Connecting During Crisis: Engaging Your Frontline Workforce


Over the last few months, there’s been a lot of talk about the current situation of forced remote work and its impact on employee collaboration, productivity and engagement. This is a legitimate concern and one that I myself, as a CEO, am tackling. But the discussion has largely been focused on desk-based employees, who typically sit in front of a computer and can perform their jobs from anywhere in the world as long as they have a laptop and WiFi connection. 

Frontline workers, however, are in a completely different boat. They don’t sit in front of a computer all day; they often work long shifts (sometimes 12 hours or more); they’re the first and last points of interaction with customers. Most importantly, frontline workers aren’t accustomed to interacting and communicating with their managers and HQ leaders via face-to-face meetings. 

With COVID-19 leading to country-wide lockdowns and social distancing rules, the entire world is dependent on frontline workers for essential services, such as stocking groceries, shipping online orders, providing healthcare and transportation. That means longer work shifts, more uncertainties about their roles and more stress for frontline workers. As this happens, staying informed and getting regular feedback will be essential to navigate through these uncertain times.

Subpar Onboarding Experience Can Prompt Early Turnover

According to a recent article on the Muse, companies like Kroger, Unilever, GSK, Wells Fargo, UnitedHealth Group, Instacart, Deutsche Bank and Asana are still continuing with their hiring plans amidst the current crisis. This is due in large part to the fact that these businesses provide ‘essential’ services and goods. But what happens once these frontline workers are hired? What will their onboarding look like? How prepared are HR teams to digitally adapt their onboarding processes? 

When we asked HR professionals to cite their biggest challenge with onboarding remote and distributed employees, the top two responses were ‘making them feel like part of the team’ (17 percent) and ‘providing clarity and context about role expectations and career growth’ (17 percent). Following close behind, 15 percent cited ‘integrating into company culture’ as the biggest challenge, while 13 percent struggle to establish communication norms. If you look at these responses, it’s clear that onboarding plays a major role in employee satisfaction, career development, fulfilment, engagement and retention. But for most employees, being able to physically interact with managers, colleagues and leaders can go a long way in making them feel like part of the team and forge relationships with coworkers. So, if virtual onboarding sessions are too drawn out, dull, uninspired, new hires could end being early leavers. 

Turnover is not a new problem for organizations. Early turnover, however, is even more troublesome, with 20 percent of employees leaving with their first 45 days of employment. Our study’s findings indicate that HR teams, who are faced with onboarding thousands of employees virtually, could see an increase in early turnover. And the culprit could very well be HR’s inability to virtually onboard new employees in a way that’s just as informative, interactive and engaging as it would be if it were conducted in-person. 

More Direct Feedback Supports Better Job Stability

As our study found, it can be tough to communicate and engage with remote and distributed workforces. For example, a mere 8 percent of the surveyed HR professionals said they keep a regular cadence of one-to-one meetings with remote workers, while only 12 percent commit to a communication charter. On top of this, 15 percent of HR professionals said they struggle to provide regular feedback on performance and career development.

These findings are troubling for a few reasons. First, frontline workers are currently being pushed to the limits. As the pressure mounts, it will be more important than ever to provide a safe space for frontline workers to vent their frustrations, voice their concerns and ask important questions related to their roles and responsibilities. But if their managers and HR teams don’t make themselves available for these one-to-one conversations, you can bet it will manifest itself in lower productivity, less cross-team collaboration and potentially worse performance. So managers need to carve out time in their schedules and virtually meet one-to-one with their teams on the frontline. Even if it’s a 10-minute check-in twice a week, this could help frontline workers feel less stressed and get clarification about their role and tasks. The more clarity they get, the better they’ll perform their jobs, which will lead to better customer satisfaction, loyalty and future sales. While these are positive outcomes for the businesses that employ frontline workers, it will also help frontline workers prove their value and maintain job stability during unstable times.

Digital-First Culture Engages Frontline Workers

According to Stephen Redwood, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, “At digital-first organizations, people, processes and structures are all focused on optimizing digital so companies can be more productive.” I agree wholeheartedly. And this is especially true for frontline workers, who rely on mobile devices, communications apps, productivity apps and collaboration apps to stay connected, get relevant updates about the business and their roles, schedule meetings with their managers, among other things. 

What does a digital-first culture look like? For one, it’s one that isn’t reliant on face-to-face meetings. For example, companies with a large number of frontline workers should hold virtual all-hands meetings twice a week at least. Reserve one of the two weekly all-hands meetings solely for Q&A with the staff. Let your frontline workers ask any questions they want — be it about how the coronavirus outbreak may impact job stability (i.e. layoffs, furloughs), plans for hiring, or anything else. Don’t make the virtual all-hands meetings excessively long — keep them to 30 minutes maximum so that you can keep your frontline workers engaged, without interrupting their work too much. 

Another way to help frontline workers integrate with the company culture (especially in the midst of a crisis) is to have managers share a weekly message of motivation. By posting this type of message into designated Slack channels, teams can start their days with a positive attitude and still feel a sense of connection to their fellow colleagues, teams, managers and leadership. 

To make a digital-first culture work, it has to come from the top down. Leadership needs to believe in the value of digital tools for driving employee collaboration and engagement. Beyond that, getting buy-in from the C-suite will require proving how digital tools will help maintain business continuity, increase customer satisfaction (and repeat purchases) and drive revenue growth.



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