Over the past year or so, the IKEA employee started to notice something wrong with the store's "wall of fame."
The wall featured portraits of IKEA employees, all hung in rows based on how many years they'd worked at the company. The smiling photographs captured people who had been with the store for five years, 10 years, 15 years, and more. The longer you stayed, the higher your picture moved up.
But the employee realized that some of the pictures were disappearing.
"Those pictures have been slowly coming down, because those people who have been there for so long — a lot of whom are higher-ups — are not satisfied with the company anymore," the employee told Business Insider. "They don't like the direction it's going."
The vanishing pictures weren't just a phenomenon at that one employee's store. A second IKEA employee based in a different state told Business Insider, "More and more people are being taken down as they leave the company. The one at my store has had at least one-third of the people taken down."
A third employee estimated that they had witnessed 15 IKEA colleagues quit over the past year.
All three described this turnover rate as previously uncharacteristic of their respective stores.
IKEA has long been touted as an ideal retail employer. On Glassdoor, it ranked among the best places to work in 2013 and 2017. Reviewers praised the retailer's benefits, which include health insurance, PTO, and employee discounts.
So why are US-based employees reporting an exodus from the furniture store?
Business Insider spoke to a group of five IKEA employees — whom IKEA calls "coworkers" — across three states, all of whom asked to be kept anonymous for fear of retribution. They attributed dissatisfaction among employees to the new, IKEA US-wide policy called "organization for growth," or O4G.
The policy — which was officially launched on October 15, 2017 and has not been applied at any IKEA locations outside of the United States — restructured employee roles within the stores.
In a statement provided to Business Insider, a company spokesperson said that IKEA Retail US rolled out the policy in order "to change the way we were organized and the way we work together throughout our organization."
"Our objective was to empower our coworkers to meet our customers' expectations in today's multichannel environment, and strengthen our position in the fast changing US retail environment," the spokesperson said. "Hundreds of coworkers from throughout IKEA US contributed to the process of creating the new organization's design, including coworkers from our stores."
But among employees, the new policy has also generated a lot of dissent.
"Before O4G happened, IKEA was kind of like a paradise," one employee told Business Insider. "I know it's a rose-colored glasses thing, but the company actually did have a pretty open budget and they did give a lot of freedom of choice with how budgets were spent, based on sales."
Employees say that the new policy has changed the company's US operations — largely for the worse.
"I've been involved with management and I know how the system works," an employee who has worked at IKEA for more than a decade told Business Insider. "I know it's not working."
Before the new policy kicked in, employees say stores were centered around departments
Before O4G, the employees said that work in IKEA's 48 US-based stores was primarily centered around different departments. Salaried employees known as shopkeepers helmed departments dedicated to specific goods categories, like sofas, media products, and bedrooms.
Sales workers were hourly employees assigned to different departments. They were tasked with helping customers and performing backend work, like tidying up departments and handling price tags.
Employees could also work in the cash department as cashiers or man the returns department, while others were assigned to the store's restaurant or bistro, inventory, goods flow, and security. Many locations also had HR, IT, childcare, and interior design departments.
Previously, the employees said that IKEA's structure allowed employees to build up an expertise within their department.
"There were specific people for specific roles," one employee told Business Insider. "That way, you'd know everything there could possibly be to know about your role and your department."
But things didn't always play out that smoothly, according to some of the employees who spoke with Business Insider.
"We'd get a lot of complaints that there weren't any employees on the floor ever," one employee said. "Or, if there are employees, they look busy and so customers don't feel like they can help them."
The new policy, O4G, was meant to change that.
O4G was billed as a shift toward becoming more customer-centric, according to employees
When O4G was first announced, employees said that it was billed as a policy that would help IKEA US become more "customer-centric."
The policy did away with much of the departmental focus of the stores, and entirely new roles were established.
"Active seller" was one such new job title. The job, which also entailed a pay bump, required these employees to focus exclusively on selling products and assisting guests. All of the backend work would fall to merchandising basics employees, who would replace mislaid inventory, build displays, and keep the departments clean.
Employees characterized O4G as splitting the work of the now-defunct sales employees into two new roles. The division sparked resentment, according to employees, because active sellers received a raise while merchandising basics employees remained at what one employee told Business Insider was the "lowest pay band within the store."
