4 frontline employee communication trends to watch

In any conversation about how the pandemic has changed frontline support in retail, employee communication is almost guaranteed to come up. So much depends on strong internal communication: employee engagement, health and safety, operational efficiency and the list goes on. Thanks to the changes of the past year, employers have been forced to reinvent nearly every aspect of how they connect and communicate with their frontline workforce. 

Last month at AxoniCom RETAIL, we sat down with retail leaders to recap the biggest changes in frontline communications over the past year, and what they’ll be carrying forward as their employee communication strategy evolves post-pandemic. Here are a few highlights from that conversation. 

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

Most of us will never forget the early days of the pandemic. Things were changing all the time. There was so much new information to digest. For retailers, keeping associates informed of the latest policies and processes was a top priority. To do so, they increased the cadence of internal communications, sending out much more frequent, regular messages to the frontline.  

“Early on in the pandemic, we were planning and working really hard behind the scenesevery 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 the 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.”

These days, health guidelines may not be changing on the daily, but the disruption in retail is far from over. Frequent employee communications will remain a central part of how retailers get their frontline ready for whatever comes next.

From posters and pre-shift huddles, to personal devices

While office workers were learning just how much work could be done through tools like Zoom and Slack, similar revelations were happening on the frontlines. Retailers saw the value of being able to instantly communicate with the frontline in the moments that matter, on the devices associates were already using. Many retailers brought in new technology to efficiently and reliably reach their frontline workforce. 

“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 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 polished, top-down dispatches to informal two-way conversations

Before the pandemic, most retailers relied on their store networks to cascade messages from leaders down to associates. The pandemic spurred many companies to skip the game of broken telephone and speak directly to their frontline. 

“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.” 

In those early days of the pandemic, production values went out the window—and people responded well to that. 

“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.”

They’ve also opened up communication channels from the frontline back to 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.” 

The connection between internal communications and employee engagement 

What do all these changes mean for associates? It means that when customers ask a question, they have the answer at their fingertips. Even when things change on a dime, they can perform confidently on the job. And their ideas, feedback and contributions are heard and valued by their employer. These are all key ingredients for an engaged frontline workforce

“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 the frontline workforce. 

“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.”

Watch AxoniCom RETAIL on demand for more from retail leaders

Lindsay Windover-Kroes has spent her career writing in the tech and education sectors. She’s passionate about helping others do their best work, from the head office to the frontlines.

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