Overcoming the Challenges of Engaging Firstline & Desk-less Workers

Posted by: Stacy Burris on March 9, 2021

Firstline communicationsWhen the people talk about firstline worker the first thought that comes to mind is frontline health professionals who are battling the COVID-19 pandemic. While these beautiful and amazing human beings are included in the definition of a firstline worker, the term is NOT used exclusively for them.

Firstline workers are often shift based, mobile first workers who are the first point of contact between a customer and the organization. They include but are not limited to customer service representatives, salespeople, healthcare workers, and factory operators. Their work patterns are not as structured as those who are desk-bound and communications are for the most part delivered by mobile devices.  Needless to say, keeping firstline workers informed can be challenging. However, digital transformation is helping businesses address these communication and collaboration challenges and the results are very pleasing.

Intelligent_Workplace_Podcast_1080x1080px_V1Recently, Stephanie Donahue was featured as a guest of the LiveTiles Podcast, The Intelligent Workplace.  Host Chris Lukianenko virtually sat down with Stephanie to discuss the need to simplify communications for firstline workers.   Enjoy a few highlights from their conversation.

The term firstline worker can be a little confusing for some. We hear so much about it, frontline health workers. But firstline workers are a much larger group than that, aren't they?

It's really kind of an all-encompassing term, right? It's a term that we're hearing a lot since the onset of COVID-19. As you mentioned, we think about first-line being our doctors and nurses as well as other first responders. But I think in general corporate terms and business, they are the ones with whom the customers first interact.


Copy of _PAIT Group provides our clients a secure, proactive approach to modernizing the workplace that will prepare them for whatever comes next._-1


What are some of the major challenges for firstline workers in the digital age?

I think there's a lot of challenges. They've been the ones that have been left out for a while. So, as we've watched the corporate world grow and have all these new ways of doing things;

  • we've got laptops instead of desktops,
  • we went from laptops to mobile phones, 
  • we've got internet for communications, and
  • we've got all these file sharing systems.
But what we've often seen in the frontline?  For the folks that are out on the manufacturing plant floor, or doctors and nurses, they're going from one place to the next, one room to another, so the challenge is a little bit different. You're not in front of a desktop all day or at a desk in general. And so, mobility is really one of those things that's a huge challenge for the frontline.  And how do we bring the same conveniences that those of us that at a desk have every day? How do we make all of that accessible to those that are moving around all the time?


Mobility is a really difficult concept because can you really have everything in your back pocket when you're say a salesperson out on the road. How do you take the idea of being at a desktop and having everything at your fingertips, and transition it so that wherever you are, whatever time of day it is, you've got everything that you need to do your job?

I think it's becoming more and more important for us to be able to connect with each other, to be able to bring people together to have conversations. You think about manufacturing plants, they have quality issues. 

  • How do we allow manufacturing plants in totally different countries to work together?
  • How do we help them share information, when again, they're not at a desk all day?
  • How do we help them take pictures and share them?, or
  • Have conversations around the issues in their plant, or even something like simplifying their scheduling?

We have all these extra things that we have to think about that we have to look at maybe a slightly different way than we would if we were just dealing with people that have a laptop.


We tend to take it for granted a little bit, those of us that are desk bound workers, that we can talk to that teammate that's next to us. We can look at each other's schedules to see what's going on. It's really easy to chat. But when you are out there on the firstline, it's not actually a given that you get all these things, is it?

Not at all. Like I mentioned earlier, it's just been the last place to get the upgrades. And I feel like IT may be a little bit hesitant (to deliver them these tools) because they feel like, they (frontline workers) do not want to use the technology or IT make up these excuses like, "Oh, they won't use it anyway."

I think we underestimate people. There are smart people out there (in the firstline). They really know and understand the business at another level at its very core. But in the same sense, we're talking about people that maybe need a little more hands-on training, they're hands-on people. It is the responsibility of the business to ensure that happens. If workers are pushing back, usually it is because businesses haven't supplied them with enough of the WHY and HOW: 

  • Why should we be doing this?
  • How are we going to implement it?
  • Why is it going to be easier for you?

I think that's really what's going to help push Firstline Worker Digital Transformation forward.


Do you feel like firstline workers are a little bit envious of the desk workers? They've got their perfectly set up workstation and everything's at their fingertips. It feels like there's a bit of a culture of haves and have nots in a way.

I don't know that I've experienced a situation where I've seen that kind of technology envy. I do think people come in and they make do with what they're given a lot of times. However, I do think they want a focused employee experience. They're busy and they don't care that there's cake in the break room or that on Fridays corporate can wear jeans to the office that they donate to charity.  It's a waste of time for them to read that news. So, are they jealous that they don't get that news? No, not at all.

I think we do need to supply them with information that's relevant to them to get their jobs accomplished more efficiently and effectively. If Firstline workers felt they were missing out on that kind of an experience, then I think there might be a little envy.   I don't think anyone really is interested in receiving information that doesn't apply to them.


