The Intelligent Workplace

The Intelligent Workplace

Episode 42

The need to simplify communications for firstline workers.

​Stephanie Donahue
President
PAIT Group​​

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
The term first line worker is often confused with front line health professionals battling the covid-19 pandemic. These amazing humans are first line by definition, but the term is not used exclusively for them.
 
First line workers are often shift-based, mobile-first workers, without a desk to call home. They are the initial point of contact between a customer and your organisation. They include customer service representatives, salespeople, healthcare workers and factory operators.
 
With less structured work patterns than office employees, communication with them can be challenging. Digital transformation is helping businesses address these challenges, empowering and informing workers.
 
Stephanie Donohue is the President and Co-Founder of the PAIT Group. She is a Microsoft MVP who advises organisations on digital transformation journeys. In this episode she shares her thoughts and insights on on digital transformation and the need to simplify communications for first line workers.
 
Episode Links

Listen to the episode

Speaker 1:

When the term firstline worker is mentioned, many people mistakenly think of the frontline health professionals who are battling the COVID-19 pandemic. While these amazing humans are included in the definition of a first-line worker, the term is not used exclusively for them.

                Firstline workers are often shift based, mobile first workers who are the initial point of contact between a customer and your organization. They include customer service representatives, salespeople, healthcare workers, and factory operators, just to name a few. With work patterns that are less structured than deskbound workers, communications delivered by mobile devices, keeping firstline workers informed can be challenging. However, digital transformation is helping businesses address these challenges, impairing and informing firstline workers, and the results are very pleasing. Here to discuss the importance of simplifying communication for firstline workers, is Stephanie Donahue, President and Co-Founder of the PAIT Group. Welcome aboard, Stephanie.

Stephanie Donahue:

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Speaker 1:

It’s an absolute pleasure. So let’s get into this. The term firstline worker can be a little confusing for some. We hear so much about it, frontline health workers. But firstline workers are much larger group than that, aren’t they?

Stephanie Donahue:

Yeah. It’s really kind of an all encompassing term, right? It’s something that we’re running into right now, a lot with COVID. We’re hearing a lot about what does a firstline worker really mean? What is a frontline worker versus a firstline worker? And I think that’s kind of muddied the waters a little bit, because I think in terms of COVID, we think about first-line being our doctors and nurses and folks like that. Right? So it’s kind of redefined the term. But I think in general corporate terms and business, we tend to look at them a little more similar as being the same type of person.

Speaker 1:

So they’re really the conduit between your brain and your customer effectively. So it could be like a salesperson on the road or someone who’s manning a desk in a store, that sort of thing.

Stephanie Donahue:

Yeah. They’re just so critical. They’re the people that are really the heart of your business, because without them, you don’t have a product or without them, you don’t have a service. So for us at PAIT Group, we’re IT consultants and our frontline are the folks that are working with our customers every day, and that’s very much the case with a lot of businesses.

Speaker 1:

They can effectively make or break your business, can’t they?

Stephanie Donahue:

Absolutely.

Speaker 1:

They are the heart and soul. So what are some of the major challenges for frontline workers in the digital age?

Stephanie Donahue:

I think there’s a lot of challenges. They’ve been the ones that have been left out for a little while, I think. So, as we’ve watched the corporate world grow and have all these new ways of doing things and we’ve got laptops instead of desktops, and then we went from laptops to mobile phones even in some cases, and we’ve got internets available for communications and we’ve got all these file sharing systems. And what we’ve often seen in the frontline where we’re talking about folks that are out on the manufacturing plant floor, or doctors and nurses, they’re going from one place to the next, one room to another. I think that it’s a little bit different. You’re not in front of a desktop all day or at a desk in general. And so mobility is really one of those things that’s a huge challenge for the frontline. And how do we bring the same conveniences that those of us that at a desk have every day? How do we make all of that accessible to those that are moving around all the time?

Speaker 1:

Yeah. So that term around mobility is a really difficult one because you can’t have everything in your back pocket when you’re say a sales person out on the road. So that’s really the idea is that you need to try and take the idea of being at a desktop and everything at your fingertips, but have it so that wherever you are, whatever time of day it is, you’ve got everything that you need to do your job. Is that right?

