2021 Trend: Digitising the frontline workforce

Ideal OutComes' Jason Richmond on shifting from a traditional workplace to a digitally-based one.

Jason Richmond, chief culture officer and founder at Ideal OutComes  says going digital at the front-line is not new. Eighty percent of workers globally – about 2.7 billion people – are “deskless” and handling jobs that do not require (or allow for) sitting in place.  If that number surprises you, think about all the industries this includes: retail and grocery, healthcare, hospitality and food service, construction, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, and utilities.

Despite these numbers, the technology industry has invested very little in providing accessible online solutions to improve the productivity and engagement of such workers. In fact, only one percent of the $300 billion spent annually in software venture capital goes toward technologies for them, according to a report by Emergence Capital, a private equity firm whose investments include Salesforce, Box, Yammer, and Zoom.

When we consider that 96 percent of young workers own a smartphone and that 22 percent of younger adults rely solely on smartphones for access to the internet, it is obvious that organisations are not only missing a significant opportunity to recover from the economic impact of Covid-19 but also an opportunity to increase their market competitiveness.

UPS, for example, is on its fifth generation of hand-held computers, which have been enhancing delivery efficiency since 2012. More recently, according to a New York Times article, Old Navy employees used seven different applications on their store-issued mobile devices to locate, stock, ship, and order merchandise for customers, which helped the company experience growth – and outperform all its sister chains – prior to a pandemic, when retail clothing jobs declined by nine percent from 2013 to 2018. As a result, its parent company, Gap, spun it off and planned to open 800 new stores.

Despite Covid-19 setbacks, Old Navy continues to perform. The company quickly retooled its brick-and-mortar stores as distribution centres to fulfil online orders, and scaled up kerbside pickup in a two-week window. Simultaneously, they retrofitted their stores for eventual reopening with Plexiglass sneeze guards, new cleaning protocols, and signage to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing. The result: they were able to retain an amazing 95 percent of their sales.

In a recent Harvard Business Review survey, 86 percent of respondents said frontline workers needed better technology to make informed decisions in the moment. Being able to make such decisions empowers workers, a key driver of both engagement and productivity.

Clearly, deskless technology is essential for every industry. The main gains are productivity, safety and compliance, and agility, which translates into a more customer-centric culture. When companies employ mobile apps, they can pivot quickly in case of a crisis, regardless of their location. They can better measure and improve employee productivity and communicate in ways that enhance both employee experience and satisfaction.

Such technology also improves companies’ ability to recruit, train, and retain frontline workers, roles that have significant turnover rates. There are now platforms that can source, screen, hire, and onboard employees with greater efficiency. By shortening training sessions and distributing them via mobile platforms, workers can learn on the job in smaller chunks while not disrupting their workflow.   

Having a distributed workforce is challenging, but advancements in technology make it easier than ever to stay connected. A survey by Speakap found that 53 percent of global frontline workers in retail, hospitality, and entertainment already use messaging apps like WhatsApp for work without human resource’s knowledge. Such use may be putting organisations at risk for data security, but it also speaks to the need for such tools. The same survey showed that a company-wide social network would enable them to easily access interactive training and development content. 

It is time for companies to strategically make the culture shift from traditional workplace communication and information sharing to a digitally-based one.

Here are some important starting points to move your organisation in this critical direction.

  • Look for ways to change your hiring practices to emphasise a variety of digital channels.
  • Take a proactive approach by creating digital communications committees that can track technology trends and create technology policies.
  • Align initiatives such as employee engagement with technological solutions.
  • Investigate how you can integrate mobile technology across your operations.
  • Get ahead of the curve by thinking about the next generation of jobs at your organisation and the skills they will require.

As baby boomers continue to exit the workforce, the next generations of employees will be a critical asset to your ongoing growth and success. They are ready for employee technology and will want to work for employers who are also ready.