail, typically lack the creature comforts that their office-based counterparts at headquarters take for granted. Traditional perks like sabbaticals and “innovation off-sites” aren’t practical. But even asking field-based teams to join a (virtual) Town Hall brainstorm or to reply to an emailed call for ideas becomes complex and cost prohibitive.
However, there are ways to tap into the collective brainpower of your front-line employees. The right technology, when deployed correctly, can easily activate and encourage a distributed workforce to bubble great ideas up the chain. These solutions can help aggregate ideas from your front-line workers and quickly surface trends and ensure your associates feel heard and empowered to provide their input.
Run it Like You Own it
In his research into the best companies to work for, O’Malley found that the executives he talked to “repeatedly told us that they want their employees to think and act like owners.” Employees who feel like they have agency over the type of work they do will feel more empowered and experience a shift in mind-set. “Instead of focusing on what cannot be done, they become preoccupied with what can. As a result, they're more easily able to grow, innovate, and push their companies forward,” says O’Malley.
“Run it like you own it” is a popular mantra in retail circles, and yet too often barriers in communication prevent every employee from feeling truly empowered. Departments at HQ operate in silos, sending communication down to a store’s management team piecemeal. Managers are left to decipher what’s needed and then deliver that message — usually verbally — to front-line associates. Without knowing their company’s broader business goals, these employees lack the context necessary to take ownership of their results. By keeping front-line workers in the dark, these companies are leaving money on the table, too.
Retailers that top “Best Companies” lists make a concerted effort to engage their front-line teams with the “why” behind company decisions. An associate that fully understands the reason behind a merchandising swap may then feel more empowered to take further steps to help the company reach that goal. Whether it’s through a steady stream of HQ-to-field communication or a cohesive messaging platform, retailers that champion transparency and enable every employee to make decisions in support of broader business goals will more likely reap the benefits of a nimble, engaged workforce.
Make it Personal
Another commonality among “Best Places to Work” is the relentless focus on creating meaningful connections between employees.
It’s easy to think of meaningful connection points in a traditional office environment, especially those marking celebratory occasions: cake for a co-worker’s birthday in the lunchroom, toasting promotions in the lobby, etc. But the logistics of these tried-and-true experiences are insurmountable when multiplied across tens of thousands of front-line workers. To create shared experiences, leadership must be more creative.
Again, technology can be an unlock in this regard. Giving front-line workers a safe, company-sanctioned space to collaborate in real time can enable connections to happen organically. Take it to the next level by celebrating milestones — e.g., an employee’s first major sale, a store’s anniversary — at the company level.
Engaging a fully distributed retail workforce isn’t as simple as engaging a co-located one. But what may be some retailers’ greatest challenge — reaching front-line employees — is also a competitive advantage. The retail companies that are able to activate every member of their workforce have ample opportunity to edge out the competition. Your employees are your best brand ambassadors. Winning their hearts and minds isn’t just nice, it’s necessary.
Melissa Wong is the co-founder and CEO of Retail Zipline, the leading communication and execution platform for retailers
Melissa Wong is the co-founder and CEO of Retail Zipline, the leading communication and execution platform for retailers, and has over a decade of experience working in retail. Last year, Melissa raised $9.6 million in funding led by Emergence with participation from Serena Williams through her venture firm, Serena Ventures. Her company powers communications for major global retailers including Gap Inc., Lush Cosmetics, the Lego Group, and others and has collectively saved brands millions of dollars by improving communication and execution.