Stephanie Donahue:

Yeah. And I think it’s becoming more and more important for us to be able to connect with each other, to be able to bring people together to have conversations. You think about manufacturing plants, they have quality issues. Quality is always one of the number one issues you hear about. Well, how do we allow manufacturing plants in totally different countries to work together? How do we help them share information, when again, they’re not at a desk all day? So how do we help them take pictures and share those, or have conversations around the issues in their plant, or even something like simplifying their scheduling? So we have all these extra things that we have to think about that we have to look at maybe a slightly different way than we would if we were just dealing with people that automatically had a laptop.

Speaker 1:

We tend to take it for granted a little bit, those of us that are desk bound workers, that we can talk to that teammate that’s next to us. We can look at each other’s schedules to see what’s going on. It’s really easy to chat. But when you are out there on the firstline there, it’s not actually a given that you get all these things, is it?

Stephanie Donahue:

Not at all. And you think maybe we would, but I think, like I mentioned earlier, it’s just been the last place to get the upgrades. And I feel like IT may be a little bit, is kind of hesitant because they feel like, well, maybe we’ve got these issues with them not wanting to use the technology or they make up these excuses like, “Oh, they won’t use it anyway.”

Speaker 1:

It’s a bit harder for them isn’t it, too?

Stephanie Donahue:

It’s just different. Right?

Speaker 1:

Yeah.

Stephanie Donahue:

I think we underestimate. These are smart people out there. They really know and understand the business at another level at its very core. But in the same sense, we’re talking about people that maybe need a little more hands-on training, they’re hands-on people. And that’s on the business to ensure that happens. That’s not a worker thing, that’s not something that if they’re pushing back, it’s because you haven’t supplied them with enough of the why. Why should we be doing this? How are we going to implement it? Why is it going to be easier for you? And I think that’s really what’s going to help push this forward.

Speaker 1:

Do you feel like firstline workers are a little bit envious of the desk workers? They’ve got their perfectly set up work station and everything’s at their fingertips. It feels like there’s a bit of a culture of haves and have nots in a way.

Stephanie Donahue:

I don’t know that I’ve experienced a situation where I’ve seen the technology envy like that. I do think people come in and they make do with what they’re given a lot of times. But I do think that they want a focused experience. They’re busy and they don’t care that there’s cake in the break room or that Friday corporate can wear jeans to the office that they donate to charity. Right? It’s a waste of time for them to read that news. So are they jealous that they don’t get that news? No, not at all, right? But I think we do need to supply them with information that’s relevant to them in their jobs. And if they felt like that was the case and they were missing out, then I think there might be a little more of that. But why would you be interested if half the news didn’t apply to you?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, that’s a great point, actually. You mentioned there, people just making do, and I sort of feel like that for firstline workers, when they miss out on certain things, and as you said before, they’ve been left to the end of the line in terms of IT rollouts and all that sort of thing. Do you feel like then they just find a way to do stuff and they end up maybe doing things that perhaps don’t please the head of IT or whatever, because they’ve just had to find a way to make their job work for them?

Stephanie Donahue:

Oh, absolutely. This is why we see things like Facebook groups popping up. I can tell you one example, we had truck drivers, right? They wanted all they’re doing, they’re driving the truck, they want to come in to the docks, the loading docks to drop off what they’re bringing. And they’re frustrated because they don’t know when the docks are full or maybe they should stop and take a break before coming in because they’re busy anyway. And so you see these things like Facebook groups popping up across these groups of truck drivers and it makes IT crazy. They can’t control it. They don’t know the conversations, they can’t control the security. But they’re just trying to get their jobs done. They’re trying to be more effective. They’re trying to make their day more efficient, which is ultimately good for the business. So this kind of this tug of war a little bit with technology and again, going back to the excuse, “Well, they won’t use it anyway.” Trust me, they’re finding ways, they’re finding technology to use. It’s a matter of whether or not IT’s involved.

Speaker 1:

You mentioned security there. That’s a massive concern for IT as soon as you’re going outside the home environment, if you like, into all these other different applications, there is just an increased risk of a security breach. And perhaps the people that are operating these Facebook groups or whatever they may be don’t realize at the time. But all of a sudden, you’re opening up your business to external parties that potentially could have had some bad intentions.

