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Delivering retail transformations: The challenges and opportunities of WFA (working from anywhere)

by jcp

By: Dan Hartveld, CTO at Red Ant

As the Great Resignation hits, the world of tech employment is changing rapidly. Digital leaders’ ambitions for transformations are increasing, according to research from International Data Corporation (IDC)’s report that forecasts global spending on digital transformations will reach US$2.8 trillion in 2025, more than double that of 2020, and grow at a rate (CAGR) of 16.4% over the 2021-2025 forecast period. Some of the largest digital transformation technology investments are expected to come from the focus on customer experience in the retail industry. This means that with increasing skills and expertise required to deliver successful projects, tech roles have become more specialised and securing the right skills is a continual challenge.

Compounded by the biggest labour shortage the UK has experienced to date, we’re seeing a massive inflation in tech salaries. Maintaining employee engagement while working from anywhere (WFA) has created a huge cultural shift in tech project delivery with workers’ increasingly high expectations in terms of remote work and career development opportunities. IT leaders and hiring managers will need to be in touch with workers’ needs and offer more options for flexibility to attract and retain talent.

Retail and tech industry collaboration challenges 

While retailers have realised they must adopt tech to adapt to the digital landscape, one key challenge remains – the retail and tech industries have their own preferred ways of working. In retail, the ‘customers shopping from anywhere’ mantra is clearly understood, but there’s a more traditional belief that equates good customer service with physical in-office working. Meanwhile in the camp of the earliest nomadic workers, WFA for tech roles is a firmly embedded practice, and it’s becoming almost impossible to find engineers who will return to an office – even more so engineers who will stay in an office late. This poses a challenge to find the right skills. Before the pandemic, 41% of developers worked at an office either full-time or part-time, but of the 12,000 surveyed in GitHub’s 2021 State of the Octoverse report, just 10.7% expected to go back to the office after the pandemic ended.

The balance of power has swung in tech candidates’ favour and engineers are demanding more flexibility. It has become a challenge to marry this up with the retail industry, which is not accustomed to workers being remote. However, the retail industry is starting to realise that this new way of working has its benefits, that we can use technology and collaborative working tools to supply the right skills for the project at the right time without the physical presence of engineers.

The need for retail tech skills 

Covid has forced retailers to assess their tech real estate and to embrace retail technologies which will allow shoppers to shop anywhere. This means linking offline and online using omnichannel strategies to have a single view of the customer. It is critical right now to have the skills and expertise required to build effective strategies, ensuring that retailers can enhance their data maturity to leverage it for actionable business insights and deliver the best customer experience.

Whilst digital experiences have never been so important, at the back end, retailers are scrambling to ensure their stock, warehouse, and inventory management are all synched up to ensure products are on the shelves – which is critical to sales – and also to ensure that customers can buy and pick up their purchases in the way they want to. It’s not about just having tactical technology expertise on the team – effective transformations require a combination of strategic visionary skills which align to the retailer’s business objectives, otherwise projects simply won’t deliver. A blend of skills on the team is needed to make this happen, and great teamwork is fundamental to enabling agility in developing new routes to success.

For instance, retailers need to recognise that at the core of in-store retailing is their Point of Sale system and reinvent in-store experiences by replacing their existing systems with next generation PoS that is customer service focused. Designing and developing intelligent apps which can inform store associates appropriately empowers them to be brand ambassadors, as well as ensuring the right stock is available at the right levels. Brand trust depends on these processes and customers are increasingly using a blend of in-store and online services, so those brands that personalise shopping experiences and maintain a consistent message and communication with customers will be the winners.

Benefits of a flexible workforce 

Massive opportunities have been opened up through access to a wider talent pool due to organisations’ formal acceptance of remote working. Deploying the right talent is critical for a retailer to transform and scale in the digital age. In being open-minded about recruiting talent from everywhere including groups who may have found it previously impossible to make the commute, they can add valuable team members, create more diverse and balanced teams, and break down the hierarchies that tend to exist in physical offices. At Red Ant we still have an office and workers enjoy coming in to have that sense of belonging, but it’s important our staff keep communicating, and the business culture of ‘professional and friendly’ is important for us to close gaps and unite workers.

Once retailers are on board with remote-based ways of working – and it’s usually the tech teams within retailers who realise it faster than the marketing teams – it’s a truly collaborative partnership, and their ‘digital literacy’ enables us to build appropriate timescales and even work to faster service delivery. Sometimes developers who wouldn’t have wanted to stay in the office to work after hours will do so from home when it’s required on occasion, as they don’t have the commute time. Working from anywhere erodes any possible power imbalance of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ supplier / client relationship and helps develop a mutual trust.

We don’t need to be in the same room to collaborate, and haven’t for some time. With a long list of software engineering tasks, we can focus on collaborating in efficient ways to get the jobs done, we can prioritise better, pick and choose the things of greatest customer value and be more agile in what we deliver. This means that, ultimately, we are delivering real business value rather than just functionality.

The benefits of a flexible workforce also include offering enhanced customer service to retail clients, through the ability to inject the right / senior talent at the right times.  For instance, an engineer who would otherwise be too expensive to be on site for a project can join for one hour on a Teams call, add huge value and step in perhaps weeks before their in-person diary would have allowed.

Delivering value rather than functionality 

Purely through the increased efficiencies in our working, we are progressing projects faster than we used to, with more motivated individuals and better team collaboration. This pace of project delivery keeps both our team and our customers are happy. We used to hold an initial discovery session at the project initiation point, to meet up in person. We wouldn’t have white boarded and been able to capture all the ideas generated in the session as we do now using collaborative tech tools like Miro. Meetings needed a big time-synch to happen, particularly for multinational projects, and this very much dictated which engineers we would allocate to a project. But now we can offer a full range of meeting techniques and engineer availability thanks to the fact that we have embraced WFA.

The importance of delivering value rather than functionality includes being transparent about working practices to increase productivity and generate successful outcomes. Now we’re mainly remote, it allows us to be more collaborative and, ironically, able to engage more effectively than before. Establishing a strong working culture, using flexible technology and building appropriate timescales is the secret to delivering projects more rapidly as well as building success in international projects – all while keeping tech workers happy.

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