My Covid-19 road to becoming a Waitrose Partner

by Charlotte Owen, April 2021

The early days of the pandemic were spent working in Customer Collections at John Lewis Milton Keynes, keeping abreast of the news on the TV that was meant to keep customers occupied whilst awaiting their collections.  Thus, we were able to follow the news, soon to be announcing the closure of all non-essential retail shops from Monday 23 March 2020.

There was already speculation that John Lewis Partners would move to support other areas of the John Lewis Partnership including Waitrose, where panic buying and sales on par with Christmas trading had already been going on for the past couple of weeks.

I felt enthusiastic about the prospect of doing something useful to help with either Waitrose or in a distribution centre.  My first thoughts were that it was going to be a huge logistical challenge to deploy John Lewis Partners to support other areas of the business.   I noticed mixed feeling from colleagues about the prospect of having to work elsewhere. We were already concerned about contracting Covid -19, plus nobody really liked the idea of working in unfamiliar territory; several Partners had worked in John Lewis for many years.

It was quite impressive just how quickly a John Lewis redeployment team formed, and organised everyone’s placements.  For the first two weeks, we were contacted on a daily basis as to where we should be the following day, or the days that we were scheduled to work.  I couldn’t imagine that there was anything I wouldn’t be happy doing, although a nightshift did not have much appeal!

So, two days after John Lewis stores had to close, I found myself on my first shift at Waitrose Aylesbury.  I had already done my Waitrose Tills Training at home (as was requested of all John Lewis Partners), so my initial task was to be on a till that first afternoon.  The rest of the evening was spent cleaning fridges!

In the following weeks, I went to help at Waitrose Buckingham, Brackley, and then back to Buckingham!  In a way, it was all quite exciting and I found it interesting to see how the stores operated and learn new work terminology.   Although it must have been strange for the stores to absorb John Lewis Partners, we were always welcomed and given worthwhile tasks, usually replenishing shelves.  This allowed the regular Waitrose teams to catch up with the tasks that had unfortunately slipped due to the unforeseen busy weeks of earlier trading.

After a three-week period of furlough, I was asked to support Waitrose Towcester on a new service. It was initially unclear exactly what this entailed, but I was nevertheless intrigued and became one of eight John Lewis Partners working on ‘The Vulnerable Essential Service Team’, intended to reach out to those shielding or unable to visit the store in person.  We took local customers’ shopping orders over the telephone, picked their shopping using the Quick Check handsets, then called the customers back to take payment before their groceries were delivered (in John Lewis vans) that same day.  I loved this role and we built such a rapport with many of the customers.  It was always made clear that this was a temporary service and the final (ninth) week before returning to John Lewis stores was quite emotional for everyone (this also had our highest takings, albeit with only four remaining team members!)

Returning to John Lewis Milton Keynes in July 2020 felt normal, but also strangely odd and somewhat quiet.  The store had been further organised for social distancing and it was good to see that customers were keen to be back in the shop.  However, just four weeks later I was asked whether I would be happy to support Waitrose Oakgrove (Milton Keynes) for a week, then a subsequent week; this turned into five weeks total!

Being back in Waitrose I realised that I should seriously consider a permanent Waitrose role.  I felt comfortable as a Partner there with a sense of purpose, and also enjoyed the more physical nature of the role.  Fortunately for me, a position at Waitrose Buckingham came up, and after submitting an application and attending interview, I was delighted to be offered the job.  I went directly from Waitrose Oakgrove to my new permanent job at Waitrose Buckingham in September 2020.

Consequently, I had a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary transition from John Lewis to Waitrose.  I felt as if I had slipped out of the back door (along with others that I have heard about).   However, on reflection I suppose it felt like a natural sideways movement.

Subsequent lockdowns have seen regular John Lewis Partner support at Buckingham and I can empathise when they say ‘it’s the not knowing what’s going on that is frustrating’.  But I realise that this feeling is fairly typical across the population in the COVID era and, as we enter release from lockdown three, I hope that the vaccine rollout can restore some semblance of normality.

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