Stephanie Donahue:

Yeah. And these are potentially devices that are mobile and moving around with them.

Speaker 1:

Yes.

Stephanie Donahue:

So it’s even more important. They’re not staying within the bounds and in the walls of your office. And that’s kind of the case for all of us these days now that we’re all doing this remote work thing. But especially, you think about those truck drivers or nurses that travel to people’s homes and they have all this patient information on their laptops that they need to have with them. Well, what happens when you leave that laptop in the wrong place accidentally, or what happens if that laptop is stolen? We have to think about these things because they’re mobile and that information is going everywhere. And we really have to be conscious to maybe take some additional steps to make sure it’s protected. We tend to do that in a way that makes a little more cumbersome for the user. And so I think we really have to be creative with how we approach security while still balancing the needs of the firstline worker.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, totally agree. Yeah, I totally agree. We’re focusing here on communication today, as that’s probably one of the overarching issues for firstline workers. How come it’s traditionally been so difficult to manage communications with firstline workers?

Stephanie Donahue:

I believe the communications with firstline workers are they have different needs, and their first priority in the day is not to come in. Those of us that at a desk, we come in, we get our coffee, we browse the internet, see what the news is. That’s not necessarily the case for someone who’s on a manufacturing plant floor or nurses. I used to work for a visiting nurse service and they had hospice nurses. And if you think that a hospice nurse, that the first thing on their mind is, “Gosh, I wonder what’s going on with the news in the organization today,” it’s not realistic.

Speaker 1:

No.

Stephanie Donahue:

They’re doing really important things. So I think we have to hit them in a different way. It has to be focused. It has to be easy for them to get to, and it has to be available at a time and a place where they’re able to step aside and focus for a moment when they have so much going on in other areas.

Speaker 1:

Do you feel like maybe some of the current communication channels are a little bit outdated in the mobile modern workforce?

Stephanie Donahue:

I think that a lot of organizations are starting to figure that out. And they’re starting to think about these things, but traditional internets, they don’t load on mobile well, unless you’ve transitioned. Even SharePoint, right? Unless you’ve rolled out the modern SharePoint sites online, you don’t have that mobile capability. Rolling out the SharePoint app would allow you to get to it from a mobile perspective. But that’s just one example. We have a lot of legacy internets out there still around, that don’t load on mobile. And so we’re relying on things like emails to come out. Well then if you’ve got 50 emails in your inbox and you’ve got one of those with news on it, how do you, when you have 10 minutes to sit down and focus, you’ve got to dig through all these emails to go find that communication. So again, it’s not as quick or convenient as it could be in many cases. But I do think it’s something that a lot of organizations are really working to improve.

Speaker 1:

Stephanie, I feel like it’s time for some digital transformation. Am I right?

Stephanie Donahue:

Absolutely.

Speaker 1:

But it’s not a matter of waving a magic wand, is it? There’s a bit to do here.

Stephanie Donahue:

Yeah. I think we’ve got a lot of planning to do because we can’t just assume everybody’s the same. And you really have to look at who am I dealing with? How do they get their job done every day and how do we plug in and make it easy and convenient for them? We had one example with a manufacturing plant. We thought we were just going to roll out their home page. And we’re like, “Oh yeah, they’re just going to go to the homepage.” And they’re like, “They need training.” And we’re like, “You don’t need training. It works like msn.com. It’s no big deal. You go out, you click on a link.” And they’re like, “Oh, well this particular group,” it was another country and a lot of the folks that work at that plant, they don’t have internet at home and they don’t sit down at a computer at night and scroll through everything. Truly, for that particular plant and that particular country, going to msn.com, that’s a big deal. They don’t know how to use that site.

                And that floored me. Coming from, I’m kind of spoiled here in the US. I had no idea that that would be a thing they would need training just to use a news homepage. So that was a reality check for me to go “We really need to understand that frontline. We really need to understand who is coming in to get those communications, to be able to access the forum, to be able to look at HR information for their benefits.” Who are these people? How are they engaging and what can we do to make this process easier for them? Because it’s different for each group.

Speaker 1:

All those change managers listening today are all smiling and high-fiving each other hearing you say that, aren’t they?

