19th May 2020
3 Min Read

Podcast | Supporting a front-line workforce

In a recent Q&A webinar, Tony Stewart and Lisa Hawksworth were joined by senior interim communications director at Asda, Beverley Brook. Together, they covered a range of questions around supporting front-line employees, from how to strike the right balance of operational and engagement messaging to the importance of measurement.

Sadly, the video section of the session vanished into the digital ether. But we did capture the audio, which you can listen to below, or read on for a summary of the questions, and answers.

(02:45) Before we get to the questions, let’s have a sense check. What do we mean when we say ‘front-line’?

Lisa: I think when we talk about ‘front-line’, it’s really easy to refer to it as one homogenous group. But when we’ve worked with our clients, we’ve done lots of work to separate this down further. We look at how warehouse staff, shop workers and delivery drivers needs differ, what their levels of accessibility are, their shift patterns and their expectations. Although sometimes we talk about front-line workers as one large group, it’s really important to think about the difference between each segment.

(03:45) What have been the differences in communicating with front-line and office-based employees recently?

Lisa: I keep thinking about that meme that’s been doing the rounds, “What accelerated your IT strategy, was it the CEO, the CIO or COVID-19?”

I think we now have the realisation of what IC has worked on for a long time – the understanding of how we can genuinely connect with, not just push comms to, those who aren’t digitally enabled or have their hands full all day on the front-line. It’s the challenge of how we have genuinely great conversations with those people and take their feedback.

(04:42) What has the digital impact been on front-line comms in the last few months?

Tony: It’s been really interesting. We’ve certainly seen an increase in shadow IT, as a result of digital infrastructures not being in place. Use of tools like Facebook and WhatsApp which can be concerning in terms of compliance. The flip side is that it shines a light on what employees need from their digital tools, not just for collaboration but also social interactions with colleagues.

We’re also seeing increased use of platforms to create and curate communities. With people feeling more isolated or lonely right now, and not being able to interact in person, it’s a time for digital communities to shine. Tools like Workplace and Teams are being used in a softer and more social way which helps to build that sense of teamship.

Lisa. What’s interesting is that in some of the measurement we’ve been doing – one of which I tweeted recently – we saw adoption and engagement of some channels hugely increasing. It’s what we’d expect with our colleagues now apart from one another. But, in parallel, we also saw people’s experience of the channel also improve. They weren’t just using it more, they also liked what they saw. It’s a good time to reengage audiences who perhaps previously weren’t so engaged with your digital channels with more evidence of how effective they are.

Beverley. It’s definitely what we’ve seen, particularly in the early days where managers needed to have the latest information and were waiting eagerly for it every day. We’ve seen a huge increase in readership and engagement levels. It’s also really highlighted how difficult we find communicating directly to front-line colleagues. Print is slower and hard to measure, but the new interest in tools like Workplace means digital platforms are now getting a voice which will help accelerate our digital strategy.

Right now, we’re having to use more creative ways to keep in touch. We’re literally printing and posting our comms out to colleagues shielding at home. It’s difficult for managers who are so busy to keep in touch with those who are out of the business. Everything has changed so much since they were last physically with us and when they return everything will be quite different. It’s more proof that a digital mechanic is such an important tool.

Lisa: A lot of the time you’re relying on that management cascade and the challenge is keeping it simple enough to be achievable alongside an extremely busy job

Beverley: Yes, cascade is an age-old issue for retail businesses who have a barrier in communicating direct to front-line employees. What we’ve started to see is a blur between internal and external channels. Our exec team are keen on Instagram. The follower counts are low, but it works as a catalyst for information sharing and you’ll see colleagues commenting on exec posts and relating their experiences.

(11:40) Have you provided managers with training to help communicate with remote teams or absent colleagues?

Beverley: Certainly, for home office colleagues we’re sharing lots of wellbeing content and guidance on a weekly basis. When it comes to stores and depots, it’s more difficult. We’re trying to use our people team to support the connection to those who are out of the business. We had a lot of changes, pre-COVID, to our people team structure across the store networks which makes it a bit more complicated.

Lisa: I think there’s been an evolution as lockdown has continued. At the start it was very operational and then it moved into talking about wellbeing and recognition. There wasn’t so much in terms of formal training, but certainly in terms of guides on how to manage a team when you can’t see them. Now what we’re seeing emerge is the question of ‘how do you lead remotely’. Managing remotely is very different to leading remotely. We’re asking things like ‘How does a leader run an impactful video call, rather than just a presentation?’ Or ‘how can a leader engage with an audience as they would in a town hall?’

(15:00) How can we keep a remote audience engaged with daily intranet updates?

Tony: An intranet isn’t really very different to any other type of media or content you create. If you make it interesting, people will want it. If it’s compelling, timely and feels like it’s made for me, I’m going to check it out – whether it’s on the intranet, in a magazine or via carrier pigeon!

I would absolutely focus on making your content as interesting as possible and think about the style of that content. Where we’re feeling more anxious and lonelier, video can feel more direct and empathetic. If you’re using intranet specifically, put some time into making sure your content is accessible, easy to read, pulls out the key information in the headings and makes use of rich media like video, infographics and photos to bring it to life.

Lisa. I’d build on that to say be really ruthless with your content. We did some research, pre-COVID that found people are perfectly willing to read content about work but it’s how it’s presented. They’ll give you 10-15 minutes a day, but this doesn’t mean you should provide a large, long-form document. They’re more likely to engage with fifteen 1-minuite reads. So, think about making that content digestible and fast-paced.

