After a tough couple of years, retailers are bracing for more turbulence as we face changes like the digital transformation, massive layoffs and modern employee expectations. Many economists now expect a recession toward the latter half of 2023.

In these uncertain times, many retailers may be tempted to hunker down and cut spending to the bone. Businesses should be cautious and shepherd their resources during coming months but there’s one area where retailers should be careful not to cut back: their front-line teams. This includes sales associates and other critical workers tasked with steering the organization’s ship through these choppy waters.

Now more than ever, retailers need to appreciate the pressures facing their front-line teams and invest in the tech they need to succeed. The key is to make sure you’re investing in the right tech — so you can drive performance gains and deliver real bottom-line results — and this is an area where many retailers are currently failing.

All too often retailers and other front-line employers take a top-down approach that fails to truly empower employees. A recent YOOBIC Front-line Employee Experience survey found that many retail employees feel neglected by employers. Almost two-thirds feel disconnected from leadership, and less than half believe their onboarding process prepared them for their job.

This negativity needs to end. The solution is to stop treating front-line employees like robots who need to be “operationally optimized,” and instead, start treating them like valued colleagues who possess powerful knowledge, experience and insight to make wonderful customer experiences. Smart investments start with viewing your front-line team members as true knowledge workers, and giving them the digital tools that empower them to use their own talent and know-how in order to drive results. By unlocking front-line teams’ potential, retailers can increase retention and strengthen their teams during these turbulent times.

Retain Employees, Retain Knowledge

How can retailers engage and empower their front-line workers? The secret isn’t simply to buy a bunch of new digital tools — it’s to commit to nurturing a culture of knowledge sharing. To turn front-line teams into knowledge workers, you need to start by securing your organization’s institutional knowledge. To begin, make your work a place where employees (new and seasoned) want to stay, and feel motivated to meet the high standards set by their co-workers.

A great way to jump-start this process is to digitize knowledge resources, company protocols, and other workplace procedures. In fact, in YOOBIC’s survey, front-line workers said improved technology at work was one of their top three stress reducers. Give your team the right digital workplace tools, and you have an opportunity to beat front-line burnout and reduce churn. This will also ensure experienced workers don’t abruptly leave and take hard-won institutional knowledge with them.

Digital tools don’t just streamline the employee experience. They enable workers to learn while doing their jobs, constantly boosting their knowledge resources. You can’t pull front-line workers away from their jobs every day for training, but you can bring learning opportunities to them, using engaging, bite-sized learning delivered to their mobile devices. This will ensure team members “buy in” and help them embrace their role as knowledge workers.

Platforms for Ideas and Insights

Knowledge work isn’t just about learning. It’s also about generating new knowledge and ideas and sharing them across your organization to create value and security. For front-line teams, that has historically been difficult, but digital tools are now making it possible.

With the right digital learning platform, employers can empower workers to pass ideas and insights up the chain of management to guide strategic decision making. Leaders can also pass ideas back down the chain to give employees a clear sense of their purpose and the strategic context of the work they do. Together these two capabilities can ensure workers feel heard and invested in.

Knowledge Drives Success

Knowledge sharing can help improve the customer experience and front-line teams keep pace with increasingly plugged-in and well-informed shoppers. Sharing knowledge also can help teams work smarter, instead of harder. This can ensure employees take pride in the value they bring to their organization.

In fact, a recent Gallup survey found engaged employees show up to work more often and get better results. The survey also found that most highly engaged business units see a nearly 80% improvement in absenteeism and a 14% boost in productivity.

That means investing in knowledge tools for front-line workers is a smart way to give your employees better information so they can do their jobs better. It’s also a way to ensure that your employees are truly invested in the work they do, which can reduce burnout, curb employee turnover, boost productivity and ultimately lift bottom-line results. In this economy, such capabilities have never been more important.

Step Up, Create Value

2023 is shaping up to be a challenging year for retailers, and it’s also likely to be tough for front-line workers. The key to driving success, for both retail brands and the workers they rely upon, is to make smart investments in tools that take employee needs and goals seriously. The aim isn’t to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of increasingly exhausted workers — it’s to give them the recognition, respect and resources they need to step up and elevate their performance — and to be able to take pride in the value they deliver.

The reality of modern life is that it isn’t just professionals such as lawyers or doctors who “think for a living.” We all think for a living. To take our businesses to new heights, we need to recognize that fact and embrace the power of our front-line teams to step up and create value.