Building Trust In A Retail Workforce Threatened By Automation

0aaaDr Mathew Donald1

The retail space has changed through technology over recent years, be that through the replacement of cash by card, introduction of scanners or business to business (B2B) integration. The emerging technology may transform retail more fundamentally than in the past, where artificial intelligence (AI), logarithms and faster hardware may combine to produce new technological capabilites. As 5G emerges with faster communication speeds that will aid greatly improved location accuracy, new AI and robotic solutions for retail may present themselves.

Despite the potential changes in technology, any future changes are more likely to emerge in waves over time than as a single large-scale change. Any new retail technology is likely to only be implemented only when it is able to demonstrate improvements in functionality and capabilities.

The retail sector may have significant opportunities for AI and robots to deliver improved efficiencies, reduced costs or improvements in service. Many large retailers may already auto-replenish stock levels from daily sales data, or pick and dispatch with little human intervention, yet the new technology will likely have human elements of logic, learning and decision making. It is quite likely that emerging retail technology may include, at some point, robotic auto shelf packing in-store, or auto fronting up of retail stock, or driverless transport, or even eventual direct customer service by robots.


Despite these possibilities, it is likely that human staff and management will remain in workplaces for some time to come, where humans will likely be required for the tasks not able to be completed by technology.

Leadership roles are classically responsible for organisational direction, where leaders propose strategy and gain approval from investors before setting agreed targets. Once a direction has been agreed with goals, leaders will usually set out to engage and influence a wide range of stakholders towards accepting and supporting their decisions.

Stakeholders, including staff, require a certain level of trust and engagement before they are likely to follow a leader’s direction. Leadership trust depends on past relations, past delivery and outcomes, so it is not something that can be easily improved by a one-off presentation. If trust declines then it is likely that stakeholders may stop listening to leadership messages or may fail to engage.

To minimise staff stress and disillusionment, leaders need to be visible and involved in change, where openness and engagement are likely to be additional leadership factors that may be required in conjunction with trust. Irrespective of how well leaders communicate a change, they need to have a combination of trust and engagement — otherwise staff and other stakeholders may not believe that they have been heard.

At some future point the level of knowledge and decision making capabilities of the technology may match or even surpass the human. When technology presents reliable human capabilities it is likely they may be put in charge, where the change may yield staff being unwilling to work for the emerging robotic managers.

As retail technological advancement is likely to replace tasks, staff may become stressed if elements of their jobs are replaced over time. Fair to say that in the early phases of the technology, robots and AI may not be very social or have capacity for empathy, rather they may prefer to work constantly and only stop for scheduled maintenance. So staff may find it difficult to work in an environment that has less human interaction or social inteactions.

Customers may like any emerging reliability of robot and AI knowledge, or may like their consistency or even their intiative. Conversely, staff may be considerably worried about their skill sets and future employment as robots and AI emerge and takeover work. The choices between staff and customer interests may be difficult for leaders to balance. It may not be easy to avoid new technology, especially where competitors deploy new technology and gain advantage. Changing direction without explanation may yield declines in staff trust.

Leading may be particularly difficult in retail, where some leaders may prefer to remain remote to staff, or dislike having to constantly explain changes. As indicated in recent research, leadership and engagement are important to organisational change success, so those that are unable to alter their leadership style may be unable to influence and move the organization forward.

Staff, in retail in particular, will need time to hear and digest messages before they can accept or support any proposed change. Leaders should engage and communicate more regularly if staff are to appreciate the reasons for technology emerging and taking their jobs.

To create an enviroment with trust, leaders need to be believed, not just in the short term but over an extended period of time. Communication is one of the ways that leaders can attempt to build trust by setting out information that is useful for stakeholders. Communication has many aspects, so the leader should consider styles of language, regularity of communication, a variety of communication forms, and yet consider the diversity of the audience. Communication needs are by no means homogenous, so a leader of the future should consider and rate all elements of communication at their disposal before delivering any speeches.

The retail sector has a diverse range of skills, where some staff may prefer face-to-face communication in a warehouse, others may like newsletters or others may prefer offsite presentations and social media.

Where jobs are under threat of change it may be particularly difficult for staff. Some may argue for a halt to future technology advancement, especially if they are not adequately informed. Leaders may be best advised to explain the competitive and investment pressures, whilst showing the various benefits of any technology.

Decision making should not be hidden from staff, they should be included in the process of developing options and evaluating. Staff trust will be improved if they can appreciate why technology change is ongoing, why it may appear to be fast, or appreciate why leaders may not always be able to predict technology improvements in this uncertain environment.

Staff may not always like the decisions towards new technology, yet if they can see their leaders being open and honest with closer relations, they may respect leadership decisions and be in a position to support or follow.

Apart form informing staff about ongoing technology change, it is clear in the research that stakeholders will benefit from engagement and participation in change decisions. Leaders that do not like staff scrutiny or closer relations, may find that they lose the trust of their staff, customers and investors.

In building new relationships with retail staff, the leader of the future may need to acquire advanced skills in communication, negotiation or inclusiveness if they are to be effective. Engagement with staff and other stakeholders of this new age is more than asking a few occasional questions, more than an annual speech. It is only with genuine engagement and inclusion that retail staff will be able to trust their leaders and follow in an evironment that constantly changes and changes their roles.


Leading and Managing Change in the Age of Disruption and Artificial Intelligence by Dr. Mathew Donald is out now, published by Emerald Publishing, priced £65. For more information go to

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