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Harvard Business Review Report Reveals The Importance of Empowering Frontline Workers with Real-Time Data

Last Updated On Digitize Your Workforce

It seems like almost every week that we see another frontline worker become Internet famous. Viral videos of frontline heroes consistently appear in our newsfeeds that remind us just how important these essential workers are. 

Catapulting these workers into sudden digital stardom can either be a bane or a blessing for the brands these workers represent — and therein lies the crux of the issue. 

Your Frontline Directly Impacts Your Bottom Line

Your frontline employees are not only public representatives of your business, they’re your de facto brand ambassadors. They can also become inadvertent roadblocks to your customer’s satisfaction when they are unable to make critical decisions in real time. 

This can affect a variety of key performance indicators, like productivity and customer satisfaction, not to mention your organization’s sales and revenue. 

In short, your frontline directly impacts your bottom line

As the sole group interacting directly with your customers, frontline employees are your brand’s most public ambassadors. When they are unable to make an informed decision, the organization loses an opportunity and the customer is left disappointed.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently published a report that makes a clear case for the unique opportunities frontline workers can provide your organization — it’s all in the title: “The New Decision Makers: Equipping Frontline Workers for Success.

Organizations that embrace this emerging trend and empower their frontliners to find and act on the information they need will thrive. 

But first we should clarify who frontline workers are.

Who Are Frontline Workers?

Like the old adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” frontline employees are essentially a brand’s one chance to make a good first impression. They are the initial point of contact between your organization and your customer

They are the clerks, salespeople, customer care representatives, flight attendants, and nurses who represent the first human point of contact in your customer’s journey. They exist in every business sector, whether its technology, finance, manufacturing, or entertainment.

Empowering Frontline Employees Through Digital Enablement

Unified communication and collaboration tools will lead the way in frontline worker enablement. With access to real-time information, on the ground, or in the field, digital empowerment adds to a frontliner’s capacity to leverage data-driven decision making and eliminate impediments.

According to HBR’s report, 87% of survey respondents say their organization will be more successful when frontline workers are empowered to make important decisions in the moment.

“It’s no surprise that organizations are more successful when frontline workers are empowered. Frontline workers are the most likely to encounter breakdowns in process and policy set by the leadership team; when they understand leadership’s intent and are empowered to make the best decision for the situation, the whole organization prospers.

In this regard, unified communication and collaboration tools create a pathway for frontliners to best serve not only their customers but the entire company. And they may quite possibly avoid someone’s dreaded demand to ‘speak to the manager.’

Cristian Grossmann, CEO and Co-founder of Beekeeper.

Right now, the trend toward empowering frontline workers with unified communication solutions is only beginning to take hold. 

Only 20% of organizations surveyed by the HBR report have frontline employees who are “both empowered and digitally well equipped to succeed in this way.” These workers are identified as “leaders.” Meanwhile, 37% of frontline workers surveyed  “are somewhat empowered and digitally equipped.” Finally, a whopping 43% — the “laggards” as they’re referred to in the report— are “neither empowered nor well equipped.” 

Frontline employees have been historically underserved when it comes to employer-provided workplace technology. Fortunately, a new wave of digital enablement for frontline workers is gaining momentum and the tide is starting to turn.

Building a Data-Driven Organization

We all know that “knowledge is power.” And access to information is also empowering. Ideally, everyone within an organization should be able to access and use data on-demand. 

This so-called “democratization of data” enables data-driven decision making throughout the company

As Bernard Marr writes in Forbes, “Data democratization means that everybody has access to data and there are no gatekeepers that create a bottleneck at the gateway to the data.”

In other words, by providing access to data throughout the entire organization, business leaders can dramatically accelerate the decision making process. In fact, 86% of companies polled by HBR say frontline workers need better technology-enabled insight to be able to make good decisions  — a sentiment echoed by Beekeeper’s CEO: 

“Decision making is only as good as the information we have. By giving frontline workers access to a single source of truth, leaders can ensure that decisions made on the frontline are consistent and well-informed.”

— Cristian Grossmann 

Likewise, frontline employees should be provided the means to not only access data, but make it actionable the moment they need it. But this does not always happen. 

Data-driven cultures often reveal the disconnect between expectation and reality. Business leaders are often far removed from the day-to-day operations of the company. This can create a chasm between how the C-suite thinks the business operates vs how the business actually operates. 

Oftentimes, processes and protocols may not be as smooth and standardized as business leaders believe them to be (as any barista will tell you, there’s no “one way” to make a latte).

Frontline employees often have a keener sense of how an organization actually operates. Their insights can be extremely useful and should be taken into account when making business decisions that affect them. 