"Some people got a pay bump and some didn't," another employee told Business Insider. "I know that was frustrating for the merchandising basics people, because it wasn't really like they got a choice in the matter."
Meanwhile, a number of departments were merged. Employees who previously worked as cashiers now could find themselves working in the restaurant, handling returns, or covering home delivery within the new customer service department. Prep and flow employees were tapped to handle logistics like cleaning the aisles and keeping the stores stocked throughout the day.
Another reason employees were given for the pivot was technological modernization. One employee said that competition with Amazon came up a lot in training. Two different employees agreed that IKEA's impulse to update its online-fulfillment capabilities with a new click-and-collect program was justified.
But employees said they began having concerns about O4G early on
October 2017 might have marked the launch of the new policy, but employees told Business Insider that they attended numerous O4G trainings for about a year until then. These sessions featured presentations, interactive games, and group discussions.
"We worked with our coworkers to ensure they were informed and engaged throughout the year-long process with multiple opportunities to provide input," an IKEA US spokesperson said in a statement to Business Insider. "We offered the opportunity for every coworker to have a role in the new organization."
Three employees described experiencing low-grade anxiety over the policy shift, but said that they were assured that no one would be losing their jobs. The employees said they worried about the vagueness of some of the announced changes.
One longtime IKEA employee told Business Insider that the new policy "sounded kind of great in the beginning," but added that there was a sense within the store that employees were "either with O4G, or you're against it."
Other employees reported having major concerns from the get-go that were dismissed by higher-ups.
"They would basically sit us down and do slideshows, and show us how O4G was going to make things better for the store," said one employee. "We would ask them, 'How is this going to make anything better?' But they were like, 'Oh you guys have to just wait and see how it's implemented.'"
One employee said that concerns among store workers stemmed from confusion over how the announced changes would actually benefit the store.
That employee described asking a manager about why O4G was changing a certain aspect of work in the store.
"I remember him saying to me, 'I don't know, I think it's stupid,'" the employee said. "And I was like, 'Cool, I'm really glad that we feel so positively about this.'"
That employee said that the group of managers and company representatives rolling out O4G kept touting their transparency, but that the process left employees and even some managers confused.
Employees took a test in order to be placed into new roles
All IKEA store employees filled out a quiz in order to place into their new, post-O4G jobs. Questions focused on their skills and their current roles. According to employees, the testing started off with the higher-ups and then trickled down to the employees.
One employee, who had just recently started working at IKEA at the time, described feeling confused over some of the questions.
"I'm this new employee taking this test and they're asking me questions and it's like — I don't even know what this question means," the employee said. "I don't even know what this role does."
The employee explained that the quiz had participants rank their skills and their preferred departments.
Direct team leads would also fill out a quiz for each of their reports. The employee said that in cases where the quiz results between the team lead and employee didn't match up, a meeting with management was called.
Another employee from a different store said that some of their colleagues took the test "willy-nilly," not recognizing its importance.
"Some people were not giving it the most attention," another employee from a different store said. "And some of them suffered for it."
Based on the results of the test, employees were then given their new assignments. Most employees received a single offer, but some were given the opportunity to choose between two jobs.
You kind of felt like you were trapped
Employees told Business Insider that not everyone was happy with the results of the placement tests.
"We had an employee get switched out of the department that she was working in for six years, so that's something she was upset about," one employee said.
Another IKEA employee said that employees who weren't satisfied with their new assignments didn't have much recourse.
"They said, 'If you're not satisfied, you have two weeks to find and apply for a new position within the company. Otherwise, you're gone,'" the employee said.
A longtime employee told Business Insider: "You kind of felt like you were trapped. You might be taking a position that you may have wanted, or you just took it because you didn't want to lose your job and all your benefits. You took it until you could find something else."
Three of the employees told Business Insider that certain shopkeeper roles were eliminated, and that some of their colleagues were slated to take pay cuts as a result of the policy change.
"There were some demotions," one employee said. "A ton of demotions. People that we had as managers are now team leads or just regular employees."
However, IKEA established a policy of pay protection that will last until December 2018, meaning that employees could opt to earn their old salaries until then. Anyone taking a pay cut could begin planning their exit in October 2017, when the new policy rolled out, without taking an immediate financial hit.
