Now's the time to listen and learn from your frontline workers, whatever their employment status

4 minute read

Just when we need it most, many organisations are hearing less of the voices of their frontline or key workers, many of whom are gig workers, freelancers, self-employed or from partner organisations. Now more than ever, we need a joined-up approach to give everyone in the workforce a voice

Martin Kirke

Now's the time to listen and learn from your frontline workers, whatever their employment status

“I’m Zoomed out “is one of the new phrases to come out of lockdown. I know the feeling after several hours of Zoom meetings with the occasional Microsoft Teams thrown in, I am truly exhausted. Strange then that for others in the workforce the reverse is true. Many frontline or key workers are seeing much less of their leaders and managers because they are working from home or are furloughed. There are parts of the organisation which have been connecting very frequently by meeting in video calls and others who are more isolated because they can’t join in. If you are driving, answering customer calls, delivering post or providing care to others you are not likely to have the time to join in, even in the unlikely event that you were invited. So, at the time when we need it most many organisations are hearing less of the voices of their frontline or key workers.

The same group that we are now calling key workers, recognising the long-undervalued role they play, are now having to be even more self- sufficient. That’s not all bad – for some it’s good riddance to the days of being micro-managed. A bit more empowerment for the frontline to make decisions on how to do their job while still being told what to do is a welcome change. The problem will come if the returning managers don’t recognise that their workforce has been getting along just fine without them. There’s a real risk of tension and friction if we don’t understand that you can’t turn the clock back.

Many managers have been Zooming each other, but how much of a voice have these key workers in the frontline had? Many organisations do not issue email addresses to all employees or give them access to the intranet. Worst still, some refuse to accept that these are workers or employees at all.

The growing number of gig economy legal disputes about what is and is not a worker or employee provides rich pickings for lawyers, and some market disruptors have benefited – food delivery, parcel delivery, taxis and so on. It is lower cost and seen as more flexible than hiring employees because they don’t have employment rights and benefits. Yet these frontline staff are the people in the organisation who spend their days with the customers. What are we learning from them? What are customers saying? What opportunities are we missing?

In HR we need to move on quickly from the idea that we are only concerned with those who come under the outdated definition of an employee and are sent an employment contract. Most modern workforces have groups such as freelancers, employees of partner organisations, outsourced service providers and often self-employed individuals serving customers. Added to that are the many franchised businesses in retail, car dealers, takeaways and restaurants where the customer is served by an employee of another company or franchisee. To mitigate the legal risks of being challenged on employment rights HR have to separate these groups, which works against creating a shared purpose. If they are put on the HR system or receive internal communications for employees they may be deemed to be employees.

Now more than ever we need to join up the whole workforce. We need to give everyone a voice and to listen and learn. I have found that most large organisations don’t know what they know and spend time and money finding answers to questions that another employee has found already. As Matthew Syed, the author and high performance expert, wrote in The Times recently: “Organisations that build a sense of purpose into everything they do, and create digital platforms for staff to meaningfully interact are far more likely to…… inspire deep commitment“.

Technology alone won’t solve the problem without the right inclusive culture, but it is a key enabler. App based tools which connect everyone in the workforce regardless of status are low cost and very quick to implement. The convenience store and newsagent retailer McColl’s experience is typical.

Rosie Radford, head of talent and capability at McColl’s says: "We had been looking at frontline employee communications for some time. We wanted to connect all employees across the organisation without a McColl’s email and give them a voice. With 18,000 employees and 1,700 stores, it is difficult to connect, communicate and engage with our frontline employees. We launched the Speakap employee communication platform in less than a week and were able to join up the entire workforce, create a feedback loop for all employees and share the great work that is being done by our frontline workers. It has been invaluable in connecting all employees and creating a more inclusive culture at McColl’s."

These dedicated tools also help to keep a work/life balance which has been threatened during lockdown by using consumer social media apps for work connections and communication. Using social media apps we have for friends and family shouldn’t bleed into work, because many value their privacy and need separation from work for their wellbeing. Besides, it’s much more effective to create your organisation’s own identity and culture on a dedicated platform rather than promote a big tech player’s name.

So, after the clapping, volunteering and celebration of frontline key workers providing our life support it’s time to hear their voice. Time to give them tools which promote inclusion and share knowledge. Creating the same sense of purpose across the whole organisation is a key part of economic recovery. If we want to hear what has changed with customers we need to listen to those who spend the most time with them. I always hated the term “business as usual” to differentiate it from the other bit of the organisation which was doing “change programmes”. Business as usual reeks of complacency and is a myth from the snake oil school of management. Similarly there’s no “new normal” or “better normal” because there is no “normal”, just change.

Published 24 June 2020

I have found that most large organisations don’t know what they know and spend time and money finding answers to questions that another employee has found already

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