Bringing Digital Tools to Frontline Workers

Naturally, there are challenges when introducing unified communication and collaboration tools to your frontline workforce. Among these perceived “barriers to adoption” is the notion that these tools are too complex and difficult for frontline workers to master. 

As explored in the HBR report, as many as 17% of managers believe technological tools are too complex for frontline workers

Beekeeper’s CEO Cristian Grossmann takes issue with that finding. Instead, he suggests that app-based platforms offer a more intuitive interface to frontline workers than conventional desktop tools.

“In an age when virtually every cell phone could qualify as advanced communication technology, it is incredible to think that nearly 1 in 5 managers believe technological collaboration tools are too complex for frontline workers,” he says. 

“This is true for many desktop and office-based tools; however there are simple and effective communication tools available that would greatly reduce the time, effort, and redundancy of old-school communication methods.”

Be the Change You Want to See

As Kerry Small, who leads global commercial and operations for Vodafone Business, remarked in the HBR report, “Data is powerful when it is in everyone’s hands.”

And as anyone who’s ever worked in any kind of business environment knows, there’s plenty of it to go around — the issue is that no one ever seems to know where it is when you want it. 

Frontline worker engagement is the key to transforming your organization and driving change management. As enabling as a unified communications platform can be, its implementation is only part of the equation.

The organization must also encourage a data-driven culture where employees have the autonomy necessary to make decisions based on this data. 

However, some organizations may be reluctant to embrace change at this level. Therefore, in order to successfully implement organizational change, it’s important to start at the very top of the organization and work your way down. 

Of course, cultural change of any sort has to be carefully managed and change programs have to be integrated into every aspect of your organization — starting with leadership. In some ways, this is ironic since it inevitably involves flattening traditional hierarchies and information flow. It may also blur the distinctions between frontline workers, middle management, and leadership. But in the long run, the benefits will outweigh any initial discomfort.

When frontline employees can access the right information at the right time, they’re able to address issues with confidence and resolve problems without seeking assistance from their supervisor. 

Some companies have already experienced the benefit of using in-the-field digital tools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Digital Enablement in Action

“We’re in kind of a unique position, because we’re a company who helps people find Internet providers, so we’ve got the team in the office but we’ve also got the guys out in the field going to people’s houses installing the equipment,” says Sean Nguyen, director of Internet Advisor.

By digitally enabling their frontline staffers with a unified communications platform, Nguyen’s company is able to expedite their services while also addressing the challenges of keeping their customers and frontline employees safe while under quarantine.

“If someone needs access, we need to be there to help them get it. We’ve been working hard on implementing some new software to help our frontline workers reach customers easily, finish their job as quickly as possible, and limit exposure,” says Nguyen. “We’ve put tutorials at their disposal, they can instantly connect to someone in the office to get anything they need, whether it’s information, help, an extra set of hands, etc.”

What they’ve aimed for, according to Nguyen is a streamlined process that results in as little wasted time as possible. Every step is outlined. As the frontline employees complete each step of the process, they can see a general timeframe of when they need to finish the installation.

“We’re trying to help our most valuable workers do their job safely and efficiently,” says Nguyen.

The Future of Frontline Worker Technology

When digital tools are designed to be intuitive and accessible, they organically foster both autonomy and accountability. The need for improvising on-site is mitigated, especially when using a single comprehensive solution instead of a bric-a-brac of tools tied together with the digital equivalent of too many elbow joints. 

“It’s no surprise that frontline workers, who frequently don’t have company email addresses, need a more advanced collaboration tool set. Currently, frontline workers tend to rely on outdated systems like phone trees and bulletin boards,” says Grossmann. “By adopting digital toolsets, management can quickly and effectively ensure that all frontline employees are aware of essential information.”

Likewise, technological solutions help management share new policies and procedures with the whole team at the same time. This reduces the need for constant managerial input and guidance.

“When frontline workers are empowered, managerial bottlenecks are removed. This frees up time and resources at every level,” says Grossmann, who points out that 72% of organizations surveyed by HBR say productivity has indeed increased as a result of empowering frontline workers

More than half of the respondents in the HBR report predict that frontline workers will be using unified collaboration tools within the next 24 months. The expectation is that when given the right information at the right time, productivity will soar. 

Indeed, there’s a growing consensus across industries that it’s more important than ever to empower mission-critical frontline workers with dynamic ways to access and use data in real time. This is the secret sauce organizations need to achieve success in the future.

Download our white paper, “The Digitization of the Frontline Workforce” to learn more about digital enablement for frontline workers. 

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