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Invisible frontline workers: an opinion piece

Lots of people's shadows on a wide pavement but only one person!

Invisible frontline workers: an opinion piece

December and January are always littered with “looking ahead” type articles, and these then spill into February and March (albeit sometimes disguised as other things). For me that means I see lots of opinions about what the next year brings for digital workplaces and communications tools, which (being a nerd at heart) I read with enthusiasm.

Overlapping boxes showing how people can be in multiple categories of 'worker'.
Terminology and experience overlap.

But…

I spent a lot of 2020 considering the needs of deskless, frontline workers and exploring the technology that can support them. There are fantastic case studies out there and some amazing work being done by vendors to reach those who have been branded “hard to reach” in the past.

So, why is it that so many digital workplace articles still ignore mobile technology or these users? We (and they, in their own pockets) have the technology to reach them, so why is it that they’re still automatically ignored and still treated as hard to reach (like somehow it’s their fault)?

Yes, there are articles tackling frontline needs – but the vast majority of guidance or thought leadership still orientates around those who stare at a screen for most of the day. Even the term “remote worker” (which Jenni Field and Benjamin Ellis used in their study into deskless workers) is now stamped on the foreheads of all of us who work from home, rather than with its original frontline-worker-home.

Then, I have recently heard the opinion that “we’re all frontline workers now” because desk-based people are now remote working. No. No, we’re really not. The last year has sucked on lots of different levels; and everyone’s perspective and experience is unique. However, the technology and connectivity challenges of a genuine frontline worker can no way compare to working at a kitchen table with a laptop, with a cat walking across your keyboard from time-to-time.

To unpack that slightly – home / remote workers have suffered too, I’m not saying that we haven’t. The whole pandemic has been hideous and having to put up with things like cramped working spaces, poor wifi, or home schooling, as well the mental load of it all, means that everyone has suffered. So, what I mean is: ignoring the current pandemic for a moment, the technical challenges for a frontline worker (who right now is either furloughed or still working, facing the virus every day) are so much greater and trickier to overcome than those of a desk worker.

What does this mean for technology?

There has been a question recently as to whether remote employees could, or should, do things via mobile. Using a mobile as a second or third screen, such as to check a calendar appointment, makes total sense – so I can understand why broader use by desk workers (in the world of constant connectivity and burnout) was questioned. But, the frontline worker use case was mentioned merely once towards the end. This isn’t just a problem with the content of excellent blog pieces with word limits and clear purposes, but it is indicative of the working world too.

Retail worker.

There are loads of frontline workers across all industries and it’s time we started to pay attention to them more. Some tools, like intranets (even some app versions of intranets), can feel bulky and intimidating (especially when it’s full of head office or senior people) – like a surgeon wielding a sword to remove an appendix. Conversely, employee mobile apps put a lightweight, tailored, and reassuring tool in frontline worker’s hands – so to continue the metaphor, the surgeon gets their scalpel back.

Employee mobile app products can tackle communication challenges with frontline workers, they also offer solutions to strategic problems across the entire business in really elegant ways. 2020 has proven that many of the objections that channel managers faced when asking about these new tools can, in fact, be overcome very quickly.

To conclude this cathartic opinion piece then: Us desk workers still need to have our digital workplace needs catered for and addressed, and intranets have a vital role to play across businesses still. If you have a large population of frontline workers, I’d encourage you to consider new ways of engaging them (and please be assured you aren’t forgotten). If you write about communications, and / or digital workplace tools, then I’d ask that you spare a thought for frontline workers from time-to-time, because those who need to communicate with them need our help too.

(If you work in comms and have a large community of frontline workers, then please come and join us in the Frontline Communications LinkedIn Group.)

This piece was originally published on Suzie Robinson’s LinkedIn blog.

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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