Hero Background Image

Why front-line workers must be part of your digital transformation


By Barbry McGann

When you stay at a hotel, your interactions with desk or restaurant staff can be the difference between a great trip or your decision never to return to the property. At a sporting event, the steward who scans your ticket and helps you locate your seats can set the tone for your entire experience.

These workers are often called front-line workers, so named because they sit on the front lines of most industries: retail workers, flight attendants, bank cashiers, field technicians, restaurant workers and nurses. They are the face and heartbeat of your organisation – the people behind the counter, on the phone, building products and running day-to-day operations. They are the first ones to represent your brand and engage customers, and their interactions can have a huge impact on how customers perceive your company.

Understanding the front-line worker

Front-line workers are often overlooked when companies focus on areas such as employee experience and career growth opportunities, yet their needs are just as important for organisations that want to increase productivity, reduce turnover and boost engagement. In other words, every company out there.

Gartner has researched and written about front-line workers and the technologies they use. According to "Hype Cycle for Frontline Worker Technologies" (July 2019), they are segmented into two distinct groups: service workers and task workers.

  • "Service workers primarily spend their time performing client-facing activities. They typically represent the 'face' of an organisation to customers."
  • "Task workers are workers who primarily spend their time performing operational activities. They typically represent the 'heart' of the organisation."

This workforce can include salaried, hourly or even contingent or contract workers. Hourly workers make up most of the front-line worker population and, in particular, are a large segment of the workforce. In the United States, there are an estimated 78 million hourly employees and, in the European Union, a labour survey shows there are 45 million. This sheer volume alone makes them important to the varied industries that utilise them.

Technology affects front-line workers

But most technology investments, including human resources and career development tools, focus on enabling salaried workers. This can lead to front-line workers feeling under-supported and, as a result, disengaged. According to "Predicts 2019: Digital Workplace Applications" (December 2018) from Gartner, "Limited access to the communication and collaboration tools available to their office working colleagues can greatly reduce frontline workers' digital dexterity by restricting their ability and willingness to collaborate across silos within their organisation."

Frontline workers are often overlooked when companies focus on employee experience and career growth opportunities.

Progressive organisations understand that this situation needs to change. In a Harvard Business Review survey, 78 percent of respondents strongly agreed with the statement, "To be successful in the future, our organisation must connect and empower its [front-line] workers with technology and information." And a Forbes Insight/Microsoft survey found that "31 percent of organisations that have the highest degree of digital connectivity and empowerment—involving more than 75 percent of their front-line workers—saw more than 20 percent growth over the past year." This means technology investments in front-line workers result in real productivity and payback.

On the flip side, not prioritising these workers has consequences. A Pearson study crunched the numbers for a fictional company with 10,000 front-line workers who earn $30,000 or less annually. Pearson determined that the company would lose 85 per cent of its workers each year, and estimated the average cost to find, rehire and retrain replacement workers at $4,800 per employee. The study found that the company would spend approximately $40.8 million each year to fill job vacancies from voluntary turnover. Going back to the hospitality examples, that's quite an expense for an athletic organisation or a summer resort to replace its seasonal staff every year.

The business benefits of employee engagement

Organisations must invest in front-line workers by providing them with the tools and processes they need to succeed in their jobs. Companies that don't will have a difficult time attracting and retaining workers, especially in a tight labour market. Seasonal workers may flee to competitors because of poor processes, and contractors may feel disconnected from the organisation, prohibiting them from making positive contributions. On the flip side, those organisations that adapt to meet the needs of all members of the workforce will reap rewards.

As Jessica Reynolds, senior manager of human resources information systems for Belk, put it, "The first interactions our customers have is with our associates in our stores. We want to give those associates what they need to be successful and remain engaged, so they can focus on delivering a great customer experience."

Our own Ashley Goldsmith, chief people officer at Workday, echoes this sentiment: "A positive employee experience can impact the level of trust workers have and, ultimately, improve performance and retention. This, in turn, impacts the customer experience and helps increase a company's bottom line."

It's more critical than ever to meet front-line employees where they are and how they work to keep them engaged, satisfied and eager to invest themselves in your organisation. Employees are, after all, a company's biggest, most sustainable competitive advantage.

"Hype Cycle for Frontline Worker Technologies, 2018," page 3.
"Predicts 2019: Digital Workplace Applications," page 4.