Firstline workers have been left to the end of the line in terms of technology. Do you feel like then they just find a way to do stuff and end up doing things that make IT cringe?

Absolutely. This is why we see things like Facebook groups popping up. Here is one example, with truck drivers. They're driving and are coming close to their destination where they need to unload their shipment.  Now here comes trucker's the frustration; prior to arriving they have no sense of timing on if the loading dock area will be free for them to drop off the delivery.  If they had some knowledge maybe they would stop and take a break before arriving or drive straight in.  So, what has been happening,  there are groups of truck drivers popping up on Facebook and it makes IT crazy. IT can't control what is happening in these groups. IT doesn't know the conversations;, they can't control the security.  But the truck drivers are just trying to get their jobs done. They're trying to be more effective. They're trying to make their day more efficient, which is ultimately good for the business. So, this kind of this tug of war with technology going back to the excuse, "Well, they won't use it anyway." Trust me, they're finding ways, they're finding technology to use. It's a matter of whether or not IT is involved.


You mentioned security there. That's a massive concern for IT as soon as you're going outside the home environment, into all these other different applications, there is just an increased risk of a security breach. And perhaps the people that are operating these Facebook groups or whatever they maybe don't realize at the time. But all of a sudden, you're opening up your business to external parties that potentially could have bad intentions.

So, it's even more important. They're not staying within the bounds and inside the walls of your office. And that's kind of the case for all of us these days now that we're all doing this remote work thing. But especially, when you think about those truck drivers or nurses that travel to people's homes and they have all this patient information on their laptops that they need to have with them. Well, what happens when you leave that laptop in the wrong place accidentally, or what happens if that laptop is stolen? We have to think about these things because they're mobile and that information is going everywhere. And we really have to be conscious to maybe take some additional steps to make sure it's protected. We tend to do that in a way that makes a little more cumbersome for the user. And so I think we really have to be creative with how we approach security while still balancing the needs of the firstline worker.


 I agree. We're focusing here on communication today, as that's probably one of the overarching issues for firstline workers. How come it's traditionally been so difficult to manage communications with firstline workers?

I believe the communications with firstline workers are different as they have different needs. Those of us that work at a desk, we come in, we get our coffee, we browse the internet, see what the company news is. That's not necessarily the case for someone who's on a manufacturing plant floor or nurses. I used to work for a visiting nurse service and they had hospice nurses. Do you think that for a hospice nurse, that the first thing on their mind is, "Gosh, I wonder what's going on with the news in the organization today,"? it's not realistic.

They're doing really important things. So I think we have to hit them in a different way.

  • It has to be focused.
  • It has to be easy for them to get to, and
  • It has to be available at a time and a place where they're able to step aside and focus for a moment when they have so much going on in other areas.

Do you feel like maybe some of the current communication channels are a little bit outdated in the mobile modern workforce?

I think that a lot of organizations are starting to figure that out. And they're starting to think about these things, but traditional internets don't load on mobiles well, unless you've transitioned. Even SharePoint, right! Unless you've rolled out Modern SharePoint sites online, you don't have that mobile capability. Rolling out the SharePoint App would allow you to get to it from a mobile perspective, but that's just one example. We have a lot of legacy internets out there, that don't load on mobile. And so, we're relying on things like emails to come out. Let’s say, if you've got 50 emails in your inbox and one of those is news, how do you know in your 10 minutes break to go find that communication? So again, it's not as quick or convenient as it could be in many cases. But I do think it's something that a lot of organizations are really working to improve.


This is where digital transformation can provide the answers to these challenges, but it's not a matter of waving a magic wand.   What needs to be done?  

A lot of planning because we can't just assume everybody's the same. You really have to look at your audience (to whom you are communicating).

  • How do they get their job done every day, and
  • How do we plug in and make it easy and convenient for them? We had one example with a manufacturing plant.

We thought we were just going to roll out their home page. And we're like, "Oh yeah, they're just going to go to the homepage." And they're like, "They need training." And we're like, "You don't need training. It works like It's no big deal. You go out, you click on a link." And they're like, "Oh, well this particular group, is in another country and a lot of the folks that work at that plant, they don't have internet at home and they don't sit down at a computer at night". Truly, for that particular plant and that particular country, going to, that's a big deal. And that floored me. Coming from, I'm kind of spoiled here in the US. I had no idea that that would be a thing, they would need training just to use a news homepage. So that was a reality check for me to go "We really need to understand the frontline. We really need to understand who is coming in to get those communications, to be able to access the forum, to be able to look at HR information for their benefits."

  • Who are these people?
  • How are they engaging? and
  • What can we do to make this process easier for them?

Because it's different for each group.


All those change managers listening today are all smiling and high-fiving each other hearing you say that, aren't they?

I sure hope so. Yeah. It's something that we've breezed over it for so long and maybe that's why we avoided it a little bit. I think it's because in IT we've got enough to manage. It's a lot to handle just with corporate, much less to bring in different groups of people with different needs.


