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COVID-19: 6 tips to reduce employee stress

Screen Shot 2020-09-29 at 10.54.04 AMWith the recent surge in numbers related to COVID-19 comes added stress, especially for c-store and gas operators and staff who continue to meet the needs of Canadian consumers.

Convenience Store News Canada reached out to the Canadian Mental Health Association for advice. The organization shared these six tips to help organizations support employees when comes to managing ongoing stress and uncertainty.

 

  1. Have a plan. Let employees know that you are thinking and looking ahead, that you will stay well-informed and that you can answer the questions they already have: What if I get sick? How do I take time off work? What if my family member contracts the virus? You may want to compile frequently asked questions and direct employees to them often.
  2. Communicate, share and be open. Worry and fear grow in the absence of up-to-date information. Let your employees know that they can expect regular updates from you. Communicate even if the situation remains unchanged.
  3. Empathize. Share that you know it’s stressful. Recognize that it’s okay to be anxious. Remind your employees of resources (EAP) that are available for those who are experiencing stress.
  4. Reassure—as best you can. You can refer to reports indicating that most people who become infected with the virus will recover.
  5. Understand. Recognize when stress has become unmanageable for individual employees. Stress can lead to anxiety and even panic. Some employees may need mental health days and medical intervention in order to cope. Encourage employees to practice self-care activities on-the-job and reassure them that it’s ok to take steps to manage stress, such as relaxation exercises, listening to relaxing music or taking regular breaks. 
  6. Recognize this is not quite ‘business as usual.’ Know that work will likely be impacted—work will slow down (or get busier). Reassure staff that expectations will shift accordingly, and that’s ok. We will get through this! 

Additional resources for employers: 

COVID-19: Practical workforce strategies that put your people first

How to stay emotionally healthy during the coronavirus outbreak


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COVID-19 causes industry-wide labour disruption

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These are challenging times and to a large extent, previous models and economic expectations will have to be revised as our society muscles through this public health crisis. COVID-19 created a shock wave through our economy and is effects on the labour marketing are still being felt and understood.

Currently, Canada has furloughed close to 2.5 million workers with Toronto alone seeing more than a quarter-million people sent home from jobs to stay safe. Will the economy quickly reabsorb these workers once the all-clear has sounded? Indications are that over the short term there will be pent up demand in the market and this could be good news for retail and service sectors. Government economic initiatives will also help spur the economy. However, COVID-19 has created lasting damage to the trade environment and this will be felt over the long term following back to work.

Here are some figures we have been able to source about the impact of COVID-19 on employment in Canada. Restaurants Canada tells OCTANE that there are now more than 800,000 foodservice workers on lay off with 10% of Canada’s restaurants closing permanently. The ING group has reported the economy shrunk by 20% in March with some three million laid off across the country. The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce states that 3% of businesses in the city have closed permanently and 47% see this a strong likelihood in the coming period. There, 86.3% of companies have seen drops in revenue and 60% have had to lay off staff. About 40% of Edmonton businesses have shut down their offices.

Even though gas station and car wash facilities were deemed essential services (most provinces), there is still considerable pain with-in this sector across the country. Customer volumes are down dramatically with people isolating and operators are working hard to keep staff safe. For example, at Valet Car Wash, an eight location full-service chain in Ontario, they had to stopped interior detailing, a key point of revenue, and focus on automated exterior service. The company typically employs just under 200 workers, but the vast majority of Valet’s crews were laid off waiting to see what the future will bring. According to Karen Smith, Valet’s compliance and training manager, “We choose to close interiors for the safety of our employees. We are keeping exteriors open due to the fact it is a zero contact service.”

Valet’s experience is similar to what other operators across the country are finding. As we move forward the labour challenge will be competition from a wide range of businesses for the laid-off employees as the country gets back to work in the months ahead. Already businesses such as c-store, car wash and gas bar were being hit by high rates of turnover and difficulty in recruitment.

Before March, operators across the country had been finding it harder and harder to recruit the staff they needed and to keep the ones they already had in place. Indeed, the number of jobs unfilled in Canada’s private sector had grown. At the end of 2019, the Canadian Federation of Business (CFIB) found almost 435,000 unfilled positions in Canada, a value that is up by nearly 10,000 over last year.

