Gartner Research

A Strategic Framework for Communicating With Frontline Workers in Times of Anxiety

Published: 22 April 2020

ID: G00722659

Analyst(s): Mike Gotta , Adam Preset

Summary

Frontline workers may be exposed to health and safety risks, as they often deal with the public and operate in public spaces. COVID-19 requires application leaders to step up their technology options to enable all stakeholders to proactively communicate and engage with their community.

Overview

Key Challenges
  • Frontline workers do not have access to as many communication and collaboration options as office workers. This can make itchallenging to reach them in a timely and effective manner.

  • Frontline workers face constraints on their free time, which affects their ability to keep abreast of corporate information — even if it affects health and safety.

  • Frontline workers may not have the level of interaction with leadership and peers necessary to share concerns, ideas, support, or their “voice” in ways that create a sense of engagement and community.

  • Frontline workers who have been laid offor who are working much fewer hours may lose access to information and peer support if access to corporate systems is suspended or significantly reduced.

Recommendations

Application leaders involved in frontline worker communications, collaboration, and online community strategies should:

  • Build the right team and project scope to positionCOVID-19 frontline communications and community engagement efforts for success.

  • Establish more effective efforts to increase awareness of COVID-19 issues and organizational response by augmenting and expanding frontline worker communication channels. Balance costs, urgency and the effectiveness of different channels.

  • Engage frontline workers collectively byusing online communities to promote peer support and crowdsourcing ideas. Apply frontline worker insights to improve response efforts.

  • Embrace outreach efforts for frontline workers with diminished access to internal systems by offering external communication and community options.

  • Ensure revised communication and community practices transcend the current crisis by conducting postcrisis reviews.

Introduction

Differences between office workers and frontline workers can become a significant factor for leadership teams to address, as they are often amplified in times of crisis (such as the COVID-19 crisis). In addition to the challenges noted above, employers and frontline workers face communications and community engagement hurdles in times of crisis:

  • Frontline workers may have personal or company-provided mobile devices, but not all devices may be used for enterprise communications.

  • Personal devices used by frontline workers can present their own barriers if they are older devices or if work-related use is perceived as encroaching on personal time.

  • Frontline workers may not have the flexibility to work at home. Compared with traditional office workers, frontline workers will likely have far fewer alternative work options.

  • Organizations may have constraints related to promoting frontline worker interaction during off-shift hours due to legal, union or work council agreements.

Effective employee communications and community-building efforts can have a reassuring impact on how the workforce weathers turbulent times, especially when there are high degrees of anxiety over well-being and employment. Those anxieties can be compounded as employees deal with nonwork concerns as well as work-related uncertainty.Gartner has found that workers are thinking about and discussing the COVID-19 crisis during work hours, and as the outbreak worsens, the time spent distracted by these concerns will likely increase (see ).

While employers are responding to the crisis and communicating information to the workforce, there is good reason to review current practices from a programmatic and technological perspective. It is important to ensure that gaps are addressed and improvements can be implemented to satisfy the needs of different workforce segments.Indeed, when such situations are driven by a public health crisis like COVID-19, frontline workers face unique exposures. They are often in customer-facing work environments or perform their duties in public spaces where well-being concerns can be paramount. These concerns may not be as prominent for traditional office workers, who can limit exposure to other people and public spaces. Compared with frontline workers, traditional office workers can also work from home more readily.

While organizations may have strategies in place for remote work, efforts that pertain to traditional office workers may not apply for frontline workers when it comes to employee communications and community engagement. Gartner offers a five-step checklist for jump-starting such efforts (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Jump-Starting Frontline Worker Communications and Community Engagement

Application leaders should work with all business stakeholders to implement best practices. They should ensure that the organization takes a more holistic approach to employee communications and community engagement for frontline workers.

Analysis

COVID-19 presents unique and demanding circumstances for communication teams, especially when it comes to addressing the concerns of frontline workers. Application leaders collaborating with business stakeholders will face an array of requirements, with virtually all of them deemed to be of the highest priority. Working to manage expectations and navigate the daily fluctuations in societal and business conditions presents a daunting challenge. Dealing with such complexity is amplified when communications teams themselves face remote working hurdles that can inhibit timely interaction and decisions. Based on Gartner inquiries related to COVID-19 (totaling over 1,900 in March 2020)and current research in response to the crisis, Gartner has developed a three-step checklist (see Tables 1 to 3)of key areas to focus on for this part of the strategic framework.