Stephanie Donahue:

I sure hope so. Yeah. It’s something that we’ve breezed over it for so long and potentially, maybe that’s why we avoided it a little bit, I think, because IT, we’ve got enough to manage. It’s a lot to handle just with corporate, much less to bring in different groups of people with different needs.

Speaker 1:

Yeah.

Stephanie Donahue:

But I think we’re really to the point we need to be looking at that.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. What are some of the key considerations a business needs to make in terms of a digital transformation project to address those communication needs of the frontline workers?

Stephanie Donahue:

Well, I think it’s important to look at it in phases, especially when you have different types of users. And we’ve looked at this for a long time by breaking out the groups. You can start with corporate, but as you start to make your plans to integrate the firstline, maybe you need to create, GitHub has this fantastic example of a shift hub, and it’s taking the same types of communications corporate would use, but pushing it into a space where you can access it from Teams.

                So starting to think about who are the different groups of people that we’re engaging with? What devices do they have? How mobile are they? Are they in a truck? Are they on a hospital floor? Are they in a manufacturing plant? And then start thinking about, “Okay, now that I know who I’m dealing with and what their experience is in the workplace, how do we bring that experience to them in a way that’s effective?” Of course, I have my preferences. I’m a Microsoft person. We love to see them out there in Teams and SharePoint. I know there’s some great third party tools, LiveTiles has as well, to look at that. So there’s some great third party tools to plug in if the 365 thing isn’t quite there for you yet on the licensing as well.

Speaker 1:

Are those technologies you just mentioned then some of the key ones looking to make the lives of the firstline workers easier?

Stephanie Donahue:

Yeah. Those are the ones that we’re seeing out in the workforce pretty frequently. And now it’s even easier, everybody adopting Teams and SharePoint in the corporate world, it makes it easier to roll it out to the firstline workers as well. So lots of good options and things that are easy to do. It’s not a huge shift from what you’re doing for any of your corporate workers, you’re just looking at it a slightly different way and pivoting to make it easier for the firstline.

Speaker 1:

We mentioned the change managers a little bit earlier. So once you’ve got everything set up, there is a fairly hefty change management process to consider whether that be whether you’ve got people in different countries or not. But overall, this is a really serious transformation to a business. And there are going to be people at differing levels of experience and expertise. So change management just sort of kicks in. It is so key, isn’t it?

Stephanie Donahue:

Yeah. And I think the training and the support is so important. You just took me back to a memory of that, that visiting nurse service I used to work for. It was a hospice nurse who was really, really frustrated with her device and she brought it to me. She handed me the device and she was like, “This was run over by a car.” I kind of laughed. And I was like, “Oh, did it fall off the top of the car? You left it on top of the car and it fell off?” And she’s like, “No, I put it behind the tire and I ran over it.”

Speaker 1:

Oh, wow.

Stephanie Donahue:

I was like, “Oh my goodness, let me get my manager.” But what happened was, this was a fantastic hospice nurse. She had a lot of other things going on that day, but she hadn’t received enough training and she hadn’t received enough support for her experience to be a positive one. She was frustrated, the device was not working as she really needed it to work to get her job done that day. And she was frustrated. And granted, I don’t recommend running over your laptop when you’re frustrated. Hopefully you’ve got some support in place to help with that. But that’s why this is so important to do, like one step at a time, find the low hanging fruit, do this in phases.

                And throughout is your change management process should be to continue to get feedback so that you can remove barriers because it’s so important to get in front of those issues before you get to the point where you have a worker who’s so frustrated that they’re ready to damage their device. That should never happen if you’re training, you’re providing support and you’re giving them a chance to give feedback. Then you’re giving them a chance to participate and for you and IT to understand what they go through every day. And so you can understand what works, what doesn’t, and continue to improve their experience.

Speaker 1:

It’s all about knowing your audience. I worked with a change manager once who, in a session we had, and she put up two photos or two images on the whiteboard as it was back then. And one of them was a picture of Bill Gates and then she drew a line over to a picture of Homer Simpson. The caption on the picture was “Where’s the any key?” And I don’t know if you remember The Simpsons episode where he was going crazy, where it said in the instructions, “Just press any key.” He’s like, “But where’s the any key? And she hollered, she goes “These are the sort of people that we’re going to be dealing with and everything in between. You’ve got the absolute expert in Bill Gates and then you’ve got the Homer Simpson’s of the world. And you as a change manager, need to consider the points of view for everybody across that full spectrum.”