Behind this was a declining labour force where gains in new workers have almost flatlined with an expansion of just 0.2% (BDC). Low wages and limited benefits packages also impacted businesses such as c-store, gas bar and car wash where their capacity to bring in new staff has been negatively impacted by competitive pressures from large operators such as Amazon and Walmart (Walmart is currently advertising job openings for 10,000 workers).

Among the most difficult spots to fill were in the services sector where businesses such as car wash found a 5.1% vacancy rate, a number well above the national average of 3.2%. The retail sector is also where 54% of respondents to a BDC study reported hiring was very difficult. Regionally, the Atlantic (50%) was tops in reporting trouble sourcing new hires. BC was next up at 45% with 40% of Ontario respondents telling BDC they had Human Resource (HR) challenges. Hardest hit were small businesses with between 5 and 49 employees. The study found 49% of businesses in the 5-9 worker set had real difficulty finding new staff with 55% of 10-19 worker enterprises reporting major challenges and 58% in the 20-49 worker group finding HR grief.

The Convenience Industry Council of Canada (CCIC) is a national body dedicated to convenience sector advocacy, research and education. Recently they took an in-depth look at British Columbia’s labour market. Findings mirrored other studies and showed specifically that the c-gas channel was being hammered by hiring and retention challenges. Industry participants to a round table discussion told moderators that:

  • Employees of any kind were difficult to find but especially difficult to find suitable ones.
  • They found very low response rates from ads.
  • They were interested in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and found they could rely on that program to help fill positions but with recent program changes such as application fee increases and more paperwork, the process became more onerous and stressful.
  • Present staff is mostly students and mostly part-time. These workers tend to be very hard to retain and they quit easily often without notice.
  • Retention cost for employers is about $4,000 (e.g., it costs about $4,000 to recruit and provide each new employee with approximately 50 hours of initial training). After all that training, however, employers can’t pay wages high enough to recruit and retain high-quality people.

Help at hand

At Valet Car Wash, Smith reports they recruit using organizations such as Second Chance in Guelph, the YMCA and use federal government programs to assist with training. They also turn to Indeed, Facebook and through word of mouth. “Friends tell friends if the employment environment is good,” she says adding that they seek employees who are a good fit with Valet’s core values. “When the fit is there, retention is high. During our interview, I tell applicants about our values and ask them to give two examples of core values they possess,” she says mentioning that road signs can also be effective.

“We also use the local universities and colleges online career pages to post job openings and have had some success with the local high-schools co-op program, resulting in hiring after the co-op term finished, this includes students with disabilities, who have developed into valuable employees.

“Give some thought to the questions you want to ask in the interview, you want to make sure the applicant is qualified and understands the adverse conditions they will be working in; weather, noise, physical, fast-paced.  Not only do you want to hire qualified staff that can do the job, but employers also have to consider if they have the right personality to fit into the culture of your business.”

Smith tells OCTANE that at Valet they don’t do exit interviews with general labour, but do so for managers and supervisors who leave. She comments that this final talk with an exiting staffer can offer tremendous insight into working challenges every business faces. “The goal is continuous improvement in everything we do.”

Are temporary foreign workers still a viable option given the current state of affairs? The short answer is yes, especially once the dust settles from COVID-19 labour challenges and the economy corrects. Foreign temporary worker numbers have been climbing as Canada faces labour market shortages. By 2017 Canada had over 214,000 foreign temporary workers. This is a number that is up by 50% from 2015 and reveals a strong trend across the country.

“Restaurants, c-stores and gas stations can be challenging environments for hiring,” suggests Parvinder Burn, director with Canadian Immigration Centre, a consultancy specializing in student visa, business immigration and skilled foreign workers. He has seen Tim Horton’s locations with 110% turnover, gas and c-stores that are finding it tough to compete with wage and benefits from other businesses, and sites where temporary workers fill entire staffing cohorts. “Having skilled workers come in from other countries can be a good solution to these challenges. However, we see that businesses are both confused and intimidated by the government paperwork and regulations.”

Originally published in the May/June issue of OCTANE.


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7-Eleven teams up with Microsoft to empower field employees

7-Eleven Inc. is using modern workplace solutions, data services and devices from Microsoft to empower field employees and provide better business insight to franchisees.

The convenience store operator is equipping these field employees, who serve as the connection between headquarters and its franchisees, with Microsoft Surface devices that use Microsoft 365 and Power BI.

This provides franchisees with better insight from corporate into their store’s performance, purchase trends and other data to help them grow their business.

