After the automation in recent years, we are on the eve of more robotics applications in the physical store. But is that the right step? Els de Wind is head of the International Labour Law Team at Van Doorne and primarily works at the intersection of labour law and corporate law. She works on efficiency, but also advocates solidarity in the workplace.
In her practice, De Wind has already seen a number of companies replace part of their employees for automated systems with robotics. ‘I have closed down factories for clients in retail. For others, reorganisation processes have been implemented and quite often a considerable number of employees had to be fired.’ Some businesses manage to handle such a transition with a natural employee turnover and by guiding people to other, partly more high-quality work. But not always. At the same time, retailers expect massive growth in 2019 and there are positive comments about employment and investment. With 883,000 jobs, retail is currently one of the largest employment sectors. In a recent ABN Amro report, 16% of retailers even indicated that the pressure on the labour market threatens to obstruct their business operations.
It’s currently a true challenge for retailers to optimally arrange their mix of part-timers, flex workers, people with a zero-hour contract and also full-time managers. In the Netherlands, 30 percent of the employees consists of flex workers, which is more than in the rest of Europe (22%, source: RetailNews). But the government now comes with new legislation to reduce the number of flex workers. The Dutch act WAB (Wet Arbeidsmarkt in Balans, in English: Labour Market in Balance Act), that takes effect on 1 January 1 2020, should stimulate employers to hire more permanent staff. For De Wind and her team this means being extra alert to contract changes. The changes will mainly affect retailers, that employ relatively more young people and flex workers on the shop floor. An advantage of the new legislation for this group is that they can get more certainty from the employer faster. And if, for example, this enables you to buy a house, it will also create more loyalty and commitment to the employer. A good thing, especially at a time when qualified people are scarce.
Who is left?
Area of tension - In the years to come we will discover the limits of collecting all that data around a product’s use. Retail chains must carefully think about the way they deal with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). For example, can a producer, distributor, retailer or end customer get a discount when disclosing data around the logistics process or during or after the use of a product? We are heading straight for a data dictatorship. With a healthy area of tension between the transparency a retailer strives for on the one hand and the privacy that the end user demands on the other.
Employers who have a lot to offer keep their staff longer. And that doesn’t even mean that they pay the highest of salaries; atmosphere and craftsmanship is also very important in the company. Being able to learn and further develop, especially at the start of your career, is a good reason to stay as well. De Wind: ‘We see this at Van Doorne; it’s important for people to enjoy themselves at work. For this purpose, we regularly organise informal meetings: having dinner together, going to the bar. Another environment stimulates another type of conversations, which is very nice.’
De Wind is alert to new developments but she is also clear about far-reaching automation and efficiency: ‘To me, people without a social working environment is a doom scenario. So many people work from home or a coffee bar.’ As a result, loyalty to the client or employer will undoubtedly decrease as people have little connection with their work. ‘In the legal profession we also see that younger employees want more attention for the work-life balance. At the same time, there is an increasing urge for efficiency and cost savings, also from clients. This requires a lot from employees, especially when they are still young and inexperienced’, De Wind concludes somewhat concerned.
How do we keep working together as good and fun as possible? These are questions that all employers should ask themselves, especially at a time when it’s not always easy to find and keep the right people.