(17:45) How can we strike the right balance between internal comms and colleague engagement to keep people in the know and also feeling connected to the business?

Beverley: We’ve started to try and really separate those two things out, to have the ‘must know’ operational info in one place and how to engage in another. The two do blur and at the beginning we were definitely more operational as we reacted to the situation. As we moved through, the readership started crying out for more light-hearted, engaging content. We’re currently running a Heroes campaign and we have so many stories of our colleagues going above and beyond. We’ve scattered that content, and other brilliant stories, throughout to keep it positive. We share 1-minute reads, keeping them as succinct and interesting as possible, using some of the formats Tony mentioned.

Lisa: It is important not to mix operational with the engagement. We need people to be able to be able to sift through quickly to find wheat they need to get the job done, versus knowing where to go for a breather and lighter content. That’s why we always talk about clear, purposeful channels, very much like apps on your phone. You don’t order a takeaway through Uber. We have to think about channels in the same way, even if it’s just sections of the intranet.

Tony: I’d echo that. We’re seeing clients who use Workplace creating very clearly signposted groups, from business updates to gaming or recipe groups. Having a clear governance model in place to help people know exactly what they can expect from that channel is important.

Lisa: Something we often see in channel audits is the labelling of the intranet, emails or Workplace as ‘channels’ where, really, they are formats and there are channels within them. In email, you may have different set ups for leaders, or managers. The intranet may use the homepage may be a summary of everything but within that there are more specific pages.

(21:25) What do you think will be the future of the staff magazine?

Lisa: I think it’s really important. I specialise in the measurement and research side of things. We spend a lot of timing listening to people, how they digest the channels and content that’s available to them and we know that it’s important to have a blend of content. One thing someone said in a research group last year that resonated with me was, ‘I use the print to test watercooler chat.’ For many, it’s viewed as the single source of truth. The difference is whether the magazine is actually a magazine, or a newsletter which will quickly go out of date. Think about the channels you have, and which are the most up to the minute, and also think about how you can use the magazine to tell the stories in the business, tied to a strategic angle, and focussing on your people.

Beverley: I agree. On our shift towards print and from magazine to newsletter, which is working well. Print still has a really strong place on the front-line. Colleagues love to pick something up and take it home, so print will still have a place in our channels mix.

Tony: There will always be people who prefer print over digital. Having a mix that enables people to access the content they want, across all the channels is key. In terms of the future, I see an increase in community building; a place where you can discuss the news you find in the magazine and how it applies to you. It’s a way to facilitate conversations that go beyond the story. I see it happening in a broader internal comms sense, amplified by the current COVID-19 situation.

Lisa: We have a complex job in that we have to deal with people. We’re never going to get a suite of channels that work 100% for everyone. People always have preferences. The blend is important to offer choice.

(25:35) Are we at risk of disengaging front-line employees if we only have a small range of channels and limited technology available?

Lisa: I don’t think so. I’d pause to think about how well those channels are working. Are we using the notice board for posters, or notices? What is the content? What do we want people to do as a result? How do we want them to feel? I’ve worked in businesses where it’s complicated to access digital, so we relied on print. We gave more thought to where these channels worked the hardest.

Listen to your audience and ask what they need. Are the notice board working? If not, that’s the opportunity to build a business case to grow your infrastructure.

(27:50) Have you had to overcome any resentment from front-line employees?

Beverley: It has been really difficult. Resentment is a strong word – I think it’s more worry and colleagues are looking for reassurance. What we’re trying to do through all our channels is provide reassurance that we’re doing all we can to keep them safe. Going back to the Heroes campaign, what that helped us do is provide light-hearted relief through those brilliant stories and show just how important we are to our communities right now.

(29.48) How has your engagement measurement evolved?

Beverley: In terms of engagement, we had a plan for this year which is evolving and changing.

With some of our plans on hold until later in the year, we’re going back to more traditional methods of talking to our colleagues, using the groups we have around different sites, such as Colleague Voice, so we can hear what’s happening on the group. And we’re trying to speed up our reaction to the things we hear.

Lisa. Every week is bringing a new challenge at the moment. Those with a measurement strategy in play aren’t seeing too much difference. They’re still on the pulse and evaluating the channels. But increasing the reaction speed is key, and you don’t have to have complex platforms to achieve that. We’ve seen quick 1:1 check in phone calls proving really valuable.

(32:17) How are you moving from the tactical to the strategic?

Beverley: From an Asda perspective, we’re still somewhat tactical, but we’re looking forward at how we can weave our COVID-19 learnings into the strategy we have. What this has done is accelerate a 3-year plan into an 18-month one. The pre-COVID learnings now don’t apply and we’re looking at new customer behaviours. What is has confirmed is that our strategy is right, we just have to be faster.

Lisa: And that’s the difference between having a strategy and a plan. A strategy is a broad approach which you can flex because you know the end goal. You just need to look at having the right channel, content and IC strategies. We’re seeing now, with clients who didn’t 100% have that in place, that it’s becoming a priority.

The 'Supporting a Front-Line Workforce' Webinar was originally held on Friday 15 May 2020.

What do front-line employees need right now?

From recognition to onboarding, our quick and handy guide covers the key information to help craft the right messages for your front-line workforce.

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