Since IKEAs stores have restructured, employees have complained about pay disparities
The five employees who spoke to Business Insider mentioned a perceived pay disparity between employees who were hired before and after the O4G roll-out.
A survey on Yammer, IKEA's internal social network, that attracted 267 participants found that 67% of respondents believed that new, post-O4G hires were earning significantly more than them. Meanwhile, 22% of respondents said they believed that newer employees were making more than them, but not by much, according to a screenshot that Business Insider reviewed.
Only 7% of respondents said that they believed new hires were making the same amount as them, while 3% said new hires were making less.
IKEA did not provide a response to questions about the perceived pay disparity in its statement to Business Insider.
One employee told Business Insider that complaints about the O4G-related pay gap were met with explanations centered around the new hires having more experience.
"All the employees now are like, 'Well, we're training them. So what experience do they have that we don't, if we're the ones training them to do the same job?'" the employee said.
The employee added that the situation wasn't fair for the new employees, either, "because they're getting thrown into this pit of animosity for no reason."
A different employee added that managers had responded to complaints about the pay disparity by implying, "If we don't like it, we have other opportunities in life — away from IKEA."
Employees also expressed concerns about understaffing within the stores
IKEA's O4G push didn't truly solve the problem of helping customers easily access employees, according to four of the employees who spoke to Business Insider.
Instead, they pointed to chronic understaffing in stores. The new policy was meant to ensure that active sellers would take care of guests, but workers told Business Insider the problem largely went unsolved.
"Customers always come up and complain about how they can't find anyone on the floor, even active sellers," one employee said. "There are apparently not enough on the floor."
That employee added that in the initial trainings, presenters said that there would be one active seller available per department. In practice, though, the employee said that there often isn't one employee for every four departments.
"I get yelled at at least once a day because a customer couldn't find a employee and I'm the only person in that department," another employee told Business Insider. "It's like, 'I'm sorry, I'm with 12 other customers.'"
A third IKEA employee who is not an active seller said, "I get stopped by customers asking for help. And that's because they cannot find an active seller in that respective department. In order for me to get my job done — because customers are waiting for their stuff — I have to find an active seller."
Some employees also feel more disposable now — and they say its making the store less efficient
The changes brought about by O4G allowed employees to become generalists within the store, rather than specialists.
But one IKEA employee told Business Insider that the changes make employees feel "disposable."
"Now that tons of people know how to do all of the things, if we lose one person, we still have 30 other people who know the same things," the employee said. "So no harm, no foul."
Three employees also said that this approach — combined with understaffing — brought about unintended consequences within the stores.
"With the active sellers, you may have one person in marketplace that's covering the cook shop, bed textiles, home textiles, home organization, lighting, rugs, prints and frames," one employee said. "And the customers can't find them."
One employee said that before O4G, at least six employees would be scheduled in the bedrooms department, the section of the store that brought about "a massive portion of the store sales."
The employee said that recently, only one or two employees would be available to help out with bedrooms.
"Then we'll immediately get a call saying that cash lanes needs help, and so they take our employees and they put in the cash lanes because cash lanes doesn't have enough cashiers," the employee said.
A different employee added: "There have been a couple of occasions where cash lanes were backed up and they pulled people from returns or home delivery or what have you, and then, as a result, those departments became backed up. You're just moving the line from one department to the other."
Employees agree that morale has declined
All of the employees that Business Insider spoke with agreed that morale had taken a hit.
They described their colleagues as upset, stressed, and resentful of the new employees they believe are earning higher wages.
"The body language says it all," a longtime employee said. "Without even speaking to a employee, you can look at the way they walk when they come in. They're not smiling anymore."
Two employees agreed that the new policy had done away with the desire of many employees to "go above and beyond" in helping customers — and one another.
"Going above and beyond doesn't really exist anymore, because so many employees already have all this extra work that they have to do," a employee told Business Insider.
A third employee said that the atmosphere has made answering customers' questions about what it's like to work at IKEA awkward.
"We were their biggest cheerleader," the employee said. "Now we're kind of hesitant to answer those questions from customers."
Employees have taken to social media to complain about the new policy
A number of IKEA employees have made their ire toward O4G known online.
