In times of crisis, an inspirational quote from Fred Rogers of the classic PBS children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood makes the rounds in the US – “look for the helpers” – and it always seems to soothe nerves in troubled times. As lockdowns were imposed worldwide after the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, this mentality often took the form of spontaneous applause from apartment windows and balconies for medical frontline workers coming home after long shifts.
Doesn’t that seem like so long ago? Now weary from the rising daily confirmed case numbers with some restrictions again in place in Europe, it’s worth pausing to consider if we are losing sight of the helpers as we begin to roll out vaccines – particularly as corporations plan investments post-crisis.
Most – 80 per cent – of the world’s workforce doesn’t work behind a desk. These workers don’t have fancy home-office setups or corporate Slack accounts – they’re on the front lines, keeping the roads open, food shortages at bay and making sure the power stays on. Many of them deserve the term “essential employees.”
While digital transformation has changed many industries, with breakthroughs in automation and AI leading to new products and better experiences for consumers, the nature of work at these jobs has not changed as much. Hourly workers still learn about company policy updates from printouts on the walls of break rooms. Yet they still end up picking up their smartphone to text or call a boss or corporate counterpart, bypassing company IT systems.
As a result, a very real and dangerous gap is emerging between the technology “haves” and “have-nots” at work. Less than half (38 per cent) of frontline workers we surveyed say they use existing work applications and software effectively. Many want more training or better tools. Employers concur: 86 per cent of companies say their frontline workforces need better technology-enabled insight.
It’s past time we extended the benefits of digital transformation to everyone at work. This calls for a revolution and an open ecosystem. That means more than just window dressing or piecing together lightweight tools that connect to broader digital transformation initiatives around inventory management or operations. From the greatest tech companies in the world to start-ups, we need to build for frontline workers’ unique needs across industries so employers can arm them for mutual long-term success. In short, we need to meet frontline workers where they are.
Increasingly, that’s on their phones – offering a clue as to where an answer might lie. While most frontline workers do not have company email addresses or access to a work computer much of the day, they usually have smartphones that can serve as gateways to access personalised versions of company systems. Better yet, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel with new working methods. User-friendly features that have already transformed our individual lives in social media and online can be equally transformative at work.
We’re already seeing the first fruits of these efforts in mobile apps such as LumApps for Frontliners, the only digital workplace app designed to align all workers, whether in the office, home or in the field. But an entire ecosystem is needed.
In many industries, frontline employees are the closest to the customer, operations or product – making it critical to get this right. It’s also important for society at large. Productivity growth – the increase in worker output per hour – hovers near record lows today, and the divided economic recovery after the early months of the Covid-19 crisis reveals a worrying chasm between the well-off and the less economically secure.
Ultimately the digital future of work can be bright if we give the helpers the tools they need to thrive and focus at work, building lasting business relationships. A rising tide of productivity can lift all boats. The alternative is burnout, fatigue, high turnover, inefficiency and continued stagnant recoveries – something we should all want to leave in the rear-view mirror.