“Franchisees have a significant role to play in our transformation, and empowering them with the right information is critical,” said Gurmeet Singh, 7-Eleven executive vice president, chief digital, chief information and chief marketing officer. “Our collaboration with Microsoft enables us to get data out to Franchisees through our field employees that they can use to make better business decisions.”

Power BI dashboards help field employees to spot trends and visualize insights from point-of-sale data stored and analyzed by Azure Data Lake and Azure SQL Data Warehouse. This enables them to recommend actions to franchisees, boosting sales and ensuring the right products are stocked to meet customer demand, the company said.

Additionally, franchisees can take pictures of their store’s schematics using the Surface camera, which allows them to quickly identify differences from the planogram that they can use to analyze sales opportunities.

“Unlocking the power of data is the key to reinventing the future and delivering amazing customer experiences in the retail industry,” said Shelley Bransten, corporate vice president of worldwide retail and consumer goods industries, Microsoft Corp. “We’re thrilled to empower 7-Eleven’s field and franchisees with the services, knowledge and devices to innovate on behalf of their customers wherever they are in their shopper journey.”

Field employees will be able to use Surface as their mobile office; use Microsoft OneDrive to give them real-time access to the latest corporate assets; and use Microsoft Intune to provide the security capabilities needed for a mobile workforce, with the ability to remotely manage devices and protect data.

7-Eleven is also migrating its infrastructure to Azure and leveraging advanced technologies such as AI to power enhanced customer experiences. The companies expect to apply future collaborations across intelligent and emerging technologies such as AI, data analytics and blockchain to drive even greater insight, efficiencies and customer experiences across its business, the convenience retailer announced.

Irving-based 7-Eleven operates, franchises and/or licenses more than 68,000 stores in 17 countries, including 11,800 in North America.

Originally published at Convenience Store News.


How c-store chains are using technology to connect with employees

labor-technology-teaserOver the past several years, there have been countless conversations around technology in the convenience channel.

However, many of the conversations revolve around consumer-facing technology. How can convenience store retailers tap into innovation to reach their shoppers? Is it through digital signage? Messaging at the pump? Loyalty programs? A mobile app?

Yet, there is another side to the tech coin: employee-facing technology.

A growing number of c-store operators are turning to tech solutions to manage everything from communicating with employees to scheduling.

“In technology, you are always chasing the bouncing ball because consumer expectations, and client expectations, change fast and get more demanding every time. We clearly see that in our industry. Consumers have ever-increasing expectations of what retailers can do for them,” said Rick Sales, president of Abierto Networks, a digital engagement technology provider.

“But what I think is interesting, and what we are discovering, is that sometimes retailers forget that their employees are consumers, too,” he added, noting that retailers also need to look at their employees as consumers of the information they are trying to get across.

“If you look at your employee as a consumer of information, then you can appreciate that, with information presented at the right time and in the right way, you can modify the behavior of an employee just as you can modify a behavior of a consumer,” Sales explained.

Here’s an insider look at three U.S.-based c-store chains using technology to connect with employees:

SHEETZ INC.

The Altoona, Pa.-based convenience store retailer is utilizing Abierto Networks’ employee engagement kiosks. The kiosks are deployed at all Sheetz stores as a key piece of the retailer’s employee engagement and internal communications strategy. Through the kiosks, Sheetz can relay store metrics to employees and mix that in with other messages — such as store meetings, uniform ordering, training tips, and employee recognition like birthdays and anniversaries.

KUM & GO LC

The Des Moines, Iowa-based convenience store chain is partnering with Branch, a mobile-first technology provider that helps organizations increase schedule and financial flexibility for hourly employees. Through Branch, Kum & Go associates can now find coverage for their shifts by sending notice out to everyone in the district. Since deployment, general managers have gone from covering two to three extra shifts a week to maybe one per month.

GOLDEN PANTRY FOOD STORES

The Watkinsville, Ga.-based operator of 37 c-stores earlier this year selected HotSchedules, a provider of workforce and back-office solutions for the retail, restaurant and hospitality industries, to support its scheduling, forecasting and labor management initiatives. Employees can leverage HotSchedules — whether through the app or online — to request time off, trade shifts and change availability. Managers can build schedules based upon employee availability. In addition, built into the platform are compliance needs specific to state regulations like overtime, child labor or predictive scheduling.

Originally posted at Convenience Store News.