Business Insider reviewed a post on Yammer in which a employee appeared to quit the company.
The employee described their time with the store as "one of the worst experiences I have ever had to deal with" and that concluding their "dreams" of continuing with the store were "quickly killed off and cremated by O4G."
One employee who spoke with Business Insider said that they had witnessed others post farewell messages on Yammer: "They write their goodbyes and say they can't do it anymore. In terms of O4G comments that are posted there, there are no positive comments about it at all."
Another longtime employee said that some employees had posted positive comments about O4G on Yammer.
"Then you have other employees a few comments later saying, 'No, it's not,' the employee said.
The retailer has also taken a hit on Glassdoor since O4G started
IKEA's overall rankings on Glassdoor have slipped since O4G was first announced in 2016. Glassdoor ratings are anonymous and therefore cannot be verified, but the data shows a marked trend.
The chain received overall scores ranging from a 4.5 to a 4.7 out of 5 throughout 2015.
By the beginning of January 2017, those had dropped down to a 4.1. Today, IKEA's overall score still hovers at a 4.1.
Meanwhile, the number of reviewers who said IKEA had a "positive business outlook" has also dropped.
For the entirety of 2015, the percentage of reviewers who had a positive outlook on IKEA rose from 88.1% to 93.5%. That percentage began declining in January 2016 and has fallen to 69.6% today.
Employees told Business Insider that they have seen few — if any — positive outcomes brought about by O4G
One full-time IKEA employee told Business Insider that, at their store, customers benefitted from some of the changes.
"The customers have actually probably seen more employees on the floor," the employee sad. "Every issue that they have had has been seen to by somebody. So for the most part, it's actually helped customer experience from my standpoint. The idea that they have is solid, they're just trying to spread themselves really thin."
That positive assessment isn't the norm among store workers, however. The other four employees said that understaffing undermined any positive outcomes for shoppers.
As far as IKEA's efforts to boost its online strategy, three employees said that certain changes, like emphasizing online-order fulfillment, did make sense for the company. One employee also had somewhat backhanded praise for the policy.
"It definitely has banded together the team leads and the employees," the employee told Business Insider. "It's created more of a close-knit community because of the joint frustration. My managers and the team leads at IKEA are phenomenal and nobody blames any of them for this.'"
The employee added that by combining departments and making roles more general and less department-based, the policy also made taking time off easier at their store.
But all of the employees agreed that the negative aspects of the new policy, along with the perceived pay disparity with newer hires, outweighed the positives.
"I've actually had a manager say, 'O4G is changing the company, but you shouldn't be taking the changes home with you. It's just a job,'" a different employee told Business Insider. "Yeah, but our paychecks, we do take those home with us. That is something that goes in our pocket every two weeks, and that's how we live."
We keep getting nominated for being so great
According to an IKEA spokesperson, the restructuring was meant to allow the retailer to become more competitive and continue to improve in the long run.
"The new organization and ways of working were implemented in 2017 with a mind-set of continuous improvement over time," the spokesperson said. "As the retail environment is changing rapidly, we must have more flexibility and agility, as we are adjusting and evolving to enhance both the customer and coworker experience."
Four of the employees that Business Insider spoke to didn't share that vision of a continuously improving IKEA. They had a rather bleak outlook for the retailer. Two expressed interest in participating in a potential walkout, if issues with the pay disparity and O4G-related policies aren't improved.
A third employee said that colleagues had discussed a walkout, but the general feeling was that "it would hurt the store more than the company."
Meanwhile, three employees expressed frustration with IKEA's reputation as an ideal employer.
"IKEA used to do these amazing things all the time," one employee told Business Insider, saying that IKEA US President Lars Petersson would send out messages in support of transgender employees or workers who were Dreamers.
"They send those great messages out, but then paying everybody their fair share kind of gets swept under the rug," the employee said.
"We keep getting nominated for being so great and we keep bragging that we're still such a great company to work for, but they're doing all of these tiny things that are all adding up to us not being a good company to work for anymore," a different employee told Business Insider.
Another employee who has worked at the chain for over a decade said that they were strongly considering quitting.
"I'm just there to support my team, keep morale up, and live to fight another day," the longtime employee told Business Insider. "Or look for another job."
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