Retailer keeps staff healthy and happy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am

In the physically and emotionally demanding retail world, particularly on the shop floor, being treated with care and consideration by your employer can make all the difference.

One brand-name retailer, with eight outlets in Hong Kong, puts work-life balance and employee wellness high on its list of priorities.

Marks & Spencer (Asia-Pacific) head of human resources, Sandra Asnani, said employees' health and happiness formed a key part of the company's business strategy.

'This is because we need a healthy, efficient, effective and stable workforce to deliver our five core values - quality, value, service, innovation and trust,' said Ms Asnani, who was also a speaker at this week's 2007 Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management Annual Conference. Marks & Spencer's work-life balance strategy includes a five-day working week on a rota basis, with a Saturday and Sunday and two consecutive days off each month. It also has an employee wellness programme which operates counselling services and small group workshops, and a hotline.

'We help people handle stress, but we also run workshops on parenting and other smaller workshops which are not work-related, such as how to get into a better relationship with the opposite sex,' Ms Asnani explained.

This approach has particular relevance in Hong Kong, given the long working hours and equally long working week in the retail industry.

'It's an industry with an irregular working pattern, which makes it really difficult to fit in a normal social and family life,' she said. 'In Hong Kong, a six-day working week is common in retail - it's not easy and it's not a must that people get a day off on weekends or public holidays, as that's the busiest time.'

The business is also regarded as being more physically demanding than most. 'It's about running around all the time, providing a service and maintaining a store, so under normal trading circumstances the turnover of staff is pretty high when compared to other industries,' Ms Asnani said.

But Marks & Spencer has a stable, reliable, experienced and knowledgeable workforce thanks to its commitment to the work-life balance principle. 'We see it as a key drive in delivering retail strategy,' she said.

This approach has been in operation since Marks & Spencer was established here in 1988, and globally since the company was set up in Britain more than a century ago.

'It's part of our principle to give good terms and conditions of employment and really care for the individual,' Ms Asnani said.

The results speak for themselves. The average years of service in Hong Kong is more than six and more than 25 per cent of frontline staff have been with the retailer for 10 years or longer.

The company has a solid foundation for talent retention, business succession, knowledge transfer and people development.

'Eighty per cent of promotional opportunities are through internal promotion in our business and this has been going from strength to strength since we became established in Hong Kong,' Ms Asnani said.

'Even in hard times, with the economic downturn, the business has been resilient. Every time we have bounced back because we have good people who are committed and know how to make the business a success.'

During the 2003 Sars crisis, for example, when many retailers suffered severely, she said the company was able to bounce back and even achieved its maximum business target for 2003 and 2004. This largely reflects the effort, commitment and motivation from Marks & Spencer.

Not many retail operations follow the company's example and Ms Asnani said that those who were considering going the work-life route should take the plunge as it paid dividends.