Yeah. What are some of the key considerations a business needs to make in terms of a digital transformation project to address those communication needs of the firstline workers?

Well, I think it's important to look at it in phases, especially when you have different types of users. And we've looked at this for a long time by breaking out the groups. You can start with corporate, but as you start to make your plans to integrate the firstline, maybe you need to get creative. GitHub has this fantastic example of a shift hub, and it's taking the same types of communications corporate would use but pushing it into a space where you can access it from Teams.

So, start to think about:

  • Who are the different groups of people that we're engaging with?
  • What devices do they have?
  • How mobile are they?
  • Are they in a truck?
  • Are they on a hospital floor?
  • Are they in a manufacturing plant?

And then start thinking about, "Okay, now that I know who I'm dealing with and what their experience is in the workplace, how do we bring that experience to them in a way that's effective?"

Of course, I have my preferences. I'm a Microsoft person. We love to see them out there in Teams and SharePoint. I know there's some great third-party tools, like LiveTiles Reach. So there's some great third-party tools to plug in if the Microsoft 365 thing isn't quite there for you.


Are those technologies you just mentioned then some of the key ones looking to make the lives of the firstline workers easier?

Those are the ones that we're seeing out in the workforce pretty frequently. And now it's even easier, everybody adopting Teams and SharePoint in the corporate world, it makes it easier to roll it out to the firstline workers as well. So, lots of good options and things that are easy to do. It's not a huge shift from what you're doing for any of your corporate workers, you're just looking at it a slightly different way and pivoting to make it easier for the firstline.


Once you've got everything set up, there is a fairly hefty change management process to consider, like whether that be whether you've got people in different countries or not. But overall, this is a really serious transformation to a business. And there are going to be people at differing levels of experience and expertise. So, change management just sort of kicks in. It is so key, isn't it?

 I think the training and the support is so important. You just took me back to a memory of that visiting nurse service I used to work for. It was a hospice nurse who was really, really frustrated with her device and she brought it to me. She handed me the device and she was like, "This was run over by a car." I kind of laughed. And I was like, "Oh, did it fall off the top of the car? You left it on top of the car and it fell off?" And she's like, "No, I put it behind the tire and I ran over it."

I was like, "Oh my goodness, let me get my manager." But what happened was, this was a fantastic hospice nurse. She had a lot of other things going on that day, but she hadn't received enough training and she hadn't received enough support for her experience to be a positive one. She was frustrated, the device was not working as she really needed it to, to get her job done. And she was frustrated. And granted, I don't recommend running over your laptop when you're frustrated. Hopefully you've got some support in place to help with that. But that's why this is so important to do it one step at a time, find the low hanging fruit, do it in phases.

And throughout your change management process you should to continue to get feedback so that you can remove barriers because it's so important to get in front of those issues before you get to the point where you have a worker who's so frustrated that they're ready to damage their device. That should never happen if you're training, you're providing support, and you're giving them a chance to give feedback. Then you're giving them a chance to participate and for you and IT to understand what they go through every day. And so, you can understand what works, what doesn't, and continue to improve their experience.


Digital transformation for the firstline workers is really important for improving communication as we've mentioned. But there are other flow and improvements as well. Can you detail some of those for me?

One of the things we always look at is not to just push communications and the mobile devices,  but to figure out a way to build on that.  One of our customers started with an outdated intranet and we pushed communications to a new, modern, mobile friendly intranet. They were able to push those to their manufacturing plants. Then the next phase, they went multi-lingual so that they could reach those manufacturing plants in a different way. They could reach people they couldn't reach before. They wanted to go even further, and they said, "We'd really like some forms on the manufacturing plant floor." So, we created some forms that could load on an iPad, then come to find out, they love to use those forms on their phones.    So, their mobile phones they had in their pockets, they're now using to fill out forms.

Guess what happens from there? You save that into a database or into a SharePoint list. Now you can do reporting. So, you've got real-time reporting, live from the manufacturing plant floor. That's taking your business to a new level because prior to that, they had to wait till all of those pieces of paper could be entered manually. The managers are able to make real time decisions based on the data that's feeding into their dashboards. That's really where you start to get to the next level of digital transformation. That's like total transformation of your business.


Data collection, resource management, workflows, all leading through to, oh my goodness, improved productivity, hey?

Improved productivity, improved quality, all the things you start to look for to save money and make more money. Those are key items, right there.

Instagram Square Episode Announcement - PAIT[1]If you would like to listen to the full discussion between Chris and Stephanie on Digital Transformation and how it can help alleviate the communications challenge your organization is experiencing with your firstline workforce click here.

In addition, we would love to hear from everyone on their thoughts on digital transition and its impact on the firstline worker.  Also, if you would like to sit down with us and see if your organization is ready to modernize its firstline contact our team today


Additional Resources on the subject of the importance of the Firstline/Frontline Worker and including them in your organization's digital transformation:


Topics: mobile, Digital Transformation, Firstline Worker

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