A Practical Guide to Workforce Performance in Peak Season

In brief:

  • For retailers and distributors, the busiest time of year is approaching. 
  • Leaders within retail and distribution organizations need to move their focus from driving efficiency to maximizing throughput.
  • With the right workforce-enabling techniques, you’ll position your company for peak performance in peak season.

Believe it or not, the holidays are approaching. For many of us, this time of year conjures images of gift-shopping, seasonal recipes, and festive family gatherings. But for retailers and distributors, it means one thing: the busiest time of the year. The operational playbook for peak season intentionally looks very different than the one used during the remaining months of the year. The best way to prepare your workforce for peak season is by shifting the focus from decisions that drive efficiency to decisions that ensure maximum throughput. In this blog post, we explore key decisions that are sure to prepare your workforce for the busy months ahead.

Identify required skills and qualifications, and create a plan to close any gaps.

Distribution leaders should first identify the most critical job functions in their facility and cross-train a large share of associates for those specific functions. Cross-training is an essential tool leadership can use to flexibly float associates as utility players in the event of unexpected absences or volume spikes. From a hiring perspective, assess the most needed skillsets in your facility in relation to peak season forecasts. Emphasize those skills as you hire. 

Overcome inorganic attrition with employee empowerment.

For many retailers with large e-commerce channels, the workforce must grow by three or four times during peak season. This is often much more people than should be necessary. But a large portion of associates often quit before the end of peak season, sometimes even before training is complete, so distribution center leaders need to staff up to overcompensate.

What’s behind the troubling inorganic attrition trend? Often, it’s a failure to position new associates to be successful enough to want to stay. To avoid this problem, review historical data trends from individuals who have quit before or shortly after completing training. Mapping operational performance and productivity trends to each step in the training process can highlight weak points in the training process that may be driving attrition.

Double-down on operational planning.

All distribution operations should have a core set of routines that allow leadership to plan how orders will flow and how associates will be allocated across different functions to meet operational goals. During peak season, fine-tuning your focus on these processes is acutely critical. You’ll need to dedicate substantial time to continuously validate the inputs that drive key operational decisions.

Consider this approach: Take the time to test various product flow and labor allocation strategies by virtually simulating peak volume levels. In doing so, you’ll be able to identify process and equipment bottlenecks. You might also devote additional time to forecasting overtime and potential associate burnout to inform shift scheduling that maximizes productivity. Lastly, identify risks across physical and technical assets and develop mitigation plans to ensure continued productivity in the facility.

Optimize your mix of full-time, part-time, and outsourced staff.

Peak season demands a larger, more robust workforce than the full-time employee labor pool can supply. To meet throughput goals during the holidays, distribution leaders must tap into part-time or temporary labor, and even partner with third-party vendors to fully outsource select functions or processes. With the optimal mix of labor sources, leaders can focus on maximizing throughput. But, it’s a careful balance: Suppose you onboard too many temporary workers. In that case, full-time workers may find themselves supporting training efforts, rather than focusing on core functions that drive throughput.

Before making decisions about your labor mix, first identify functions that are easily measurable, repetitive, and a potential show-stopper if the full-time workforce is understaffed. These functions can serve as the initial shortlist of those to outsource to a third party or assign to temporary workers. Identifying the right functions can also help to minimize training time.

Strong local community relationships can also come into play here; as the volume of work increases, use the relationships you’ve built with third-party vendors to increase throughput.

Offer incentives that reward outstanding and consistent performance, work quality, and attendance.

During peak season, retail distributors have a nearly endless volume of highly motivated workers eager to earn supplemental income for the holidays. This is the classic intersection of desire meeting opportunity, given distribution employers need quality talent most acutely during peak season. Only with top talent can leadership shift the operational focus from efficiency to throughput.

For an incentive program to work best, there must be accurate individual performance measurements and a steady flow of work available. These conditions afford individual associates the opportunity to provide outstanding and consistent performance. Many retailers provide associate bonuses for simply showing up. While that’s important, it’s even more important to reward high performers beyond attendance bonuses. The right program structure creates a win-win scenario. It self-regulates behaviors that reinforce efficiency and quality from associates, while enabling leadership to redirect efforts to activities that maximize throughput.

Establish strategies for communicating with customers about what they can expect from your business.

This last step has less to do with individual employees, and more to do with how the workforce collaborates to drive customer outcomes. Late and missed orders are unfortunately inevitable during peak season, but a thoughtful customer communication strategy can reduce the frequency and intensity of complaints. The partnership between customer service and distribution employees is more important than ever during peak season. This means you’ll need to design and reinforce collaborative processes.

Borrowing from top organizations, consider implementing daily standup meetings between customer service and distribution to inform communications to customers in real-time. This approach connects real-life labor challenges in the warehouse to order-fulfillment tasks, enabling companies to quickly strategize and respond to customers. Or, if you’re a big-box retailer, take a note from smaller boutique companies: highlight stories of associates who go above and beyond to fulfill customer orders. This gives associates a greater sense of ownership and accountability, while providing customers a glimpse into the work required to fulfill their orders.

When it comes to peak season, the stakes are high. Your success impacts not just your company's bottom line, but also its reputation—in and beyond the holiday period. With the right distribution solutions and workforce-enabling techniques, you’ll position your company for peak performance in peak season.