This article is part of Blink’s “frontline first” series: content created specifically for leaders of deskless or distributed teams. We know that the job of frontline leadership is entirely different from managing ‘desk-based’ teams, so this is for you and your unique set of challenges.
Every leader in an organization that has frontline workforce has likely experienced the 'Frontline Connection Gap' - it's the root cause of thousands of wasted hours and measurable negative impact on key business metrics like retention and productivity.
But what exactly is this 'gap', and how do you know if your organization is one of the ones experiencing it? And if it turns out that you are, how do you go about closing it (and is it even worth the effort)? In this article, we'll explore all of those questions and give you some simple answers.
What is the Frontline Connection Gap?
In a nutshell, the Frontline Connection Gap is the failure to enable frontline workers to communicate with the same ease, scale and speed as desk-based workers.
If it sounds simple, that's because it is. Think about how the average desk-based worker gets to communicate at work:
- Easy access to their co-workers via email, work apps such as Slack and video conferencing tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams
- Easy access to key information and updates via intranets and cloud-based drives
- Easy access to key HR processes such as booking time off and downloading paystubs through tools such as Deel or Workday
- Easy access to learning and development through dedicated Learning Management Systems
- Easy access to other parts of the organization (including leadership) through shared directories
- Easy access to feedback portals through tools such as CultureAmp or Peakon
There's more where this came from, but the key point is that desk-based workers have access to a wealth of people, processes and information within just a few clicks.
For deskless workers, the picture looks very different - let's look at those same areas again:
- Limited access to co-workers beyond those in the same physical space, often leading to isolation
- Limited access to key information, often still delivered through paper memos as many frontline workers don't have access to a company email address.
- Limited access to key HR processes such as booking time off and arranging shifts, which often requires making phonecalls or messaging managers via text and WhatsApp. Processes such as claiming expenses often still involve using paper forms.
- Limited access to learning and development, as access to computers is infrequent
- Limited access to management and leadership, leading to disengagement
- Limited ability to deliver feedback or whistleblow on critical problems
The stark difference in these two worlds all comes down to communications infrastructure (or lack thereof): without continuous access to computers and email addresses, frontline workers are in a world that desk-based workers haven't experienced in more than twenty years.
The impact of the Gap
The way to know if your organization has a Frontline Connection Gap is by seeing if anything 'disappears' into it.
For the best examples of this, look to what your Human Resources team are doing. Let's take Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs as a key case - these critical initiatives are often planned and tracked at board level, and in order for them to be effective they need to impact every single member of an organization. The roll-out of these will often work well for desk-based teams thanks to regular communications such as emails, chat groups, in-person Employee Resource Groups and video calls.
However, getting to the frontline is a different matter. Without reliable channels for communications, People leaders will often find that promoting DEI programs is restricted to a flyer on a noticeboard, curtailing awareness and participation from the very start. In other words, the DEI program has fallen into the Frontline Connection Gap.
So we see just how big a problem the Gap can be: company policies and programs might as well not exist, for all the frontline are able to engage with them. As a result, the impact of the Gap can be felt on almost any core business metric - for example:
- Retention drops because frontline employee engagement is low
- Recruitment faces challenges as the organization is unable to offer an ideal employee experience
- Customer experience is impacted when employees are ill-informed and disengaged
- Productivity drops through inefficiencies in processes such as filling empty shifts and inconsistent onboarding and training
- Safety is put at risk through failures to communicate critical information at scale
- Employee wellbeing suffers as a result of isolation and inability to access support
The list could go on - and it does. If any one of these key metrics looks different in the frontline part of your organization in comparison to the desk-based part, then the likelihood is that you have a Frontline Connection Gap to bridge.
How to close the Frontline Connection Gap
It's important at this point to remember that the Frontline Connection Gap is rarely caused through neglect or intention - in fact, many organizations have tried (and are still trying) to close it. The problem is that the strategies that they employ usually fail, and it's for one important reason: the kind of communications infrastructure that works for the desk-based will not work for the frontline.
A key example of this is using intranets. Many organizations find intranets to be a useful means of sharing information with their desk-based workers, and so attempt to roll these out to their frontline workers through a mobile-based approach. In theory, this should work: most frontline workers have access to a smartphone and are confident enough in using them to download an intranet app.
However, this strategy comes across a number of roadblocks:
- Firstly, it requires frontline workers to remember a new login and password (IT teams often find themselves facing high volumes of password reset requests as a result).
- Secondly, engagement with intranet apps will usually be disappointingly low - but the reason for this poor uptake will help you unlock the secret of successfully crossing the Frontline Connection Gap (keep reading to find out).
To close the Frontline Connection Gap, there are three simple principles to follow:
- Go mobile. With smartphone adoption having reached a critical tipping point, this is a no-brainer.
- Consolidate where you can. The more systems and apps you ask a frontline worker to instal, the more you dilute your success. If you're asking your frontline to download and login to separate systems for accessing paystubs, receiving communications, giving feedback and arranging shifts, you're adding friction with every step. Create a single point of access wherever you can.
- Put daily value at the centre of your solution. This is the crucial secret behind adoption, and the last mile of closing the Frontline Connection Gap. Busy frontline workers need a reason to engage with HQ, and that's the problem with simply rolling out an intranet on mobile: there's little in it for a frontline worker, so even if they have an app in the palm of their hand, they'll rarely take time out to log in. Success lies in inverting this, by making sure that at the heart of your communications infrastructure are processes that the frontline always need - for example, access to shifts and paystubs. By placing value at the heart of your system, you get the consistent engagement you need to close the Gap (we call this 'Chips and Dip theory' - find out more about it here).
Despite the seriousness of its impact, the Frontline Connection Gap is actually a relatively simple problem - which thankfully means relatively simple solutions. If you're ready to get started, check out some of the best solutions on the market over here.