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How to connect with frontline workers in the first place 

Four men in hard hats and blue shirts climb an external stair against a blue sky.

How to connect with frontline workers in the first place 

After years of neglect, companies are finally realising they need to improve how they connect with their frontline teams. The good news is the technology to enable this has evolved significantly over the past few years, with many intranets and similar solutions offering native apps designed with the frontline in mind. Excellent, job sorted then, right?

Not quite.

I’ve previously written about the challenges surrounding frontline worker digital workplace experience, which have often felt intimidating for businesses to resolve. One of the biggest challenges has nothing to do with tech; it’s around the question or responsibility.

Who is responsible for the frontline?

Without answering this question (and without following up with the right people), your project can be scuppered before you’ve even started. The reasons why projects fail are closely tied into the three starting points:

  • An operational department is responsible.
  • A few departments are responsible.
  • It’s not particularly clear.

1. An operational department is responsible (and everyone knows)

In my experience with retail, hospitality and catering businesses, it’s often the Operations department that takes overall ownership of frontline workers. HR is still involved but when it comes to decisions about what tasks the frontline workers will do, how they should spend their time, and anything else that might take them away from serving customers, Operations needs to be won over.

That need to keep serving customers (and keep making money) is a key to working with the Operations team. By showing you understand their teams’ priorities and by demonstrating you are aligned with their goals (and not imposing your own), you can work together to achieve your objectives too. Overall, it’s important to forge good relations with this department, as they have excellent insights and strong relationships with the frontline that can help make your project a success.

2. A few departments are responsible

This is probably the ideal state for all involved, where multiple departments are responsible for the frontline and there is clear delineation of who looks after what. Departments across the business work together (potentially facilitated by a digital workplace team) to identify the right solution for the frontline as a whole, avoiding duplication of effort and functionality of tools.

I’m sure this exists somewhere, but I’ve yet to see it working successfully. Quite often we find…

3. It’s not particularly clear

Like scenario two above, it’s likely that multiple departments are responsible for the frontline. But what that means in practice is responsibilities are masked between neighboring departments. It leads to putting a pin in decisions around frontline users, as no one is sure how to go about conducting research with them (or who to ask for permission to do the research in the first place).

In these cases, my advice is: don’t give up. If you don’t know who to talk to, start with your friendly contacts and / or your line manager to see if anyone has any advice. If no one knows, have a look through your org charts or ‘about our company’ information. Where someone has moved from a frontline role, see if you can talk to them about their experiences and get advice.

Generally, just give it a go, be honest and friendly, and you’re likely to do well. In these situations, the frontline may well be under-served or ignored completely, so by taking the time to do research and understand them properly you’ll be doing your future project a lot of good.

How to address frontline needs

Many times, I’ve seen departments unilaterally plow ahead with technology solutions because they think it’s the right thing to do. This can lead to poor adoption or to a tool that doesn’t truly meet business needs. There are ways to mitigate this risk, however.

First, it’s important for all relevant departments to address technology solutions for the frontline together. Whether Operations want checklists and forms, Comms want to reach people with company news, HR wants to provide self-service tasks or every department wants a home for their procedural documentation — the worst case is there is a separate app for every one of these tasks. Most business tools such as SuccessFactors, Kronos and ServiceNow come with dedicated mobile apps and there’s a greater risk of competition between them as a result. Frontline workers have limited time and headspace. Jamming their personal devices with “just one more app” won’t help get your messages across.

With different departments aligned you can now conduct research with relevant people, such as speaking with Operations and associated departments for their view, but also directly with people on the frontline. For example, do they feel connected to the business and with their colleagues? We find that asking them what sort of tasks they complete and what frustrations they have is the best approach to unlocking where a digital tool could help. If you develop a good set of questions that help you identify where technology can help, chances are every department would benefit from the research too.

Once you have your results, begin the analysis to identify what sorts of tool(s) the frontline workers need and / or want, as well as what business challenges need addressing. By working on this challenge together you will reduce company spend on multiple overlapping tools, as well as reduce the cognitive burden on frontline workers who are confused about what to use when. You’ll also provide a solution that brings departments together and acknowledges that everyone’s needs are important. It might mean that the best solution resides within an intranet instead of a workforce management (WFM) system, or inside an HR platform instead of a communications platform.

The best results come when digital workplace project teams and frontline departments conduct research jointly, forge a strategy together and select the best solution collaboratively. Identifying who is responsible for the frontline up front will allow you to set up a thorough project team, and ultimately find the right solution for the frontline and overall business.

This article was originally published by Reworked.

Suzie Robinson

I've always worked with intranets, and have practical experience with all aspects of intranet management, including research, implementation, governance, and strategy. My roots are in internal communication and I focus on employee experience and engagement.

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