by Anh H. Nguyen
Among the myriad of stories circulating on the Internet about Covid-19, one sticks out. On the eve of April 23nd, the moment lockdowns were being lifted nationwide, one restaurant owner summoned his chef from Dien Bien to Hanoi. Since buses and coaches were still disallowed, the owner paid about US$300 for a taxi - a princely sum for transportation. The chef only had a few minutes of notice to get together his scant belongings and arrived in Hanoi at the crack of dawn. The moment he stepped in the musty space, unaired for a whole month, he immediately boiled a pot of cinnamon brew to ward off the funk and set about cleaning the space, buying the ingredients, and running a hundred other errands. A popular hotpot spot in the busiest dining district of Hanoi, the restaurant was slated to welcome its first returning customers that evening.
Lo Viet Hoang, the hotpot chef preparing his restaurant for reopening
This small slice of life speaks to many people, because it relates to business owners going through a difficult transition, it signifies hope in a new stage post Covid-19, and it sparks a undeniably convivial mood. But above all, its noteworthiness lies in the fact that it is so extraordinarily human: it speaks of humble people doing their damnedest to get back on their feet, especially those in the services industry, and the empathy passing between them even in the face of hardship. The taxi indicated that although the business owner wanted his chef back as soon as possible, he also valued his comfort and safety. And for retail owners looking to restaff during this time, empathy matters now more than ever. We highly recommend that our customers in the retail sector put empathy at the core of their staffing strategy moving forward.
Covid-19 affects a whole lot of the population, but for retail and service workers living paycheck to paycheck, the shuttering of businesses means they are barely hanging on. Many have been forced to move back home or drastically cut down on their expenses. Some have worked other gigs - delivering food, for example, to temporarily supplement their income. Some have decided to pursue other lines of work for good. But the majority of retail workers just want to resume their old posts and get back to life pre-Covid-19. Sadly, it is not always feasible from both ends of the rehiring mission.
Business owners in Vietnam are walking a delicate tightrope. Though willing to open stores, they have to carefully balance actual demands versus government regulations and many other expenses, including payroll. To make the restaffing process easier for all parties involved, there are a few suggestions we would like to make:
1. Stay in touch with your employees:
Some retailers deem their staff little more than a statistic to keep in mind when weighing business decisions, but other (better) leaders truly understand the importance of retail workers. If the merchandise is the soul of the business, then the staff is its backbone. Good retail workers often go above and beyond the call of duty for their employers. Establishing a positive relationship with current and former employers not only helps them perform better but also improves the business's reputation. Because of the setbacks many businesses are experiencing and other restrictions, retail workers are in a vulnerable position. During these difficult times, the owners need to reach out to their most valued workers, put themselves in their shoes, and help them out to the best of their ability. When the wind blows over, those acts of kindness will make the rehiring go more smoothly. If for some reasons the workers must absolutely be let go, then some compassion before and after the fact is even more essential.
Staff of a restaurant on Bui Vien Street scrubbing furniture clean in anticipation
2. Evaluate different operating models based on real time data:
Every business owner would love for customers to come back in droves, but reality is often disappointing. Despite their best efforts, many retailers find that the returning traffic is sporadic. The reasons may vary: people are still wary of crowds, budgeting makes it harder to justify shopping, etc.,.. While retailers should do their best to improve the odds with marketing campaigns and such, it may be necessary to take a step back and realize that things have changed and may remain changed for while. In the meantime, retailers should consider re-evaluating their operating hours and starting with a lean team to save on cost. Since circumstances change rapidly, a good approach would be continuously testing the water : mini experiments comparing traffic from shift to shift, day to day, week to week. One thing worth mentioning: in order to correctly deduce store capacity, retailers should look at traffic and visit duration, not sales. Only then could they clearly see the missing opportunity and adjust their operation accordingly. AI computer vision tools using real-time data and providing next-day analysis like Palexy would come in handy for that goal.
Staff allocating based on real-time data
3. Include staff in your decision making process:
When retailers leverage data to come up with flexible operating schedules, they only accomplish half the task. The other half would be deciding whom would be re-installed full time or part time, and whom would be let off permanently. This is difficult to navigate, but if retailers keep empathy in mind, they may gain more than they lose. The first step would be to show their staff their appreciation whether they continue working for them or not. Second of all, local retail teams often possess a well of knowledge pertaining to their particular locations. Retailers may find it beneficent to consult with them and use their insights in tandem with data gleaned from AI analytics tools. Not only will it make reopening more fluid, it also helps establish a sense of camaraderie with their staff. Last of all, to expand on the idea of empathy, employers should strive to be as respectful and transparent with their staff as they could afford to. If the employees feel that the owners have their back and look out for them, they will do their best to ensure the business's success.
Employees included in the business's decision making feels happier and more invested in the company's future.
4, Provide staff with necessary additional training:
It is the retail owners' responsibility to guarantee safety measures for the sakes of both customers and staff. However, people have different level of tolerance for change. While some may adapt well to the new normal, many retail workers may find the present restrictions cumbersome or even oppressive. Others may find going to work scary. Likewise, some customers may find the current measures alienating and deterring them from shopping, while some want the staff to maintain their distance. But behind the face masks, both customers and staff are still the same people. Empathy goes both way and customers are more receptive to sales staff capable of connecting to them. Retail owners should lead by example and be understanding of their staff, then train them to be understanding of customers in turn.