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Keeping employee morale up can be difficult in the best of times. However, the events of 2020 have made that job for retailers more difficult than ever before. Some retailers have been forced to lay off employees, which has resulted in their shops being understaffed. Others are fighting the ultimate struggle of work-life balance because they’ve had to work from home or have employees who are trying to work and manage kids attending school from home.  And everyone is dealing with the stress and extra work involved in sanitizing stores, maintaining safety standards, and finding new ways to serve customers.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to maintaining morale in difficult times. Each business is different based on its business model, size, location and other factors. Additionally, every team is different; with each person handling stress differently. As a result, retailers need to adjust their approach based on their team as a whole as well as addressing the needs of each individual team member.

Difficult Times

Gretchen Meienburg is the owner of Urban Tails in Houston, Pampered Pets Bed and Biscuit in Napoleon, Ohio and Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and Willow Wood Pet Resort in New Albany, Ohio.  She said they had to lay off about 80 percent of their staff. “However, we kept our core, full-time people who were already cross-trained or were upper management. It was very important to me to keep them on and keep them working.”

Isabella Alcaraz owns the Animal Connection in San Francisco. She never had to lay off employees because shelter-in-place orders caused many of them to leave their jobs. “I had employees who were students at San Francisco State University. When San Francisco implemented shelter-in-place, they had to move out of their dorms and move back home and we actually became short staffed. I hesitated on hiring anyone because a lot of the work we do is caring for boarders. With people not going on vacation, they have no reason to board their animals here. The loss of business from that, on top of our reduced hours, made it possible for me to operate with less staff than normal.”

Dr. Aresue Shokrollahi-McClain, known as “Dr. Zoo” by clients and staff, is the practice owner at Family Animal Hospital in Friendswood, Texas.  “The month of April was especially stressful for employees,” she said. “We’d been short-handed just before COVID hit, but we were actually able to hire during these past few months and made a point to screen for team players. We were able to boost morale as everyone’s load lightened.”

Reduce Uncertainty

When employees are uncertain about their personal lives and don’t know what the future holds at work either, it can be difficult for them to stay positive and motivated. Although you can’t predict the future, you can reassure them about what you do know. Therefore, it’s important to communicate clearly and often

Dr. Zoo’s leadership team feels their employees need to be heard and to participate in problem solving during difficult times, such as deciding how they would limit contact during COVID.

“We meet in the morning to huddle and discuss the events of the day.  This is an opportunity for people to discuss the comfort level with things like our COVID safety practices. It is also a time when we encouraged people to come and privately discuss their individual needs for schedule changes, including some work from home opportunities,” she said.

Meienburg found that her team craved consistency in regards to safety issues at their locations.

“When we have someone who has been exposed to COVID, for example, we’re very consistent in following specific requirements for them to come back to work. It’s important to treat everyone the same, show the same concern, and follow the same processes for everyone; no favoritism.”

Alcaraz said their biggest morale dip came from constant exposure to the public and concerns about the associated risks.

“To combat this, we made sure everyone had a mask. We keep a pack of disposable masks for those who decide to come in without one,” she said, adding that someone from her staff gets tested for COVID every two weeks to ensure that everyone is healthy and doesn’t unknowingly spread disease. “We also enhanced cleaning protocols, keep the doors open when possible, and added fans and air purifiers to keep the space ventilated. I make sure to stay on top of the newest studies and research so I can protect my staff and our customers.”

Be Empathic and Flexible

In Limeade’s 2020 Employee Care Report, “The Hidden Cause of Turnover,” the employee experience software company found that one in three employees have left a job because they didn’t feel their employer cared about them as a person. One in five left a job because their employer didn’t support their well-being. It’s important for retailers to take the time to talk with employees about stress and challenges they might be experiencing.

“Keeping my staff happy is a top priority of mine,” Alcaraz noted. “They are the backbone of my store.”

Additionally, being more flexible than normal with policies can help everyone get through difficult times with less stress.

“We had a pretty strict attendance policy with a point system before COVID,” said Meienburg, “However, now I’ve really been more relaxed with that. Fortunately, people who work in the pet industry tend to miss being around the dogs. They’re therapeutic. These are jobs that can help people with the stress.”

Reduce Stress

When your staff is focused on helping others and giving back to the community, they’re less focused on problems or things that bring them down or stress them out.

“We’ve opened up a pet food bank to give away free food to those who have been financially or otherwise personally impacted by COVID-19,” Alcaraz said. “It’s rewarding to give back to our community and I think doing programs like this puts our privilege into perspective. My staff and I always try to remember that we are lucky to still be operational and open to the public. Running charitable programs is a great reminder of that.”

Show Your Appreciation

Whether it’s someone’s birthday, your store’s anniversary, Global Cat Day (October 16) or National Fetch Day (October 17), find a reason to have fun and unwind. Taking a break to have fun reduces stress, increases productivity, and reinforce a sense of community many people crave during difficult times.

“With little interaction with clients and our locations having only about four to five people, those people have become really close. They really helped each other out and worked really well together,” said Meienburg, “They also like to get a little silly. Without customers in the store, they can play the music they want, be more relaxed, and didn’t have to be as ‘proper’ as they normally did, which was motivating.”

When Dr. Zoo’s business received their PPP, she gave her employees bonuses for risking their lives during COVID. They hospital also created “Essential Employee” t-shirts for their staff to commemorate their dedication.

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