The impact of Covid-19 on frontline workers: how to keep employees safe, engaged and productive

With the COVID-19 pandemic still impacting day-to-day business operations, and the global economic recession firmly in place, corporate executives are in a bind. On one hand, these pressing realities require making immediate, disruptive changes to their business models. On the other, these necessary and often unavoidable actions must sometimes be taken without sufficient time to plan and prepare.

Frontline employees see this. Months after the pandemic’s onset, the uncertainty it has generated among employees remains high. Keeping these jobs viable in an uncertain business climate means management has to do more than ensure worker health and workplace safety. They also need to make sure all business operations are performed efficiently, and with minimal disruption. Once those decisions are made, communications will play a major role in making it all happen.

Here are three key actions, informed by valuable insights collected from Cisco customers and subject matter experts, that can help your organization run more effectively and efficiently:

1. Prioritize top-down communications

A greater focus on top-down communications ensures safety, inclusivity, and, ultimately, better productivity from front-line workers.

Continuity is a rare commodity these days. Very little in today’s business world is as it was a few months ago. The changes faced by executives and employees alike since the onset of the pandemic are unprecedented in our lifetimes. It’s not just the pace of change that has proven so dramatic, but its amplitude as well.

These changes have frontline workers deeply concerned. They worry about contracting the virus at work and brining it home to their families. They worry about the impact Coronavirus could have on their job security. The most effective way to alleviate their concerns and provide a welcome level of workplace continuity is through an open and reliable line of top-down communications to frontline workers.

“Top-down is more important, as so much changes so often.”

During a recent discussion with an executive for an international logistics company about its most pressing business priorities, he emphasized the importance of clear communications from the top, “Top-down is more important, as so much changes so often.”

It is incumbent on management to provide clear health and safety guidance to employees. As for how to accomplish that task, there is no gold standard. The SVP of Technology for a holding company that manages multiple restaurant chains recently said, “Though we have good protocol to run comms top-down, we don’t have a single thing that works across all frontline employees — that’s a gap, and a current to-do.”

Considering the size of a company and the diversity of job descriptions within it, there may not be a single means to effectively provide top-down communications for all employees. Yet, the task must still be accomplished, and quickly. Nobody said reinventing top-down channels of communication would be easy, but the reality on the ground dictates that it becomes a priority.

2. Take a greater interest in hiring, training, and development

Helping your people-focused teams source, evaluate and manage new technologies can pay huge dividends for your organization, providing much needed support in an increasingly-digital domain.

Even before Coronavirus, employee hiring and training were becoming increasingly complex and data-dense processes. Since then, well, it hasn’t become less so.

In a business environment that has seen an explosion in remote working, the distribution of information, including onboarding materials, has become a real issue for Information Technology leaders. Flipping the switch that makes formally office-tethered onboarding and job training suitable for a widely distributed workforce is not an easy task — and the steady stream of policy and protocol updates designed to reduce the risk of catching or spreading Coronavirus compounds the problem.

Theres a lot of data to send to everyone, lots of training, [and] best practices to communicate.”

During a recent roundtable discussion, a technology infrastructure executive from a leading investment banking firm acknowledged his company was utilizing every existing communication medium to keep employees informed, “We’re doing more for our employees in a combination of mediums: online courses, recordings, written comms, internal websites.”

For technology-enabled organizations, traditional business communication vehicles may be suitable for now. Going forward though, existing channels may not be sufficient to address new workplace realities.

In the quest to find the best delivery medium for the information being shared, some companies are giving unconventional methods a try. To our surprise, the logistics company executive stated, “There’s a lot of data to send to everyone, lots of training, [and] best practices to communicate. We’ve tried gamifying to help with this.”

While certainly not a cure-all, the gamification of information distribution poses a new challenge for IT staff, but it points toward a “whatever it takes” problem-solving attitude that is increasingly common with corporate management.

3. Take time to identify and plan for the challenges of the “new normal”

Making an effort to anticipate and strategize for future needs, breaking out of the day-to-day, helps ensure you’re ready to face any new problem that sneaks onto the radar.

For a large number of employees, working from home on a permanent basis will become the new normal. But working from home opens the door to a number of key concerns that have yet to be widely resolved.

“We’ve tried happy hours, trivia nights — but they’re hard to manage.”

Company culture is a point of pride and the secret to success for many organizations. Those companies will be eager to keep that culture intact. So how do they maintain and foster a close-knit culture when there is no water cooler for employees to gather around? Creative thinking and a dose of technology will provide the answer.

Many companies have tried virtual versions of real-world culture- and team-building exercises. One corporate executive summed up his virtual culture-sustaining exercise this way, “We’ve tried happy hours, trivia nights — but they’re hard to manage.”

Another big challenge in remote workforce management is keeping productivity high. Productivity is often a team sport. High productivity is usually the product of effective collaboration, both within and between internal teams.

“As the IT leader,” our investment banking executive said, “one of the biggest values we provide is helping teams be more productive than the sum of their parts. It’s not just hiring and training, but having that cooperative culture of wanting to help each other out — not let others down.”

But how do we pull this off if less work is in-person?

The remote workforce has created a good-news/bad-news productivity issue for one grocery store chain executive. “[Our] people are now working more. Now we’re thinking at some point people are going to hit the wall. How do we keep momentum up and continue to manage this? What will governance look like for the new norm?”

… one of the biggest values we provide is helping teams be more productive than the sum of their parts.”

In our many discussions with corporate executives since the pandemic began, each has shared their own frustrations with unanswered questions. The lack of a clear path forward has created complicated obstacles for technologists who seek to help businesses through challenges like these—but by keeping an eye on the horizon, teams can identify issues before they become critical, and plan to address them accordingly.

The take-away: be fast and flexible for your front-line

We are in unprecedented times, calling for unprecedented action from leadership. Quickly responding to new business situations with strong top-down communication and technology that empowers your employees is key to creating a safe and positive work environment for your front-line. We can’t stress enough the long-term impact of today’s decisions. How you react to the COVID-19 crisis – both the business decisions and the way you treat your employees – can shape your company’s culture for the next decade.


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