In a world where centralised systems are increasingly being used to standardise processes and simplify technical architecture within organisations, it can be an attractive proposition to look at standardising your IT solutions across both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce operations. The lure of this proposition can be even more tempting in the WFM space due to the dynamic way that employees often work across both operations in-store during a single shift. However, my WFM experience has shown me that whilst standardising processes and systems across both channels is not an impossible task, it is one that presents several challenges and often requires compromise.

Planning your labour
When it comes to labour planning, there is a difference in the level of detail required for brick-and-mortar versus e-commerce. When planning labour for stores, it’s common to define the length of the shift, the time of the shift and the jobs or departments that the shift will involve for both standard in-store workload and e-commerce workload that is carried out within a store. However, when it comes to the delivery of multiple e-commerce orders and understanding the best logistical route for drivers to take, an additional level of operational detail is required. For retailers that have dedicated online fulfilment centres, additional detail is required to manage processes more precisely; for example, taking the most efficient path around the fulfilment centre to pick the orders. This additional detail is not something that traditional enterprise workforce management systems can provide or process, meaning that a hybrid solution using multiple systems is often required.

Managing productivity
Another area that poses a challenge is variable productivity. Within a typical block-and-mortar productivity model, you cannot be too prescriptive due to the variable element of customer interactions. The time it takes to carry out a task can normally be observed, captured and modelled with the knowledge that we can never know exactly what a customer will do at a micro level. Within an e-commerce environment though, the absence of customers within a fulfilment centre means that you can be much more specific with how you calculate workload. The time it takes to carry out a task can be significantly affected by variables like the physical position of the products within the fulfilment centre or a change in order type due to a promotion. These types of variables can be hard, and sometimes not possible, for enterprise workforce management solutions to interpret and account for.

Supporting different types of workers
The resources that carry out the work can often be another area of difference between brick-and-mortar and e-commerce. For typical brick-and-mortar operations, it is less common to see agency staff and more common to see contracted employees (although this does appear to be a changing trend in some markets). For e-commerce though, it’s more common to use a combination of contracted employees carrying out the in-store picking activities and agency staff delivering the orders and resourcing a large proportion of the fulfilment centre workload. This could mean that a schedule needs to be accessed by the agencies that manage the agency staff without the agencies being able to impact or view the contracted employee shifts. This will add another layer of complexity to your existing WFM processes and your WFM solution.

Call for vendors to innovate
As you drill down into each of these areas, it soon becomes clear that using a single workforce management solution for planning and operating both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce operations is quite a feat. The range of requirements are very broad and as it stands today there is no single solution that can truly handle the associated complexity. However, with retailers around the world restructuring their organisations to better suit the digital age this could become a target area of innovation for the workforce management vendors.

Current options
For our clients that are looking to refine their WFM solution to better suit their omnichannel needs today, we have found that it is possible to make positive steps towards achieving this. These range from holistic and detailed process and system analysis, in the aim of normalising the IT landscape, to building or updating their labour model to reflect this alignment where possible in the way that labour is calculated. We anticipate that the ideas and technology surrounding the unification of omnichannel will continue to mature and we intend to play our part in that evolution.