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Frontline first: Communicating with deskless workers in a hybrid age

11 October 2022

The pandemic threw the frontline in the well-deserved (and well overdue) spotlight. The people who keep our cities running and provide crucial services to our communities were risking their health for the benefit of the many. It also threw into light the contrast between frontline workers and office workers, a fissure cracked between those who could work from home and those who couldn’t.

The prevalence of hybrid working in a post-lockdown world has done nothing to reseal this crack. Now video calls are normalised, people – and most importantly senior leadership – are falling into the trap of replacing those crucial F2F encounters with a virtual drop-in. For those who can’t go digital and continue to operate on the frontline, this is often perceived as a ‘lazy’ approach and only highlights difference over commonality. There is a place for virtual drop-ins! But not in lieu of F2F.

At 106 Comms, we have been working closely with a range of clients across industries to proactively develop creative solutions that eradicate the ‘them/us’ mentality and realign people to see the common goal. These challenges are not unique to our clients however, as we see them reflected across industry and organisation time and again. Here are some key learnings from our experience on how to communicate with your frontline.

Tribes tribes tribes!

Segmentation is your best friend. If you have a significant population on the road all day without access to a computer, consider how to reiterate messaging for their hardware. A long email is not going to cut it, and many Intranets are not mobile friendly. Review your different audiences within the workforce and segment them according to both access to hardware and channel preference. Speaking to people how they wish to be spoken to increases the likelihood of their reading/engaging with the content and it also establishes trust with clear ‘rules of engagement’ in two-way communications.

Comms for mobile

We consume information differently on mobile devices and laptops. The small screen size means communicators must be hyper vigilant when adapting their messaging for the new format:

  • Keep it short
  • Make email subject lines catchy and frontload them with key words
  • Send a test to your own device to make sure the formatting and layout function for mobile
  • Consider audio alternatives if your workforce is on the road

Leadership visibility and cohesion

At 106, we have carried out extensive focus groups across industries and skills to help clients address the workforce fissure. We have found senior leadership visibility is crucial to cohesion. Employees want to know the decision makers, understanding their motivations and mission, as they have a large impact on the lives of a workforce in what is a volatile time.

For office staff, there are opportunities for casual interactions with senior leadership, and as office staff have one location where they congregate, there are easy and efficient ways to  speak to them. Meeting frontline staff may seem daunting, or nigh on impossible in the face of a widely dispersed frontline workforce. But the fact is, going out into the field and talking to people must be a priority for senior leadership. Yes, the SLT is busy, but their business efforts behind the scenes will be undermined by an eroding culture if frontline visits aren’t made a priority.

The power of being seen

A significant portion of frontline colleagues are solo operators. Their work is seen or experienced only by customers who often don’t have a point of reference for excellence or ‘above and beyond’. Developing recognition schemes that can flex to this segment of the workforce is crucial. Also, recognition doesn’t just have to be for the big wins, but it can also reinforce key daily cultural behaviours. That might be acknowledging the day-to-day grind of people’s work or recognising a colleague who went out of their way to emotionally support another colleague.

Comms unplugged

We’re seeing a trend back to analogue communications. Posters in the break room, notice boards, letters in pigeonholes – it’s back. These touches are personal and bring a community feeling to key frontline hubs. Noticeboards are brilliant, but it is important to keep them up-to-date to avoid becoming wallpaper. An example came from Dr Elouise Leonard-Cross who presented on Northumbrian Water’s wellbeing Hygge campaign. Throughout the campaign they sent no emails, just one postcard that their technicians received to their home on Blue Monday in January. The simplicity cut through, and this campaign saw incredible engagement from the workforce.

Customers as Colleagues

A final inspiration from Northumbrian Water came with this idea of ‘customers as colleagues’. 97% of their staff were customers before they came to work for Northumbrian Water. While that won’t be the case across industry, this framework proposed a new way of approaching frontline communications. They audited their internal social network to understand what people cared about (hearts) and what they were thinking about (minds). Pets, family and the great outdoors. That’s what people care about. So, Northumbrian weaved this into their campaign and used that heart to bring people into the wellbeing conversation. Coronavirus, technology and connection, and mental health. That’s what people were thinking about. So, Northumbrian created safe spaces for people to have those conversations, and they curated content addressing those concerns to reassure their colleagues.

Ultimately, we’re in unchartered waters post-lockdown. Embracing new technology is crucial, but it can’t be at the expense of personal connection. F2F with a frontline force is second to none and it must become a priority for senior leaders if we hope to seal the office/frontline fissure.

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