Opinion
Protocol | Workplace

Businesses have failed at connecting the unconnected

Frontline workers continue to be left behind in the pandemic.

Grocery store clerk in mask and face shield checks out customer

There's a dramatic gap between the tools companies make available to desk-bound employees and those on the frontlines.

Photo: Tempura/Getty Images

As the pandemic rampaged our traditional office environments, the world adjusted course to accommodate a new working style overnight, and that quickly became our new normal. Now, workers are left wondering how long remote work will remain the norm with rising concerns about different COVID-19 variants. It has not been an easy transition for most, and conversations with my colleagues, customers and friends have proven that how we approach "work" will forever be changed. This means we'll all need to reflect on the new way of the world and transform the lessons we've learned into actions.

The pandemic proved a few things that we might not have realized without the abrupt exposure of COVID-19, including the fact that tension exists between frontline workers and desk-bound workers at organizations across the globe. While the pandemic put these workers on near-even playing fields with office workers now dispersed as well, it did little to bridge this gap. Working through the pandemic has shown us what we can accomplish with the right tools and technology at our fingertips to give employees the opportunity to do their jobs wherever they may be. I've seen the impact it's had on our customers, on their employees and the world around them, and I have come to understand the power that organizational communications plays in retaining employees and impacting culture positively. The resounding lesson I've learned is that access to technology strongly encourages collaboration and communication, and there's a dramatic gap between the tools companies make available to desk-bound employees and those on the front lines.

It's undeniable that frontline workers are under-supported and underserved in businesses today. It's time business leaders put an emphasis, mission and dollars behind the idea of connecting your unconnected.

The profound shift COVID-19 accelerated

While there have been countless news stories on the various ways that work-from-home impacted our daily lives, including the onslaught of virtual meetings, the eliminated commute and the importance of mental health, an entire portion of the workforce has been left out: the deskless workers who make up 80% of the global workforce. COVID-19 surfaced issues that have been around for a long time and brought them to the forefront, exposing serious flaws in operations, particularly for companies looking to connect decentralized workforces. The ability to effectively connect an entire organization — from a store clerk to the C-suite — at once was difficult to master during the pandemic. For the most part, technologies have failed at this, and it's long overdue that the gap be addressed with tools that work.

A survey conducted by Workplace from Facebook found that 85% of deskless workers feel disconnected from the main office, and only 49% of frontline managers say they feel valued. This needs to change, and creating a community in the workplace among this group is a great place to start.

The value of internal communities at work

Collaboration became paramount as desk-bound workforces started to transition to remote work for the first time, but for frontline workers, connection has always been an issue. It's fair to assume that all frontline workers don't need all communications coming from the CEO. However, there are important factors that will matter for them, including: what organizations are doing for employees to manage mental health during the pandemic, how organizations are providing tools and offering technology at a discount to better serve one's working environment, and how pay or time off might be adjusted during the pandemic. Additionally, frontline workers need a place to ask executives questions to better understand how their role might evolve and change as COVID-19 continues.

From talking with customers, I've seen how impactful hosting live video Q&As with top executives can be in offering employees a safe place to ask questions and let company leaders address concerns about the effects of the pandemic. I myself use live videos to connect with my teammates across all continents, and I use auto-translate tools to make sure my coworkers are included in the conversation regardless of what language they speak. Additionally, other customers have shared ongoing updates with their workforce about the state of the company to keep anxiety at bay and ease concern over what comes next. Beyond easing fear and uncertainty, company leaders have made a point to highlight team contributions and showcase internal leaders, at all levels, making an impact to boost morale and recognition. Frontline workers need to be armed with tools that make managing their work and life easier, such as shift-swapping features (the ability to quickly and seamlessly request a shift off and have it back-filled by a colleague on your mobile device). These types of tools benefited that group dramatically as illness, familial priorities and personal lives took a front seat.

A call to action: Your frontline workers may become your most informed; don't leave them behind

Frontline workers are underserved at most organizations. They are the least connected due to the lack of a traditional office or a company email, yet they're the most exposed to the virus and have valuable insight that is crucial to the bottom line. Imagine this: Essential workers like cashiers, retail staff and manufacturing workers often don't have access to the same companywide technology as colleagues including a corporate email, or even a desk. However, these employees are traditionally the first touch-point with customers and can offer valuable insights to organizations to drive better business decisions and customer-centric intel.

Investing in communication tools and platforms is an important part of the equation in solving this issue that cannot be ignored. Organizations should adopt centralizing tools for tasks like getting shifts covered, sharing critical health and safety information, and providing access to information via mobile devices. Additionally, addressing the matter of connecting the unconnected needs to encompass a culture shift within leadership teams. Executives at companies need to take measured steps to collect and utilize frontline feedback and hold themselves accountable to implementing it. This can include anonymous surveys or inclusive companywide meetings where all employees are allowed to ask questions and voice concerns. It should also come in the form of regular meetings between HQ executives and frontline managers in order to create an open feedback loop and increase transparency from both sides.

It's imperative that business leaders and managers think about making the working lives of frontline employees easier. Even though these workers have continued to go into their "office" for work throughout the pandemic, they face the same challenges and struggles as remote workers. Going forward, no organization will be able to overlook the power that the front line provides, and making the tools available they need to communicate and collaborate with the wider business is a must. In turn, these workers will feel more empowered and closer to the business, and game-changing decisions will ultimately bubble up from the front line.

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