What COVID-19 taught us about empowering frontline employees

The lessons of 2020 have been profound as leaders have found new connections with essential, deskless employees, according to experts at Workplace from Facebook.

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2020 has offered so many important lessons for the business community, but perhaps the most vital has been around the importance of frontline staff.

These workers, often branded “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic, have been the lifeblood of organizations, solving problems on the ground and serving customers with flexibility and grace during one of the most difficult eras in a generation. Because of the heavy disruption caused by the pandemic, business leaders have been trying new strategies, embracing extra communication and offering more empathy than ever before.

For Ashish Uchil, head of customer success for the Americas at Workplace from Facebook, one of the big lessons for any organization looking to reach frontline workers is to acquire firsthand knowledge. Drawing from his experience working with organizations all over the world to implement internal comms programs, he explains that relying on middle managers and area bosses to provide essential intel about the frontline worker experience will create blind spots.

“We worked with a hospital,” Uchil explains, as an example, “and the management would have a weekly meeting with the head of nursing and assume that what that person told them represented all of the challenges with nurses across hospitals, across wards.” When the hospital later implemented Workplace from Facebook and looked at feedback directly from frontline managers, they realized they missed a lot of signals.

Workplace is just one tool that organizations can use to source those crucial firsthand insights, but Uchil stresses that the sourcing of these viewpoints is a step you can’t skip.

Uchil says: “Some organizations have a very good culture of doing huddles before opening their stores … the point is that leaders need to listen. They need to empower.” That means going to where employees are rather than throwing out a platform and expecting workers to just show up and provide the insights they need.

Frontline comms improving?

In Workplace from Facebook’s “Deskless Not Voiceless 2020” report, an interesting trend was measured over the course of the pandemic. Frontline managers thought the communications gap between headquarters and C-suite leaders and their in-the-field teams shrunk. So, what was happening during the crisis that made employees feel heard and seen?

Uchil, while cautioning against broad generalizations, points to three things leaders have been doing well during the pandemic that might explain the data.

“For one ,leaders started communicating much more frequently and more openly in platforms using video,” Uchil says, which helped leaders share a more empathetic message and allowed employees to feel a stronger connection to often distant authority figures.

Second, leaders are doing a better job of listening to the front line as they needed essential feedback to navigate the many localized responses and expectations consumers had to COVID-19. Uchil gives as an example of how state regulations and consumer attitudes differed in Florida and California during the early months of the pandemic. “Leaders had to really listen to the front line, see how the market was changing, how the regulations and consumer behavior were changing and how they had to adjust,” he says.

Third, Uchil says that the COVID-19 pandemic led leaders to empower frontline workers in new ways to respond to the crisis. If a person didn’t wear a mask and entered the store, workers were empowered to deny that customer entry, Uchil gives as an example, something that might have been unheard of before the COVID crisis.

It’s through listening, empowerment and executive video communication that deskless comms have improved in the last few months, Uchil says.

Will the changes stick?

The lessons for deskless communications transfer to a non-pandemic world. Though he admits he can’t predict the future, Uchil says there is evidence that leaders will try to hang onto these new good habits.

“When I speak to the chief retail officers or chief store officers … what I hear from them is how they’re now realizing the importance of listening to the front line,” Uchil says. Leaders have come to realize the importance of frontline employees and empowering them doesn’t have to result in chaos. Letting frontline employees take the lead allows leaders to be more connected to the needs of the consumer, Uchil explains. “It just means that you’re essentially closer to your customer.”

Certainly, after the pandemic old pressures will reassert themselves and operational measures could once again hold sway over organizations. But many organizations and leaders will try to hold on to the precious lessons of the past year.

When it comes to empowering workers, the changes don’t have to be drastic. Uchil describes effective employee empowerment in essentially two metrics: Are you listening and do you take action on that feedback?

“I’m not saying that they need to do everything that their staff is asking them to do,” Uchil says. Instead, make sure you follow up and offer a reasonable explanation for why a suggestion or request isn’t followed.

Empowerment for the front line also means giving employees some discretion for store and frontline managers.

Immediate action items

What actions can internal communicators and leaders take right away to make sure that deskless workers feel seen and heard? Uchil offers three main steps, which come from feedback and information he has received from top communicators he works with in his role with Workplace:

  1. Do as much observational research as you can. This means “spending time in stores, watching people work and learning about their everyday challenges,” he says. If you can’t physically visit all of your locations around the world, employ research techniques to get important insights. “You need to be with them to really understand that life or work life.”
  2. Abandon your assumptions. Go where the communication actually happens, advises Uchil. Don’t rely on your store or factory managers to use a tool that you have rolled out but instead join the WhatsApp group yourself. Be a part of a huddle that happens at the beginning of a shift to see what is happening and be ready to ask tough questions of yourself and others.
  3. Embrace mobile technology. Uchil says that there are big opportunities to connect and inspire workers through mobile content, especially video.

Final tip

Uchil has one final piece of advice for leaders, regardless of what team they serve, when it comes to engaging the frontline employee: Make sure your team is diverse, with at least some members with a background in frontline service who can offer an essential viewpoint. It’s a rule that he has made for his own work, bringing in team members who have direct experience with frontline employees to make the conversation around their needs tangible.

“Have a diverse team so that these discussions are not hypothetical,” Uchil says. A diverse team with the proper background also ensures discussions are really action- oriented with a high level of empathy, something that will make all the difference for deskless communications heading into 2021 and beyond.

 

This article is in partnership with Workplace from Facebook.

 

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