Table 1 provides a self-evaluation checklist for team readiness.

Table 2 provides a self-evaluation checklist for team collaboration needs.

Refer to Note 2 for a representative list of technology options relevant to Step 2.

Table 3 provides a self-evaluation checklist for outreach campaign preparations.

Other actions in this phase include:

  • Ensure business stakeholders are aware of frontline worker application solutions for employee communications and community engagement bycapitalizing on insights in this research.

  • Recognize that communication team members themselves are likely facing enormous amounts of stress outside work as well. This may affect their ability to respond rapidly to meet employer and employee expectations.

  • Factor in short-term and longer-term cost factors related to the urgency and effectiveness of the organization’s communication and community needs. Short-term actions taken now may require future technology consolidation later.

Frontline workers can face hurdles that are not present for traditional office workers. For instance, frontline workers might not have enterprise email inboxes or may have limited access to intranets (sometimes only through kiosks in break rooms). Some frontline workers can access company resources through mobile devices directly or through unified workspaces. Devices being used at home may limit access to certain information — due to the worker being off-shift. These examples can constrain the organization’s efforts to rapidly provide frontline workers with timely and essential communications regarding COVID-19. This can affect these workers’ ability to take health and safety steps and adjust their work routines based on organizational shifts. Still, current channels need to be examined to identify ways that they can be augmented to respond better to COVID-19. Organizations should also examine options to expand communication channels to reach frontline workers more effectively.

Table 4 provides atask-focused execution checklist for communications and community technology.

See Note 3 for a representative list of technology options relevant to Step 4.

Additionally, some vendors have conversational interfaces such as chatbots and bots that can act as an alerting mechanism to remind or notify frontline workers. For instance, a worker might be reminded to clean their hands or make sure surface areas are cleaned on a regular basis. Finally, a variety of vendors are offering free use and/or resource centers to address COVID-19 (see Note 1).

Other actions to take include:

  • Explore ways to expand hours and means of access to frontline worker communication channels and community sites for COVID-19 by working with policy stakeholders involved in managing access to enterprise systems. This can help the organization reach off-shift workers, or other workers who have diminished access on the job and can only access communications from home.

  • Examine immediate steps that can be taken to populate frontline worker environments with more kiosks, digital signage or other devices to improve access. Combine this with necessary cleaning procedures and related safety precautions for all equipment and surface areas that may be dependent on outside services. This can be used to add additional tasks for frontline workers themselves.

  • Assess timelines and dependencies for deployment and operational readiness of new touchpoints, such as dedicated employee communications mobile apps. See (Table 33 lists vendors that can technically respond in days or week; Table 34 lists vendors thatoffer a range of free services — some of these vendors have shared templates for COVID-19 communication efforts).

Frontline workers can feel isolated (particularly if they are based in remote locations) and may be more disconnected from the type of peer support and continuous information access that traditional office workers often experience. While more effective communications can be tremendously valuable, there are also benefits from group interaction. Online communities that thrive are not easy to achieve (and sustain). Organizations need to commit to dedicated community manager roles and community management practices, and focus on the frontline worker experience in terms of participation and contribution value. Such value can span from having purpose-driven communities to those that also share stories, embrace peer support for reassurance, and gain moral support for their well-being. Enterprise-sponsored events, content and Q&As with leadership representatives add value to sustain engagement.

It is also vital to authentically recognize frontline worker insights and their collective voice when it comes to on-the-ground issues that they bring to the community and management to address. Indeed, crowdsourcing these insights can provide leadership teams and other strategists with invaluable data. This data can be used to formulate and implement more effective actions to improve the COVID-19 response. General-use community technologies often make use of hashtags, “likes” and other techniques to tabulate comments on certain topics. These can then be used to gather employee insight. More advanced facilitation and analytics capabilities might lead application leaders to consider other vendor options that are purposely designed for ideation and crowdsourcing. Additionally, offering “stand-ups” can encourage workers to voice concerns to their immediate supervisors while working (within safety precautions) or via virtual channels (such as online communities and messaging apps).

Table 5 provides atask-focused execution checklist for online community deployment.

See Note 4 for a representative list of technology options relevant to Step 5.

