4 frontline employee communication trends to watch

Posted on: June 18, 2021Updated on: April 22, 2024By: Max Lerner

The pandemic has changed frontline communication. Frontline associates need the latest information to make good on-the-job decisions. So much depends on communication – employee engagement, safety, efficiency … the list goes on. The past two years have forced retailers to rethink how they communicate with their frontline teams so they can keep up with the nonstop pace of change.

Woman holding mobile phone

At AxoniCom RETAIL 2021, we sat down with retail leaders from companies like Lowe’s, Ulta Beauty, Dollar General and Eyemart Express to recap the biggest changes in frontline communications, and what they’ll be carrying forward as their employee communication strategy evolves post-pandemic. Here are a few highlights from those conversations.

Employee communication goes from ad-hoc to weekly or even daily

Things were changing constantly during the earliest days of the pandemic. Plexiglass dividers went up. Physical distancing markers went down. And retailers had to find ways to keep associates updated on the latest processes and policies. This means increasing the communication cadence to almost daily messaging.

“Early on in the pandemic, we were planning and working really hard behind the scenes every day, but we realized we weren’t actually talking to associates about it. So we fixed that very quickly,” said Gianna Venturi, Chief People Officer at Eyemart Express. “We learned that you really can’t over-communicate.”

Paul DeSousa, VP of Talent Management at Ulta Beauty, echoed this sentiment.

“The communication piece was critical for us as we were reacting every day to different and changing conditions, knowing that we wanted to keep our team’s health and safety at the forefront of the work we were doing,” said DeSousa. “We were moving very fast, much faster than we would ever typically move, so we also had to teach our teams in store how to adapt to a more agile environment.”

With those early days behind them, retailers continue to feel the impact of disruption. Communication remains central to preparing the frontline workforce for whatever comes next.

From posters and pre-shifts to personal devices

As corporate team members were learning how to get work done through internal communication tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom, the frontline experienced its own digital transformation. Retailers looked for new ways to use the devices already on the store floor to deliver timely messages and training. This brought content out of the break room and into the aisle where work is done.

“Our business is highly experiential and high touch. And over this past year or so, we’ve still been able to really convey the educational content in a way that’s been very meaningful, using new technology that we have at hand,” said DeSousa.

That will change the way they communicate with their frontline employees in the future.

“How do we think about ROI differently, knowing that we’ve been able to achieve some of the things that we used to do in an in-person setting, while being able to touch more people virtually, as opposed to hoping I’ll see maybe five or six associates on the day that I’m in store? That’s something we’re keeping a close eye on.”

Communicate the right message consistently to frontline staff on their work or mobile devices.

From top-down announcements to two-way conversations

Pre-2020, retailers relied on managers to cascade messages from corporate to frontline associates. This resulted in countless broken games of telephone. Now, retailers recognize the importance of fast, reliable communication across the entire workforce.

“We needed to be agile, and that’s just changed the way we do communication overall,” explained Venturi. “We now communicate everything directly to our associates.”

As communication accelerated, production values had to go out the window. Turns out, people actually prefer informal messages over heavily-polished content.

“Everybody was scared. They didn’t know what was going on, and just being visible to the associates on the frontline became very important for us,” said Venturi. “We use a lot more informal communication tools, like selfie videos from our CEO, which have been a massive hit.”

Retailers also opened up two-way communication channels so the frontline can share their feedback and experiences with HQ.

“We no longer say, ‘let your manager tell us what’s going on.’ You tell us what’s happening and what we can do to improve your lives and your work in our stores,” said Venturi. “We’re loving the opportunity to really connect directly with the frontline. It creates a whole new dynamic, and it breaks down silos and helps us become more agile.”

Paul echoed the sentiment: “The feedback loop has widened and broadened, and the data we’re getting is just so much richer. That is really helping us make an impact.”

Improved communication = increased engagement

What do all these changes mean for associates? Now, workers have the information they need to make decisions in the moments that matter. When a customer asks an obscure question, they can find the answer with just a few clicks on their mobile device. When the workplace turns on a dime, they can be confident in their ability to keep up. Even more importantly, their ideas, feedback and contributions are heard and valued across the organization. This is how you improve frontline engagement, even during the most challenging times.

“Excitement seems to be the sentiment—the excitement of the empowerment that our associates have now,” said Venturi. “They have a voice directly to us, and just seeing their excitement and their satisfaction with their ideas being implemented, when we’re doing something or changing something because of what they’ve said to us, that’s beautiful.”

DeSousa, too, predicts a positive long-term impact on frontline workers.

“I think it’s going to make us even stronger. The way that we’ve been able to do things differently and react more quickly, it’s helped us empower our store teams to operate and thrive in that fast-paced and ever-changing environment.”

Improving your frontline communications in 2022

Here are the big ideas internal comms, operations and learning pros should take away from our retail stories.

Constant communication is key

Internal communicators must be more proactive than ever when it comes to engaging the frontline workforce every day. Since it’s not always possible to communicate face-to-face, you want to ensure that everyone remains in the loop—no matter how many employees you oversee. Globally, only 20% of employees were engaged in the workplace in 2020, and communication lapses play a major role.

Peer-to-peer communication is just as important as other internal comms

Don’t just focus on internal communications channels between HQ and the frontline. Digital communication apps make it easy for employees to connect with one another and enjoy easy peer-to-peer collaboration. This builds trust, improves camaraderie and reduces feelings of isolation for frontline and remote workers. Maintaining connections in the workplace is an important part of combating burnout – the #1 cause of frontline turnover.

Executives can connect with their workforces

All-hands meetings are commonplace with corporate teams thanks to apps like Zoom, Slack and MS Teams. But executives can’t reach the majority of their workforce without purpose-built frontline communication tools. These platforms eliminate traditional communication barriers and help the frontline feel just as valued and aligned with the goals of the organization as their corporate counterparts.

Employee wellbeing should be a top priority

Improved communication isn’t just about maintaining a productive workplace. It fosters a workplace in which all team members feel supported, connected and confident in the work they do. This is why your communication tech must enable two-way conversation, not just top-down messaging. It can make a big difference for your employees’ mental health.

Max Lerner

Max Lerner is an instructional designer and avid frontline enablement enthusiast, with years of experience helping organizations support their teams to drive business outcomes.

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