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As some states move to rapidly reopen and others extend their quarantines, it's hard to know what new challenges await for retail. No matter where your state lands on the spectrum, there's one important constant in play: grocery stores will remain open. And while it's too early to know what that means in the long run for things like mandatory safety regulations and labor legislation, we do know the weeks of long hours and stressful working conditions will start to wear down even the most dedicated associate.
"We've seen amazing response from retailers and their teams from the beginning," IGA CEO John Ross says. "From the earliest days in China when IGA retailers took the lead to keep people safe and communities fed, to today as we begin to navigate the new normal, our IGA retailers and their associates have been nothing short of heroic. But it's only natural in the face of all that uncertainty and stress that motivation would begin to wane. And when that happens, it's a serious threat to the health of the employee and the business."
So how do you keep associates healthy, happy, and motivated as we dive into the latest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic? Check out these examples from IGA retailers across the country and the globe.
When Nakul Patel, owner of Mt. Plymouth IGA in Sorrento, Florida, read that the number of cases of COVID-19 in his county were decreasing, he asked his team if they thought it was time to loosen in-store restrictions, like asking customers to wear masks. They unanimously agreed that it was not yet time to ease their store’s self-imposed safety measures, as they didn’t feel it was worth the risk.
Patel says he has assured his team that their safety is more important than losing a few customers, and that attitude has gone a long way with his staff. “Having a firm leader and listening to what they want, making sure they have a safe working environment and putting their safety above the profits,” he says, are the keys to helping them feel valued and motivated.
At Brackett’s Market in Bath, Maine, the owners surprised their team with a bonus. “We went back over five weeks, which went back to March 9 when all of this seemed to start to come to a head, and every hour that an employee worked (whether regular, overtime, or even vacation time), we gave them a $5 bonus for every hour they worked,” says Co-owner Kimberly Brackett.
She and Co-owner Steve Brackett personally handed a letter of gratitude and the bonus checks to each employee, telling them they knew it was difficult being on the forefront of this situation and they felt the best way to say thanks was with a bonus. “It was the right thing to do,” Brackett says. Employees were taken off guard, tearing up, with one even hugging them before realizing they violated social distancing rules because they were so overcome with emotion (Brackett said it was a happy moment and the hug was welcome).
Jennifer Bosma of Harvest Market in Fort Bragg and Mendocino, California, says they are offering employees a $2 an hour hazard pay bonus for every hour worked. She says the extra money helps her employees feel appreciated, as the job can be discouraging with customers taking their fears and anxieties out on employees and other essential workers.
Another popular reward that retailers are trying is sharing free meals from local restaurants with employees. Bosma says that at Harvest Market, “We have been supporting our local businesses, restaurants that are open and doing curbside.” With each employee paycheck, she also includes a store-made gift card for a local restaurant that is good for two weeks. It’s not only good for the employee, but for the community as well.
Kishman's IGA in Minerva, Ohio has been choosing a local restaurant, bar, or brewery each Saturday to buy 100 lunches for their employees, merchandisers, and delivery drivers. According to Matt Kishman, the employees love it and it keeps money in the community, which is essential right now for the restaurants.
Many shoppers are eager to share their gratitude for the sacrifices our grocery teams are making to keep communities fed. Offer an in-store comment box or solicit positive stories on your social media accounts, then share it with your teams.
Bosma takes the good messages about employees from the in-store comment box and hangs them in the room where employees pick up their paychecks. Not only does this practice make the team members mentioned in the comments feel valued, it also motivates other employees.
Henderson’s IGA in Valentine, Nebraska has been running a “Heroes at Work Spotlight” campaign on their Facebook page where they share a motivational quote and the names and photos of four featured employees.
Public recognition can go a long way at helping employees feel valued and motivated to continue great work. It also reminds customers of your hard-working team, which might subtly encourage extra kindness and patience on their end, too.
Words and gestures go a long way, but in the end, having management by their side is one of the best ways to show solidarity and support with your team.
“I find that being out there on the floor, bagging groceries, going out in the lobby, wiping carts down, greeting customers, doing the hard stuff like head count, being part of the team makes a difference to them,” says Brackett.
Bosma agrees. “We’re visible on the floor, we’re running carts, and doing things on a regular day-to-day business that we normally wouldn’t be doing,” she says.
That includes standing at the front of the store to explain to customers they can’t come in without a mask. While Harvest Market’s county requirements to wear masks start Friday, she wants to bear the brunt of any unhappy customers and not have that fall on her employees. Brackett shares a similar sentiment, saying that she defends her employees to customers when necessary. Patel thinks support from the owners echoes in the team’s customer service. “They will serve the customer in a better way when they know you care about them,” he says.
Zhe Zeng, deputy representative to IGA China, says some IGA China retailers would establish a certain time of day when designated staff would reach out to absent employees. They would “lead and encourage everyone join a mini video chat, shoot a short clip, share an inspiring quote or a positive story from work or family,” Zeng says. From happy birthday wishes to congratulatory messages upon ending quarantine, he says “anything that cements bonding and a sense of belonging” was effective.
“During the pandemic, it has become evident that associates get less responsive to monetary rewards, but more receptive to meaningful and individualized, albeit small in number, rewards that show they are cared, valued, and embraced as a family/community member,” Zhe Zeng, deputy representative to IGA China, says.
For example, Zeng says some retailers in the IGA China system proactively changed company policies to give better job security and family benefits. Others sent employees home with sanitizing wipes, gloves, and masks as rewards to encourage associates to protect their family. One retailer gave a thank-you note to a specific employee on their official website every day.
Some retailers may find employees want more paid vacation down the line, or that monetary compensation is the best way to say thank you to their employees. By asking them what they prefer, you’re also demonstrating that you value their opinions and needs.
Each IGA store is unique, and that is reflected in the many ways IGA retailers motivate and thank their employees. “People want to work for a successful business above all,” Patel says, explaining that when the community is happy and praising what they’re doing, employees are more motivated. “If you work as a team and focus on that, you get through it," he says. All the more reason to use one or more of these ideas to keep your team motivated.