Table 6 provides atask-focused execution checklist for addressing different types of online communities.

Table 7 provides atask-focused execution checklist to help gain insight from employee participation and contributions.

As mentioned earlier, some vendors have native chatbot/bot capabilities or have integration partnerships with third-party vendors that can notify frontline workers of certain tasks or information updates. Also, a variety of vendors are offering free use and/or resource centers to address COVID-19 (as outlined in Note 1).

Other actions to take include:

  • Alongside policy stakeholders, explore ways to relax limitations on access to community and crowdsourcing technologies that have been set up explicitly for COVID-19.

  • Identify staff with the skills to take on community manager, facilitator and related roles (such as language specialists).

  • Rally management support for the creation of specific materials for frontline workers to be used in events, media. This content may be repurposed from similar content aimed at office workersor it may be uniquely created to deliver meaningful experiences for frontline workers.

  • Acknowledge the need for geographically centered community spaces that support localization, local languages and awareness of the local context.

  • Recognize that securing the emotional well-being of community members is a fundamental goal of these efforts.

Organizations are making difficult decisions balancing business continuity needs and maintaining operations while protecting the health and safety of employees. This challenge can result in short-term reductions in staff for some period of time. In some cases, workers may be let go, while in other cases, workers may have significant reductions in hours but still technically be employed. Depending on how this happens from an IT perspective, workforce management systems and IT identity and security systems may eliminate frontline worker access to internal systems. Given that the intent might be to rehire workers or increase shift time in the future, organizations might want to verify their capabilities to maintain some lines of communication and community interaction with those frontline workers. If so, there may be opportunities for organizations to offer some level of outreach. Table 8 outlines items business and IT stakeholders can evaluate and proceed on as warranted. Evaluating workforce management, identity management, and security systems to see what actions can be taken is critical. This process may be supported by tangible business factors as it relates to talent and job experience (rehires might more rapidly reach needed performance levels). It may also be rationalized as part of the organization’s corporate brand and values.

Table 8 provides a checklist to help build continued outreach options.

At some point, the COVID-19 crisis will be overcome and business operations and frontline worker routines will return to normal. However, there will be other predictable situations (such as natural disasters, economic fluctuations or another health-related crisis). Organizations should not assume that this is a one-time event. While the urgent focus now is on addressing immediate concerns, strategies being formulated or executed now must include a postcrisis review. Lessons learned along the way should be documented in anticipation of this review. The scope of such efforts should examine modifications and additions to frontline worker communications and community engagement.

Table 9 provides a checklist for sustaining the actions taken.

The postcrisis review should include outreach to frontline workers. This outreach should take advantage of the communication channels put in place for COVID-19 but also the communication channels to community destination sites. Additionally, crowdsourcing platforms would make a great engagement vehicle to solicit participation and contributions from frontline workers themselves. Frontline workers can share feedback regarding their experiences, their impressions of how the organization responded, and innovative ideas to help the organization do better in the future.

Gartner Recommended Reading

Note 1: Illustrative List of Vendors Offering Free Services or Resources for COVID-19

Note 2: Illustrative List of Vendors for Collaboration Hubs for Communications Teams

Representative technology options application leaders can consider to support a collaboration hub for communications teams include:

  • Workstream collaboration: Microsoft Teams, Slack

  • Collaborative work management: Asana, monday.com, Smartsheet, Wrike

  • Meeting solutions: Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Zoom

Note 3: Illustrative List of Vendors for Supporting Frontline Worker Communications

Representative technology options application leaders can consider to support frontline worker communications include:

  • Employee communications applications:APPrise Mobile, Bananatag, Beekeeper, Dynamic Signal, Igloo, LumApps, Poppulo, SocialChorus, Staffbase, Workplace by Facebook, Unily

  • Workstream collaboration: Cisco Webex Teams, Google Hangouts Chat, Microsoft Teams, Slack

  • Digital signage (software): FWI, Omnivex, Haivision

Note 4: Illustrative List of Vendors for Supporting Frontline Worker Communities and Crowdsourcing

Representative technology options application leaders can consider to support frontline worker communities and crowdsourcing include:

  • Online communities: Microsoft Yammer, Workplace by Facebook

  • Employee crowdsourcing: Hype, Planview, Sopheon, Thoughtexchange

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