Accenture column

In the depths of the COVID-19 crisis, with stores closed and orders canceled, many of the biggest names in fashion were wondering whether their businesses could survive the year.

Fast forward a few months and the future seems brighter. Fashion brands are anticipating a recovery of pent-up demand and long-awaited creativity on the post-pandemic catwalks. Many are even striving to create a more sustainable sector, one that has been reset for a new world.

For these forward-looking brands, now is the time to ensure that the workforce is ready. After meeting the immediate challenges of lockdown — focusing on safety protocols for store staff, pivoting corporate employees to remote working; increasing staff to online channel fulfillment — they are striving to embed the skills, ways of working and workplace organization that underpin a future-ready workforce.

But digital technology and new skills are only part of the story. As much as 64 percent of an individual’s potential relies on their sense of wellbeing in the workplace, and wellbeing is influenced by several factors. For around one in two employees, the ethical, sustainable and moral values that a company holds is vital. For others, the crucial ingredient is that they are seen, listened to and respected — as enabled by inclusion and diversity.

The good news is that leadership wants to take action. The pandemic brought the office and home closer together than ever before, giving leaders insight into their people’s lives and potential need for care and support. At the same time, leaders became aware of the limitations that remote working in terms of maintaining a purpose-driven culture.

Jill Standish, senior managing director and head of global Retail practice at Accenture

Jill Standish, senior managing director and head of global Retail practice at Accenture  Courtesy Image

Reflecting the scale of the challenges ahead, a whole new approach to the workforce may be needed — one that reviews, reimagines and reinvents the nature of fashion work.

Review what work looks like

The physical fashion store will always have a place in consumers’ hearts, but the restrictions imposed by the pandemic are changing how consumers engage with brands. Many fashion companies were already exploring how technology could help them serve consumers in new ways, but the crisis has made many accelerate these efforts.

Today, as consumers increasingly expect personalization and customization as standard, success means satisfying demand for physical assortments while generating additional revenue streams through a single, integrated marketplace.

To enable innovation on this scale, brands need to review workforce capabilities and rethink how roles and responsibilities are deployed. One U.S. retailer, with a significant clothing and apparel presence, consolidated its digital and store teams into a single merchandising organization to avoid duplication and better serve the customer.

Ask yourself, how will your workforce serve the new consumer? Which value drivers will differentiate your organization and win loyalty? And which culture and capabilities will you need to enable that vision?

Reimagine who does what — and where

As brands use technology to enhance the customer experience, digital-savvy employees become increasingly valuable. Intelligent technologies, used to augment human intelligence, play an important role here.

One thing is for sure, that the pandemic became the catalyst for creativity and ingenuity — especially around how to connect with consumers who were shopping from their homes. One jewelry retailer in the U.S. turned their store staff to remote consultants by using iPads from their homes to connect and advise customers in their jewelry purchases.

In addition to new digital customer experiences, the pandemic also brought a renewed focus on talent — namely the critical skills to support this unpredictable and yet increasingly digital shopping future. Up-skilling around digital and analytics are certainly in-demand and some are finding it easier to train their own staff through up-skilling rather than recruiting from the outside.

Some fashion retailers are already making progress here. U.K. high-street retailer M&S has established a data science academy to up-skill staff in machine learning and programming languages such as R. In specific markets, experts are concerned that digital skills are increasingly difficult for fashion brands to come by. Whatever the approach, we see that businesses whose people use digital creatively are almost three times more likely to have boosted revenue growth by 20 percent or more in the past three years; they are more than five times more likely to maintain these growth rates over the next three years.

Brands should ask whether their people have a spirit of innovation and a passion for learning. They should explore which skills they need, which skills are becoming less relevant, and how they can acquire new talent.

Reinvent the status quo

As businesses contemplate the world after COVID-19, they are preparing to transform how their teams operate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is employees themselves who are calling for a permanent change to the status quo. Research has shown employees who had never worked from home, pre-pandemic, want to retain the option to do so in the future. “Hybrid” seems to be how many are describing the combination of work from home and office. The question that should be asked is the definition of this for your firm. How many days per week will your corporate staff work from their home office? And, what does this mean for the home office layout and office space? In addition, what does this mean in terms of expectations to be within a commutable distance from the headquarters. It may be that remote work will allow brands to tap into a new talent pool by removing these location restrictions.

Given these new trends, there are some key questions to ask: What is your work location strategy? Can your processes eliminate duplication and streamline decision making? How will you meet employees’ new working needs? And how can you protect the culture when the workforce is more disparate than ever before?

Conclusion: Unlocking the full potential

How can businesses create a culture that supports tomorrow’s workforce? It starts with authentic, visible and decisive leadership.

In practice, this may mean taking a new look at core values and purpose and ensuring that these are not just communicated but experienced by the workforce. We all learned that remote work is viable and that it may be here to stay. Staying close to your team, using new and creative collaboration tools, and focusing on continuous learning will help everyone advance and thrive. Lastly, figuring a way to collaborate with external partners who can fill talent gaps and over time transfer skills may be the way to jumpstart this journey.

Leading retailers are showing a way forward. The time to join them is now.

Jill Standish is senior managing director and global head of Accenture’s Retail Industry Group.

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