Why Frontline Worker Communication Is More Important (and easier) Than Ever
February 15, 2022
Frontline workers have always been the beating heart of their organization. They’re in tune and in contact with products, services, and customers in a way that nobody else can be. The insights that come with their experience are irreplaceable. But for many organizations, communication between frontline workers and their colleagues in the corporate office hasn’t always been easy, clear, or free.
While frontline employee experience as a whole is a nuanced and muti-faceted challenge to solve, that lack of communication alone poses a set of significant problems worth digging into. Stronger communication is a crucial step toward identifying and addressing other issues.
Organizations are better equipped than ever to open the necessary channels to improve everything from business processes to frontline employee experience, yet those channels still frequently remain obstructed, or even closed.
As part of a 2021 Work Trend Index special report, Microsoft shared stark statistics relating to this trend:
Sixty-three percent of all frontline workers say messages from leadership don’t make it to them. Things are especially trying for frontline managers (69 percent) who say their higher-ups are not effectively communicating with them either. At the same time, 32 percent of frontline workers feel their voice is not being heard when communicating workplace issues.
Frontline manager communication
Frontline workers often have critical information, but limited channels to share it. In some cases, the only channel is through their manager. When frontline managers’ lines of communication are also attenuated or blocked, that compounds the problem.
Imagine communication as a waterfall, cascading from senior leadership to Internal Comms, to middle management, to line managers, then frontline workers. There are numerous critical points in that flow of information where it can be blocked or misdirected.
With so many frontline managers claiming their own leaders are failing to communicate effectively, it’s no wonder a majority of frontline workers aren’t reached by messages from leadership. Similarly, it’s clear why so many frontline workers feel their voice isn’t being heard.
This isn’t necessarily a failure at any particular level—it’s a systemic communication issue many organizations face, and a formidable one to solve. But it’s worth solving.
Establishing a global source of truth
While it won’t solve communication breakdowns alone, having a reliable, equally accessible source of truth for everyone in the organization is one major step toward a solution. If all employees have access to the same communications, the flow of information is not only more available, but also more accurate.
In addition to more accessible and accurate top-down communication, a single source of truth can help clarify lateral communication between peers, while supporting structured bottom-up communication.
Establishing a global source of truth doesn’t require sharing everything with everyone. The goal is to ensure all employees have access to the accurate and up-to-date information they need to do their best work at any given moment.
Many frontline workers and line managers face scenarios where they’re required to make big split-second decisions without the benefit of senior leadership’s support and guidance. Similarly, strategic decisions are often made at the corporate level without the benefit of feedback and guidance from those working closest to the issue.
Clear, frequent, and organized company-wide communication can aid in frontline decision making as well as strategic decision making at multiple levels.
The challenge with opening those crucial lines of communication used to be a technological challenge, but that’s becoming less and less the case.
The evolving technological landscape
In the past, building communication pipelines between frontline workers and leadership was logistically challenging. Lots of manual interaction was necessary in order to communicate top-down messages and information across an organization, let alone lateral and bottoms-up communication.
With modern mobile devices, many frontline workers now have access to computers (even if they don’t have a desk), and therefore the potential for equal access to information. How and if individual organizations realize and invest in that potential varies significantly, though.
Brad Anderson and Seth Patton underline the importance of providing employees with modern technology in their recent HBR post:
“How employees communicate, collaborate, and connect are fundamental qualities of the employee experience, and it’s critical that employers get it right when it comes to how they facilitate these interactions with technology. Employees are 230% more engaged and 85% more likely to stay beyond three years in their jobs if they feel they have the technology that supports them at work, according to Qualtrics.”
Before the ubiquity of mobile devices, peer communication among frontline workers was severely limited by geography. Now fellow frontline workers can communicate with peers across national or even international borders instantaneously.
But that easy global communication comes with some of its own challenges.
Even when geography ceases to be a barrier, time zones can still make instant communication challenging. That’s where having a global source of truth, a centralized hub for asynchronous communication, and a broad spectrum of communication mediums come in.
A world of choice
While the recent remote work revolution may not have directly impacted the daily routines of most frontline workers, the effects are still significant. Organizations invested in communication and collaboration technologies at an unprecedented rate.
Even if Zoom meetings haven’t yet found their way into most retail teams or job sites, many organizations are seeing the value of bringing communication and collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams to the frontline worker experience.
This proliferation of communication channels gives employees more choices for communication channels that not only suit their preferences, but also their unique workflow.
Culture’s two-way street
Try as some may, authentic organizational culture is not something that can be handed down directly from the top. Each member of an organization influences its culture. Whether you’re a team of 10 or 10,000, there’s a cultural influence every member brings.
While it’s possible to encourage and promote top-down cultural influences organization-wide, authenticity comes as a result of a harmonious blend of top-down and bottoms-up communication, collaboration, and understanding.
Supporting frontline workers
Frontline workers face unique challenges in the course of their daily work and need the support of their organization. That support can come in many forms, from access to people and resources, to safety and security.
Safety and security
At bare minimum, an organization should embrace accountability for the safety, security, and treatment of its contributing members. Whether that comes in the form of physical workplace safety, working conditions, or any other aspect of the employee experience, it’s crucial for employees to feel as though they’re valued.
Because frontline workers are often the ones closest to the work, they’re also closest to the hazards of that work. If their organization isn’t visibly invested in providing support and protecting them from those hazards, it sends a signal that they’re unimportant.
As one frontline worker who had recently resigned from her role was quoted in Ben Casselman’s recent New York Times article,
“The job was absolutely no longer worth it,” she said. “I was hurt that a company that I gave my time to did not seem to prioritize me or my safety.”
Who do your frontline communications serve?
One final crucial consideration: while frontline workers may be the intended audience of internal communications, it’s important to ensure they’re also the beneficiaries.
In other words, how are your communications providing value to frontline workers—do they serve leadership interests or do they serve frontline employees?
This is a critical question to answer, because one-sided relationships are inherently unstable and unsustainable. If communications skew neutral to negative, disseminating top-down information like policy updates,
What are some easy ways to encourage more frontline worker engagement?
Bring key information to your employee hub (whatever that may be), and make it easily accessible.
- Give key activities and information like shift scheduling a unified, instantly accessible source of truth. As a frontline worker, a frequent frustration is the friction involved with planning time off when work schedules are ambiguous, unpredictable, or difficult to access.
- Provide health and safety information, guidance, and all the resources at the company’s disposal to help keep employees safe.
- Share information about important or entertaining company events.
- Open channels of communication that allow employees to share information about their jobs, whether it’s advice or appreciation for peers, or critical insights for leadership.
Free and frequent communication between frontline workers and their organizations continues to be a vital source of information sharing and culture building. Modern tools and technology make it easier than ever to open those communication channels to an ever-increasing range of frontline roles. Organizations that embrace this chance to bridge the frontline communication gap stand to gain the opportunity to benefit from more accurate, timely insights, and a more equitable employee experience.