Double dip: the productivity potential of technology for frontline workers

Co-authored with Simon Rainback, Senior Delivery Consultant at Eighty20 Solutions

Each minute of time saved for a company with hundreds or thousands of employees can deliver significant value. The productivity lift these businesses can expect from technology adoption multiply when strategy is designed to maximise trust, adaptability and innovation.

During the pandemic, there’s been a tremendous focus on how business has adapted to the great wave of employees #WFH. There’s no doubt IT and HR teams have had their work cut out for them, leaping over the many practical hurdles of connecting and supporting employees regardless of where they’re working. But with the spotlight firmly on cohorts in home offices, are the equally pressing needs of frontline workers getting enough attention?

By establishing a well-connected workforce, companies will empower their front-line workers with the necessary automatic training, staff levels and actionable insights they need to maintain a safe, smart and efficient work environment amid a pandemic.

Forbes, How Advanced Technology Can Empower Front-Line Workers, 8 May 2021 

Just like their #WFH peers struggling to strike a balance between Teams meetings, home schooling and the rest of their domestic and professional workload, frontline employees are under competing pressures too. Delivering on new safety obligations can interfere with productivity and yet both are vital to keeping a business profitable and viable. Falling down on health and safety protocols can result in the ripple effect of hundreds of working hours lost to self-isolation, illness or worse. Failing to stay on top of stock levels and prompt customer service, on the other hand, is just as much of a risk to success.

Tech to the rescue

While many digital solutions are being harnessed to support remote and hybrid teams, they have just as much power to support frontline workers to stay safe and productive as pandemic transformation continues. Mobile-based technologies give employees tools they need in the palm of their hand to receive and report essential information to enhance both safety and efficiency. With access to custom apps, companies can push their latest COVID-safe protocols to employees and adjust shift allocations to cater to changes in both labour supply and shopping habits that arise during lockdowns.

Many companies deployed automation and AI in warehouses, grocery stores, call centres, and manufacturing plants to reduce workplace density and cope with surges in demand. The common feature of these automation use cases is their correlation with high scores on physical proximity, and our research finds the work arenas with high levels of human interaction are likely to see the greatest acceleration in adoption of automation and AI.

McKinsey Global Institute, The future of work after COVID-19, 18 February 2021 

Employees can more easily report critical information on stock levels to pass back up the supply chain. Even in ordinary circumstances this supports a rapid response to the unexpected – a damaged pallet of goods, for example. In a pandemic this ability to quickly pivot to change becomes a superpower. Here at Eighty20 we’ve been working with a major FMCG client to develop a PowerApps module to introduce automated capability to their stock control. Warehouse workers can use photos of inventory and upload them to an app which recognises the product and tallies the units to be logged in a stock count. And it was actually an AI model that built this solution in PowerApps.

Not only does this introduce next level responsiveness to the supply chain, it also has significant potential for delivering faster service on shop floors. Imagine a worker has access to this tool next time they’re asked by a customer whether an item missing from the shelves is actually in stock. This trusty PowerApps tool can verify if the desired product is actually there in the stock room before the employee takes time away from the shop floor to fetch it. Multiply the time savings for employees across all supply management and customer service tasks and it quickly adds up to huge savings in labour costs.

Find the hook

Putting tools for efficiency and safety in the hands of employees is one thing. It’s quite another to make sure they’re used. In our experience at Eighty20, building the tech is generally the easier part of the equation and it takes smart strategy to both deliver the right functionality and give employees a reason to use it. An app that delivers a nugget of value to employees – like access to payslips or rosters – is a good place to start.

For some companies the challenge is to roll out enough devices across the workforce to ensure equality of access. After all, some employees may not have the android or iPhone needed to use an app. In other situations it’s a case of trust on both sides. Employees may be reluctant to use apps provided if they’re either unsuitable for their role or they have concerns about being ‘monitored’ by managers. In both instances, a lack of trust in their employer is the obstacle to adoption. To benefit from mobile access to company technology, employers must also trust their people to have access to devices during working hours.

From choosing devices, to picking apps, to opting for voice over text, employees look for options that help them do their best work. For example, changing work environments mean more people want greater mobile capabilities, but only 60% of employees say they’re satisfied with the mobile options available to them at work.

PwC, Our status with tech at work: It’s complicated, October 2018

This trust factor can be a tricky issue on both sides – for the employer who doesn’t want their workforce to be checking social media feeds on the clock and for the employee who expects a new app to be serving only the company’s interests and not their own. This is where it becomes important to build shared value in new technology. When a business can use the PowerPlatform to create a bespoke window for each employee on data or functions that are confusing and overwhelming in a legacy system view, this can be a real win for changing their perspective on an app’s value.

By continuously reviewing take up of technology and asking questions about all barriers to adoption – trust, usability, relevance and more – and visibly responding to feedback, companies can get more from their investment and develop a real sense that technology exists for the benefit of all stakeholders. Employers committed to understanding and delivering what frontline workers actually need from technology can expect a significant lift in willingness to adapt in return. According to research from Accenture, 97% of workers effectively adapt to change when their employee listens to what they need at the front line and empowers them with real-time data.

From adoption to innovation

The same research also revealed an extra payoff when companies use technology to enable greater flexibility and creativity, with 98% of employees likely to be more fulfilled at work as a result. This is where Eighty20 have seen PowerApps really perform for our clients. First off, the platform is enabling rapid development of apps that can automate mundane, repeatable tasks, freeing up employees to do more rewarding, high value work. But an even bigger drawcard from an innovation perspective is how PowerApps can enable frontline workers to step into the role of citizen developer.

Many businesses apply intelligent technologies to automate tasks and improve productivity. Organizations that lead in this practice do more. They select and apply technologies that enable them to reimagine work and processes through greater human-machine collaboration. They use technology to accelerate flexible work, freeing their people to engage in more fulfilling and innovative work.

Accenture, Future Workforce: Care to do better, 23 September 2020

By establishing a ‘sandbox’ environment where more employees can work with approved, integrated tech tools, companies can tap into the knowledge and capability of their frontline employees to solve for the functions bespoke apps deliver. Users get to design their own solutions and pick up new skills to enhance their career potential. It would be hard for any employee not to see the value in this sort of engagement with workplace technology.

Get in touch to learn how we can support your frontline staff for a better tech experience.