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Retail Trends 2021: People, employment and changing social and cultural norms

10 February 2021

From workforce planning to equality and diversity, bullying and harassment to mental health, both COVID-19 and Brexit are bringing many changes to the workforce, we consider the key trends for retailers in 2021. 

Workplace culture will be a top priority in 2021. The pandemic has presented retailers with unprecedented challenges; as we continue to adapt to the changing world, a key issue for businesses is how to maintain an inclusive and prosperous workplace during these extraordinary times. With reports from the Office for National Statistics showing 160,000 job losses in the retail sector between February and November 2020, retailers in 2021 will need to juggle fostering a positive workplace culture, reassuring and supporting colleagues, with consolidation and re-engineering the business in a streamlined way.  

Key themes impacting retail include:

Workforce planning 
As retailers are planning for the rest of the year, a key focus will not only be on labour supply, but also the roles colleagues undertake at work. From restructuring in light of the pandemic, to sickness related staff availability issues to free movement challenges following Brexit, retailers are having to deal with an ever changing set of workforce planning challenges. Added to this is the move to online retail channels, click and collect provision and other new services. 

During 2020 we have seen a marked difference across retail, at one end of the spectrum we have sales downturns and temporary store closures and at the other grocery has seen overwhelming demand. With the end of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme in April 2021, increased demand for online shopping and a vaccine programme in motion it is essential for retailers to look ahead and plan to ensure labour supply meets demand. For those retailers carrying out redundancies, it is important for a redundancy procedure to be fair and transparent with consultation taking place at the formative stage. Furloughed employees who are then made redundant may feel that the decision to make them redundant has been pre-judged and no meaningful consultation has taken place. We predict a raft of claims on this basis.  

Moving forward we may see an increase in the number of contingent workers to help improve efficiencies as retailers adapt to the changing environment. Many retailers will be looking to build a flexible and agile workforce to help weather the unpredictable year ahead.  

Increased demand for online services means that there are new opportunities within organisations and retailers should consider how to divert colleagues with relevant skills to alternative roles as part of workforce planning. 

Equality and diversity 
Diversity and inclusion should be a focus for retailers when thinking about re-designing business in light of the pandemic, particularly as there has been a huge growth in equality claims arising out of the pandemic.  Ever looking for an opportunity in even the most challenging times, there is an opportunity for retailers to become the organisations they aspire to be, although this will take careful thought and understanding due to the impact that COVID-19 has had on those with protected characteristics.

COVID-19 presents a greater risk to individuals who are clinically vulnerable, including pregnant women, older workers and workers with certain disabilities. There is also evidence that the virus has a disproportionate impact on certain ethnicities. In addition, those with childcare responsibilities may well have struggled during the various lockdowns and may need extra flexibility during intermittent school closures. Fostering a supportive and dynamic culture is key and retailers will be judged on the action they take now to support and protect their employees and customers. 

Bullying and harassment 
With many people under added pressure and increased anxiety, the potential for bullying and harassment is heightened. Those in high pressure management roles may behave uncharacteristically towards their team members due to the pressure and those at the coal face will naturally be more anxious about what they are facing and will be more sensitive. Added to this customers and suppliers will also reflect the current pressurised climate and claims of bullying and harassment are more likely to follow. When working from home or in reduced capacity offices or stores, accountability is also diminished. It is essential for leaders within the retail sector to drive positive workplace behaviours and remind employees of the expected standard. Instances of misconduct should be dealt with appropriately and employees should feel empowered to call out unacceptable behaviour.  

Mental health 
With the combination of lockdowns, financial worries, redundancies and health concerns, many individuals are struggling to cope. Retailers should be prioritising the mental well-being of their workforce and offering as much support as possible. From support networks to individual one-to-one check-ins, employees should not feel isolated. Retailers should consider creating easy mechanisms to help monitor mental health and to listen to employees' concerns. Even those stores and site continuing to operate during COVID-19 need support as the stress associated with dealing with customers not wearing face coverings and from the day to day worry about coming into contact with someone with COVID-19 is a significant concern for many. 

COVID-19 related claims 
We expect there to be a significant number of employment tribunal claims in 2021 with retailers carrying out large-scale redundancies, grappling with the mechanics of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, balancing various protected characteristics and health and safety concerns.  

In addition we are also at the early stages of understanding the true impact of long-COVID and whether it will amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. A person has a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if they have a physical or mental impairment and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person's ability to carry out normal day to day activities. It isn't difficult to see how this definition could be met depending on the long-term (12 months or more) nature of the illness. Retailers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for their disabled employees and must ensure they are not discriminated against. 

Employee relations and fostering a positive culture should be absolute top priorities to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19 related claims. Employers which are able to collaborate with their workforce in a supportive and transparent manner should reap the benefits.   


The pandemic has presented significant challenges for retailers; however there are also huge opportunities. The crisis has presented a real sense of unity in some UK workplaces.  Employers and employees have collaborated to keep everyone safe and as many as possible in employment.  

Creating a safe and inclusive environment does not just avoid expensive litigation. A poor workplace culture can lead to a number of issues including: poor performance, increased sick leave, high turnover of staff, grievances, claims of discrimination, difficulties recruiting and a tarnished reputation. Company culture filters down from the top to the rest of the workforce. It is of paramount importance for leadership to take responsibility for setting a positive culture, built on trust and authenticity. Employers which have been able to motivate, support and unify their employees during the most difficult of times will inevitably triumph.  

If you have any questions or would like more information please contact Kirsty Rogers, Partner or Charlotte Lloyd-Jones, Professional Support Lawyer. 

Find out more about the other big trends impacting the retail industry this year

Further Reading