Making business more human: How one retailer put people first in response to the pandemic

Dawid Papież / July 2020

While the full extent of the pandemic’s economic cost continues to unfold, it’s clear that retail has been one of the industries hardest hit. High street shutters were pulled down as retailers around the world reduced workforces or furloughed staff. Survival in crisis means adapting. And while turning around a cruise liner may be a lot more difficult than a sailboat, it’s the agility and vision of upper management that matters most.

When other retailers scrambled to understand the implications of lockdown, leaders at Eobuwie — a Polish footwear company — reacted quickly in an effort to save jobs. By focusing on its people, the company not only managed to save jobs, it also had a widespread impact on culture and organisation.

People-centric decision making

When faced with a crisis, businesses usually react in one of two ways: cut expenses and ride out the storm, or invest in what works. In late February, while the gravity of the pandemic was still sinking in across Europe, Eobuwie took the decision to invest in what worked best: its people.

The company moved swiftly by offering new roles to over 400 people at their logistics centres. Former brick-and-mortar staff quickly adapted thanks to agile onboarding and the fact that the centres used the same technology as the stores. The e-commerce staff was directed to work from home and the entire switch was complete within just five days.

Opening channels of communication

While it might have felt that the world outside was going through the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, Eobuwie acted quickly to put its people at ease. The company moved to ensure teams that they could rely on the organisation.

This went beyond the economic impact. Eobuwie found that one of the biggest challenges it faced during the transition period was the psychological impact of uncertainty on its people.

The brand took measures to ensure its staff could lean on management and colleagues for support and safety. It worked to open channels of communication and support networks that enabled staff to adapt.

Navigating teams through uncertain times has meant brands across the region have adopted more human approaches to doing business. It often takes a crisis for real cultural change within an organisation to happen, and change can mean very simple tweaks. From daily check-in calls and morale building events to more flexible schedules and mental support lines. Working from home or moving teams around comes with obstacles that go beyond technology. Being human, building trust, and providing support is key to success.

Marcin Grzymkowski, CEO at Eobuwie, says both teams adapted easily to their new work environments thanks to “attitude, flexibility, and efficiency”. The footwear retailer understood that with the right support in place, talent can adapt to change.

At the logistics centre, Eobuwie took measures to ensure employee health and safety. This included regularly taking the temperature of staff, adhering to strict social distancing, using visors, and sanitising the entire centre throughout the day and each workstation at the end of shifts. A company that puts its workforce first and values people, is a company that builds a strong brand with customers.

“Taking care of our employees’ health and safety is one of the most important things we can do to protect our clients. There is no choice between employee and customer well-being, because they both are complementary to one another,” explains Grzymkowski.

Decisive leadership holds everything together

The world will eventually move beyond COVID-19, but businesses will continue to face a range of crises. Overcoming a crisis means having the right people in place and valuing the human factor. Remote collaboration and communication has been made possible by the technology and tools companies have available, but it takes decisive leadership that can build trust and supports teams to hold an organisation together. “Walls do not create an organisation, teams do,” adds Grzymkowski.

Walls do not create an organisation, teams do.

2020 has been a turbulent year (so far) with multiple lessons. For many of us the division between professional and personal lines have blurred. This puts even more emphasis on brands’ responsibilities to take care of both by rethinking company culture.

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