Stephanie Donahue:

Absolutely. And again, it’s important to understand their perspective. If they’re not familiar with the device, you have to be very specific. Press any key, that’s not specific enough, right? So I think it’s really important for us to get to that level and really understand it doesn’t mean that they can’t do it, it means they need better instructions. They need better training. They need better support.

Speaker 1:

Correct. God bless you, Homer Simpson. So anyway, looking back on the digital transformation for the first line workers is really important for improving communication as we’ve mentioned. But there are other flow and improvements as well. Can you detail some of those for me?

Stephanie Donahue:

Well, one of the things we always look at is not to just push communications and the mobile devices is great. But what can we do to continue to build on that? And one of our customers, this was probably three or four years ago now, they literally started with an outdated intranet and we pushed communications to a new, modern, mobile friendly intranet. They were able to push those to their manufacturing plants. Then the next phase, they went multi-lingual so that they could reach those manufacturing plants in a different way. They could reach people they couldn’t reach before. And then they added onto that. And they said, “We’d really like some forms on the manufacturing plant floor.” So we created some forms that could load on an iPad. Well come to find out, they love to use those forms on their phones.

                So their mobile phones they had in their pockets, they’re filling out forms. And then you know what happens from there? You save that into a database or into a SharePoint list. Now you can do reporting. So you’ve got real-time reporting, live from the manufacturing plant floor. That’s taking your business to a new level because prior, they had to wait till all of those pieces of paper could be entered manually. The managers are able to make real time decisions based on the data that’s feeding into their dashboards. That’s really where you start to get to the next level of digital transformation. That’s business, like total transformation of your business.

Speaker 1:

Data collection, resource management, workflows, all leading through to, oh my goodness, improved productivity, hey?

Stephanie Donahue:

Yeah. Improved productivity, improved quality, all the things you start to look for that’s like, how do we save money? How do we make more money in our business? Those are key items, right there.

Speaker 1:

Increased profits. Two words that every board loves to hear. Well Steph, it’s been an interesting chat with you this morning. Thank you very much for your time. I’m certainly a great believer having been a firstline worker myself in a prior life who used to go around in a car with lots of sticky notes and bits of paper on my passenger seat, trying to find my way in a world where I just felt like I was a little bit ostracized. I didn’t have the great technology that my workmates had back in the office. And so I’m very, very in touch with what you’re saying here, and I think it’s a great thing to consider, how do we look after the firstline workers and communicate to them better, both now and into the future. So thank you very much for your time today. It’s been absolutely magnificent. Any last words from you?

Stephanie Donahue:

Thanks for having me. And I’d love to hear from everyone on their thoughts on how this transition is going because this firstline worker thing, I feel like I have so many stories and just what you just mentioned on looking at it from so many different angles. Would love to hear how things are going out there.

Speaker 1:

Thanks very much for your time today.

Stephanie Donahue:

Thank you.

 

More Episodes

How to land a job that hasn’t been created yet.

Christopher Bishop is a nonlinear, multimodal careerist who has had eight so far, including rock musician, jingle producer and web site project manager. Chris also spent 15 years at IBM in a variety of roles including business strategy consultant and communications executive driving social media adoption and the use of virtual worlds for training and events.

View Episode

Loving your work, and stories of triumph, during a pandemic.

Steve Clayton is Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller and General Manager of Microsoft’s Innovation, Culture and Stories team. The team is responsible for the company’s storytelling with a focus on employees, media, customers, partners and candidates. Steve and his team have a history of innovation in storytelling to bring the company’s mission to life for these audiences.

Steve was the architect of the acclaimed “88 Acres” story that heralded a new direction for Microsoft’s corporate storytelling and led to the creation of microsoft.com/stories. His team creates a wide variety of content including keynote demos for Satya Nadella, Microsoft Life, the company intranet, social channels and wide range of storytelling that has helped transform the culture of Microsoft.

View Episode