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How to Empower Frontline Employees in this Digital Age
How to Empower Frontline Employees in this Digital Age
For companies to thrive in the 21st century, they must be able to adapt to the demands of the digital age. Part of that evolutionary process with the digital workforce means empowering frontline employees. After all, frontline employees are a business's first point of contact with a customer—hence the name “frontline.” And that frontline is being taken over by a fairly new generation that has entered the frontline workforce. The frontline workforce are millennials, a mix of twenty-somethings and young thirty-somethings that have grown up alongside the eruption in digital technologies. Having been raised on a diet of smartphones and the internet, millennials almost epitomize the term “digital age.” They are the trendsetters of our era, at the forefront of the latest technologies, and companies can learn from millennials the habits needed to empower frontline employees.

Turn Your Company Into a Village

Long gone are the days when working at a company meant only being on a first-name basis with your cubicle neighbors and managers. This is the digital age—the age of social media—and the entire world is connected by a tangled net of signals. For better or worse, nearly every single person is a simple Google search away. And companies that haven’t internalized this “digital world is a village” lesson are going to stutter and spurt until they finally crash. How do we take the lessons of an interconnected world to the office to empower frontline employees? Companies using the right app or software can turn their vast employee roster into a small village, where everybody knows everybody else's names. Or at least has access to them. With the right app or software, workers can send a message to any other employee through a simple click. After all, nobody knows everything—not yet at least. To compensate, traditional companies relied on specialists or experts, leaving some frontline employees at the whims of others to guide their decisions. But in the digital age, frontline employees don’t need to wait for a message to make its way through labyrinth of communication channels before getting to the right person. They can directly contact the staff member they need to speak to. That means no hold-up, employee independence, and better customer service. Don't forget, management and leaders are also privileged to this network. Both they and frontline employees have a diversity of opinions and perceptions to guide decision making.

Encourage Recognition

That interconnected network also makes it easier for employers to commend their frontline employees, to say “Thank you,” an overlooked two syllable phrase that makes all the difference. Research by One4all Rewards found that “71% of respondents would forgo a higher salary to work for an employer that regularly says thank you.” It’s not clear where the financial cutoff is, but the finding is still significant. It went on to reveal that one in five workers have never received a “Thank you” at all from their employers. There’s no excuse in the digital age for lacking P’s and Q’s when an entire office has an internal communication solution. A simple salutation makes any employee—especially frontline employees who represent a business—feel valued as a cherished member of a team, even if it's in the form of a computerized message.

Personal Leadership

Jim Collins’ now classic book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don’t discovered similarities between every successful business: employees that are empowered to act on their own. That means a manager isn’t breathing down a frontline employee’s neck, asking them what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. That doesn’t create a positive work environment for anyone. As Collins explores in his book, “The moment you feel the need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake.” A sense of trust and personal responsibility is the push that takes companies from being simply good to exceptionally great. It’s a way to empower frontline employees. They don’t need to constantly call up a manager and ask whether or not action X or Y or Z is the appropriate response. And giving employees the ability to act independently has never been easier than today.

Freedom to Choose

We all know the saying “knowledge is power.” Essentially, the more information you have the more freedom you have to make decisions. Where are we going with this? People these days are saturated with information, and companies are too. Empowering frontline employees means giving them the information they need to make decisions, because businesses that thrive in the digital age give employees the information they need to be autonomous individuals. Today, there are solutions that do exactly this. Workstream collaboration and internal communication tools enable two-way communication between managers and frontline employees and give everyone access to important information without the use of email. There are other solutions such as Qminder - a queue management system that provides data to frontline employees so they can focus on improving customer experience metrics. These innovative solutions give frontline employees the means to make informed decisions on their own, while staying connected to information. It goes over particularly well with millennials, who tend to value freedom even more than money. So, give them freedom. “If people are free, they will be drawn to what they really like as opposed to being pushed toward what they have been told to like,” said Chris Rufer, CEO of Morning Star Company, in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “So they will personally do better; they’ll be more enthused to do things.”

Overcome Hierarchies

As Pew Research rightly points out, millennials are the “best-educated cohort of young adults in American history.” That makes them suspicious of traditional hierarchies and imbued with a keenness for democracy. Traditionally, decisions are locked behind a hodgepodge bureaucracy. Not only is it inefficient, but it’s demoralizing. In the traditional system, frontline employees feel like a cog in a machine whose voice is barely heard, as if they’re not allowed to deviate from a pre-approved script. “The problem isn’t the occasional control freak; it’s the hierarchical structure that systematically disempowers lower-level employees,” the Harvard Business Review points out. The article goes on to say, “Narrow an individual’s scope of authority, and you shrink the incentive to dream, imagine, and contribute.” Overcoming this system means managers must become better leaders and overcome these hierarchical boundaries. Companies that change their culture today will get ahead tomorrow. Adaptation is not easy: the rate of technological change makes it seem nearly impossible to implement a strategy that incorporates the latest trends from the digital age. But don’t worry! “Cultural changes within corporate institutions will always be slower and more complex than the technological changes that necessitate them,” writes McKinsey Quarterly. Recognizing the need to keep on top of the latest digital trends is the first step in a long journey. Once frontline employees feel the first slivers of empowerment from managers, the necessary changes to continue the trend will naturally flow. It’s the first step that’s hardest. But recognizing it has to be taken is an empowering act in itself.

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