Turning the tide on technology for frontline workers

Co-authored with Adam Gernon, GM/Account Director Southern Region at Eighty20 Solutions

When it comes to tech investments, it’s often knowledge workers who get the lion’s share of the budget and attention. But with the growing importance of face-to-face customer experience in a post COVID world, it’s time for organisations to get wise to the benefits of using apps and devices to support and connect with their frontline workforce.

Since the pandemic there has been plenty of commentary and action on the challenges of working from home. HR, IT teams and even C-suite leaders are dedicating a lot of air time and resources to supporting productivity and engagement for knowledge workers who are no longer office based – or at least not all of the time.


But what about the Australian workers who don’t have the option to work from home and probably never will? According to a Productivity Commission Working from Home Research paper released last year, only 35% of jobs are suited to working from home. So for the time being, a lot of Aussie workers are going to be continuing to travel to hospitals and retail stores, mines and warehouses to do their jobs, for their employers and the general public.

Face-to-face still matters

This being the case, it’s important for senior leaders to be aware that a surge in digital interactions with brands and organisations, initiated by COVID, hasn’t made face-to-face encounters any less important for their customers. As we become more and more reliant on technology to mediate our many work, shopping and service encounters and transactions, the more we actually crave interaction.

81% of Australian consumers want to interact with a real person more as technology improves. 59% of all consumers feel companies have lost touch with the human element of customer experience.

PwC Future of Customer Experience Survey 2017/18

As this four year old survey result from PwC shows, even before COVID, most people were aware that their demand for the human element was only going to be stronger as technology takes over. And thanks to lockdowns curbing our social interactions with friends and family, our customer contact with frontline workers can become even more meaningful. How many of us saw more of supermarket workers during lockdown than some of our closest friends?

Out of sight, out of scope

Representing 80 percent of the global workforce, no one has borne the burden of the past two years more than the 2 billion frontline workers around the globe. Despite their essential role in every industry, these workers have traditionally been underserved by technology. Just as the pandemic was a catalyst for spurring rapid digital transformation for information workers, the data suggests we’re at a similar inflection point on the frontline.

Microsoft Work Trend Index: Special Report, 12 January 2022

As a Microsoft Work Trends Index: Special Report from January 2022 highlights, the vital roles frontline workers have played during the pandemic is making leaders take notice of their technology needs. Relative to their desk-based cousins, the deskless workforce have been largely ignored by digital transformation programs and have been underinvested in, as an employee segment, for a very long time. Take hospitals for example. The training workflow and process for junior doctors is still dominated by daily hard copies of records and checklists. After they’re completed and reviewed by supervising staff, they’re kept in filing cabinets as a paper trail that probably won’t see the light of day again.

What if those records were available to trainer and trainee through a dashboard to support a more dynamic and responsive learning process, without taking up any more of their precious time on the wards? This doesn’t seem a lot to expect in a sector where surgical experts can now take part in procedures happening thousands of miles away thanks to digital networks and advances in camera-aided systems and robotics.

In other situations, it’s a case of frontline workers hacking available technologies to meet their needs. When looking for a way to contact delivery drivers on the road, dispatchers will use whatever app comes to hand to update schedules or details for a consignment. And if that app happens to be a popular chat channel that’s unsecured, this can create unacceptable risks for things like customer data protection or security for drivers and their cargo.

A less ‘connected’ culture

Not only have frontline workers been an afterthought for technology provision, their training needs can be very different compared with workers who are constantly switching from screen to screen. As a result tech literacy is generally low, so getting frontline workers on board with new tools takes a more gradual approach. Plus you‘ll often have five generations spread across a frontline workforce in retail, transport or logistics so a one-size-fits-all transition to new tech is unlikely to drive successful adoption for everyone.

 

Generation gaps aren’t the only cultural hurdle to get over when introducing new technology and tools and the processes that go with them. Many frontline workers are task-oriented and only have so much time to get through the tasks assigned to them. When their job is specific and they’re a specialist at performing it,  – whether they’re a surgeon or heavy vehicle operator at a mining site –  they’ll often have a ‘gun for hire’ mindset that keeps them from buying into organisational culture and identifying themselves as part of something ‘bigger’.

 

On the other hand, they can be very dependent on employees they work alongside and have strong connections to their immediate team. Anything that can eliminate hassles and help them do their job faster and easier is what they’re going to want to get on board with.

Keep it small and relevant

It’s these parts of the frontline experience that organisations can leverage to get workers looped into their tech stack and apps with greater success. With a platform like Viva from Microsoft, organisations have a an opportunity to take a step-by-step approach to new tech engagement and serve content and apps that streamline and surface context related work information that is tailored to the individuals team and location.

 

If you’re working on trains or buses you only want the route or training info that’s specific to where and what you’re driving. By keeping it local and easy, you can then start to transition other routines into Viva, bringing workers back to the same familiar, customised and ultra-helpful hub every time. Before they know it they’ll be clocking on and off, or logging vehicle maintenance requests via Viva. Rolling out additional apps or features when workers are already used to the single pane of glass functionality of Viva and Teams can make a big difference to easy uptake of a new tech solution for something they’ve been doing a different way for years. 

Smooth the process path

Another tip for successful adoption should be a given for all workplace technologies, regardless of the type of role. If something doesn’t make a task or process faster and easier, then what’s the point in changing it? But this is particularly the case for front line workers, who are more likely to be following a checklist or on the clock during working hours. Using new technology to improve access to tools, information and support can reduce the effort it takes to make it to the end of a check list or shave essential seconds from a task or process.

 

What this could look like in real life is hundreds of pages of a maintenance manual made easy to reference with digital indexing and smart search. Or tagging road traffic incidents so any emergency services team with a GPS nearby gets an instant alert, along with senior staff at headquarters. This saves first responders from having to keep information moving across units and back up the chain of command, giving them more time to focus on a fast and effective response on the ground. These critical seconds can make the difference between a life saved and a life lost following an accident.

Create a better customer experience

Clearly technology that can improve accident survival rates is a win for an emergency services ‘customer experience’. But what about day-to-day interactions with customers simply looking for the best product to suit their needs? For retail or service workers, their job can be more rewarding – and they can deliver a better brand experience – when technology makes it possible to access product knowledge instantly.

 

An app that can deliver detailed specs and stock levels to their mobile device allows them to share the right information without having to leave their customer’s side. This supports a better purchasing decision, giving customers confidence in their choice and in the service they’ve just experienced.

Choose champions workers trust

Ultimately, all workers want to know they’re doing a job well, whatever type of role they’re in. Well-designed technology has great potential to play a part in helping them go faster, be better informed and more effective. Getting their peers to champion a transition to new tech can help convince them that an app can, in fact, do all these things. This is particularly important for frontline workers with a cultural lean away from authority and change. When they know their trade well, it’s that much harder to get them to pivot to a ‘better’ way that’s being introduced by a central team. Make it an initiative supported by equals and you’ll be breaking down a barrier that could otherwise stop them from enjoying the benefits of technology designed to improve their employee experience.  

Looking to invest in the tech stack for your frontline workforce and drive adoption? Get in touch to discover how we can support you.