Retail roles can be demanding and often require long hours that conflict with family life. Marks & Spencer is seeking to change that with its new Worklife flexible working programme for retail managers.
There has been a surge in employee demand for flexibility in how, when and where they work. Concepts such as four-day weeks, nine-day fortnights and shorter Fridays during the summer have all gained popularity among organisations with office-based workers, yet these can be challenging to implement in sectors that require staff to be physically present at set times.
As hiring picked up after the pandemic, Marks & Spencer, like many employers, experienced an increase in staff turnover, with some employees leaving for jobs they perceived to be more flexible.
Although its customer assistants and head office staff can work part-time or in shift patterns that align with their responsibilities outside of work, retail managers have not traditionally received the same degree of flexibility.
Recognising that it needed to think differently about attraction and retention in a tight labour market, M&S has developed Worklife, a programme that gives retail managers an opportunity to work in one of three flexible patterns: four days per week, nine days per fortnight, or a combination of the two.
The programme has been trialled across 100 stores, with 300 trialling a four-day week, 400 testing a nine-day fortnight and 100 choosing to stay at they were. As the trial ended, the nine-day fortnight option proved to be the most popular.
The scheme will go live nationwide next month, bringing 3,000 managers into its scope.
“We’re desperately trying to change the nature of work in retail and attract the best talent to the industry. I want people to know that working in retail can be modern, relevant, and a career worth pursuing,” says Sarah Findlater, M&S group HR director.
“Traditionally [offering managers flexibility] hasn’t been something we thought we could do, so it was quite a brave move for us. But we were astounded with the results – there was absolutely no detrimental impact at all.”
During the trial, M&S’s HR team monitored how managers’ new working patterns affected store performance, the customer experience, and employee engagement.
“Engagement increased dramatically, both among those taking part in the trial but also in those they were leading,” says Findlater. “The people that decided not to opt for a flexible working option also felt engaged because they felt they had a say over their hours.”
Three-quarters of managers who took part in the trial said working compressed hours had a positive impact on their family life; 73% had more time for themselves; and 79% were better able to balance work and personal life commitments.
The company has also seen staff going the extra mile in return for the flexibility they have been given. Managers are more willing to work additional hours or change their working times to help overcome operational challenges, such as peak trading events, and teams have been working more closely to arrange their shifts to provide sufficient cover.
The people that decided not to opt for a flexible working option also felt engaged because they felt they had a say over their hours” – Sarah Findlater, M&S group HRD
Cohesion between day shift and night shift teams has also improved, says Findlater. “Because some of the managers are working longer days, we’ve found the handover to the night shift teams has been much better as they are crossing over with more colleagues for longer. There’s no longer a quick five-minute handover and then they’ve got to dash – they’re making better use of this time working together.”
M&S has also launched a job share match platform, an idea that was put forward by employees during an International Women’s Day event. Managers can set up a profile outlining their skills and what they would like to work on, and the system then matches them with another person who would like a corresponding work arrangement, so both can apply for roles together.
Around 50 managers are in job share arrangements, including males, females, parents, grandparents, and people who want to spend more time pursuing other interests.
“It’s really early days but [the job share matching service] had lots of interest and we’re really hoping it will allow people to work in the way they want to work,” says Findlater.
As 2023 approaches, Findlater says M&S wants to understand more about how it can enable staff to have progressive and fulfilling careers.
“We’re a broad business with lots of opportunity,” she says. “We work hard to develop our internal talent so people can progress and have meaningful long-term careers with us.”
Investment in skills development is a focus for the business. It operates a product academy to equip staff with the knowledge they need about M&S’s products and services, as well as programmes to help employees develop digital skills to use both in and out of work
A priority for next year will be expanding on what it can offer staff to support their career development and wellbeing, says Findlater.
“We want to continue reviewing what flexible working means and looks like, both in our support centre and our stores. We want to continue to progress our internal talent, and thinking deliberately and consciously about career development,” she says.