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  • Writer's pictureLaura Merritt

Bridging the gap between the field and the office

Ask any employee working in the field about the current remote working trend and they will likely tell you little has changed for them. These are the frontline employees, approximately 80 percent of the workforce, who do not work in an office—and haven’t since long before COVID-19 transformed the dynamics of the workplace.

Much has changed in the last year, including more alignment between headquarters and the frontline and an increased understanding by leaders of the challenges and experiences of frontline managers. Yet, while we’ve certainly seen some improvement, there are still significant disconnects between those in the main office and those in the field.

Workplace from Facebook recently released their Global Frontline Research Report, “Deskless Not Voiceless 2020.” The survey of 4,500 frontline managers and 4,500 head office leaders in February 2020 and, again, in August 2020, explored how frontline, deskless workers felt they were treated by their bosses in the head office. Coleman Parkes, who conducted the survey, found that people in the field continue to feel undervalued, unheard and disconnected from the business, despite headquarters’ efforts to keep them engaged.

The report identified three major barriers that play significant roles in the disconnect felt by those in the field. These barriers are preventing those in the frontline, who are vital to the success of an organization, from fulfilling their potential. The first of these is the Communications Gap.

Communication Gap

The pandemic has, in some ways, lessened the communications gap by exposing communications challenges when face-to-face interactions are not possible. Leaders have turned to communication platforms like Zoom to connect with employees who worked within the main office before the pandemic as well as those in the field. This has led to a greater appreciation from both the main office and frontline managers of the value in sharing information. However, as the study reveals, frontline managers still struggle to be heard by their headquarters’ peers. Simple, everyday challenges for those in the field, like calls to the main office that are unreturned, delays in receiving updates and duplicated work, lead to wasted hours. Even with some improvement during the pandemic, frontline respondents still wasted an average of 387 hours in the post-COVID era due to poor communication. Imagine how much more productive these field managers could be if communication to and from the main office improved.

While both parties agree on the value of information sharing and good communications, their respective preferences in how to communicate differs significantly.

Frontline managers, especially during the pandemic, consider calling, texting and tools like WhatsApp to be the most reliable forms of communication. Headquarters’ managers, however, rely almost completely on email—a tool on which only 27 percent of frontline managers rely. Those in the frontline value speed and responsiveness when communicating—not always achieved through the more formal email process. In addition, some do not have access to email while in the field.

The best way to ensure that neither party misses out on important updates and information is to implement a single communications platform (e.g., Workplace by Facebook, Slack and Microsoft Teams to name a few) that can be accessed by everyone within the organization—from their laptop, cell phone or tablet. Without such a platform, organizations risk continued communication gaps which could lead to devastating consequences for the business.

Empowerment Gap

Leaders do, for the most part, believe it’s important to give frontline managers a voice but they often fail to really listen and take action based on what they hear. The pandemic has led to a shift in the visibility of the day-to-day challenges of frontline workers. Prior to COVID-19, much of their day-to-day experiences were hidden from the main office’s view. Today, their efforts are in full view, yet those in the field still lack a feeling of empowerment. Nearly one-fourth of frontline managers say they are rarely or never consulted on strategic business opportunities. They are, in essence, being recognized for their efforts but rarely asked for their input.

Frontline managers connect the dots between the main office and clients, customers, vendors and contractors. They have the experience, skills and insights needed to respond quickly to problems and provide solutions. An organization that does not seek out their frontline’s insights is missing out on a tremendous resource.

Culture Gap

With many in office roles forced to work from home in the last year, headquarters managers began to see just how restrictive their previous communications approach has been. They felt, perhaps for the first time, disconnected, less valued, less consulted and less recognized for their efforts. Yet, surprisingly, a vast majority of those main office leaders interviewed (75 percent) do not feel more empathetic toward their field counterparts. Without empathy, can the culture gap between the home office and the field be overcome? And why is lessening this gap so important?

There is a direct relationship between employee productivity and engagement. For a business to be successful, managers, whether in the office or in the field, need to feel recognized and, more importantly, understood and valued. While it’s great to be recognized, if field workers’ office-based peers do not understand their daily challenges and accomplishments, they will not feel valued or empowered to make strategic decisions.

How does an organization close the culture gap? One way is to change how they approach recruiting their next generation leaders. Looking beyond the four walls of the home office is a good start. Remember that your frontline managers possess direct insights into the needs and expectations of customers and clients--something headquarters managers may lack.

If main office leaders expand their search for new leaders to include those in the field, they will also become more aware of the concerns and needs of these employees. And, by bringing more field managers into headquarter-based leadership roles who will bring a new perspective, the organization can create a new way of thinking about the frontline, leading to greater appreciation, broader empowerment and more informed strategic decision-making.

Unfortunately, the economic uncertainty brought forth by the pandemic has led to a perception by field managers of even fewer advancement opportunities than before. More than half believe their careers are not being nurtured by the head office and that their organization is not willing to invest in their training. Is your organization presenting the same amount of training opportunities to those in the office and those in the field? What are you doing to ensure that all employees feel nurtured, encouraged and valued?

Even when recruiting opportunities are limited, as many are seeing during the pandemic, main office leaders have a responsibility to engage and empower their field managers to actively participate in strategic planning and decision-making. These frontline leaders possess direct insights into the needs and expectations of customers and clients--something that is an invaluable tool for any business plan.

Organizations that make a conscious effort to bridge these gaps will build stronger relationships across the business and a stronger organization that is ready for whatever the future holds. AOE is experienced in helping bridge the gap with HR and communications strategies that brings teams together. Contact us today!


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