From hard hat to high tech, the evolving role of frontline workers

Digital technologies are changing the role of the frontline workforce. We talk to Marne Martin, president of IFS Service Management, about how the benefits of a digitalised frontline are being felt by individuals and enterprises alike.  

 

When businesses invest in operation management technology, historically it has often been the white-collar workers in the back offices on the receiving end of these handy digital tools. As a result, businesses’ frontline physical operations have a track record of being drastically underserved by digital technologies. But Marne Martin is looking to change all that.

Martin, president of IFS Service Management, has extensive experience in enabling customers to achieve value from their technology investments and develop their internal talent. Her expertise in digitising enterprises spans cloud/SaaS migrations and operations, artificial intelligence (AI), big data, internet of things, mobile solutions, wireless, workflow transformation, business intelligence, payfac and more. 

As Martin explains, such vast experience is not solely limited to white-collar workstations, just like the technology itself goes beyond the back-office realm.

“In the past, people digitised businesses based on enabling, monitoring and speeding up useful back-office functions,” she explains to ERP Today. “The focus was on ensuring first-generation mobile tools could get people in the office what they needed to know from the field. 

“Now, there is a significant and growing percentage of the population that are either frontline workers 100 percent of the time or are starting to occupy a hybrid status.”

 

The frontline worker demand

Today, not only are frontline employees occupying a higher percentage of the global workforce, they are also in high demand. Across industries, businesses are seeing huge skills shortages for their frontline operations, with ageing workforces, negative job perceptions, the pandemic fallout, as well as increased demand for workers to cope with a large backlog of physical operations. 

Many organisations are rethinking their approach to frontline investments, not only to welcome more candidates to the frontlines and retain their current employees, but to also create new opportunities and benefits for their frontline operations.

“Businesses are needing to offer that same enablement for frontline workers as they historically have for the back office,” as Martin says. “There’s a huge opportunity now in making mobile tools for frontline workers and operations almost more sophisticated than the back office. 

“People in the field need ready access to information that needs to be delivered on-demand and in an intelligent way.” 

 

Bucking outdated ‘blue-collar’ perceptions

As a result of demand for more frontline workforce, and the pushback for an equally served piece of the technology offering, a seismic shift is taking place in the perception of frontline workers.  

“There isn’t any difference between, for example, someone that’s interested in computers becoming a digital specialist, and someone else becoming a car mechanic,” explains Martin. “The mechanic will need to understand the electronics of the car because that’s the bulk of what they’re working on. 

“We need to stop thinking about our frontlines as ‘blue-collar workers’. To me that phrase, frankly, should die a death. Most of our assets are beginning to be more sophisticated, with computerised or electronic elements. In most lines of work, we now have to embrace digital outcomes for frontline workers and that, I think, will over time change the perception and the reality of these roles.” 

“For many of the best-in-class organisations, frontline workers are already digital workers. If you have people that are used to smartphones and their capabilities, then it’s just a question of how in a B2B world we provide them with things that they’re familiar with as a consumer.”

For the new frontline worker, organisations need to make sure they are connected and enabled in sophisticated ways to make use of more opportunities in the field. Finding relevant information should not be more time-consuming and clunky than a swift Google search. 

Inviting in the high standard of user interface and delivering ready access to on-demand information that workers are accustomed to outside of work will drive this continuous learning and enablement to the employee. Thus, by gaining self-learning and skill enablement opportunities, whilst also knowing the asset and the customer, frontline workers can not only perform their best but highlight any operation holdups and areas of improvement. 

 

Stop thinking about our frontlines as ‘blue-collar workers’. To me that phrase should die a death.

 

“There’s an immediate and direct impact from the mobile technician whose handheld devices can scan a QR code and immediately see what the service reps are saying, to turning video and photos into structured data. 

“We’re now starting to be able to drive AI and machine learning in more useful ways for frontline workers. I think that’s where more adoption is coming,” believes Martin. 

 

The benefits of the digitalised worker 

For Martin and the team at IFS, the digitalised evolution of the frontline workforce is inherently linked to aiming for the best ‘moment of service’, using tools aimed at creating positive total experiences for both the employee and the customer to drive favourable outcomes on both sides. 

“Extending the connectivity to help frontline workers with access to information is not only useful for their jobs, but improves employee and customer experience and consequently retention rates,” she explains. 

“By making the frontline worker tools more interactive, it promotes productivity, but it also makes working more of a human experience, so they don’t feel alone on the job and, also, so they feel safe and connected to what they need on the go.”

With this approach, the right digital tools could aid frontline workers and allow businesses to support a wider array of applicants in frontline roles, offering more opportunities to enter well-paid and highly skilled jobs that may have previously seemed bad fits. 

“We want to embed the end customer experience into everything that frontline workers do,” Martin adds. “When frontline workers feel that they’re doing a good job and delivering a good experience, their job satisfaction is higher and they’re less likely to leave the job. 

“And, of course, you have a happy customer too. So, driving customer experience with digital tools has a very total experience outcome.” 

 

Achieving a return on investment

Notable, too, is the apparent straight line to return on investment that digitalisation for frontline workers and physical operations creates.  

“When you think about technologies for the frontline workers, service management, and supply chain, these are so much easier to show business value on a return on investment, whether it ends up more than you expect or less than you expect. I’ve never known a project in this area that did not have a positive return on investment.”

“It’s interesting when we’re talking to customers about our planning, scheduling optimisation, which has AI and machine learning in it,” Martin continues. “What I tell them is that you will get ROI. The question for you (related to adoption, change management, all of this) is do you get five to ten percent, ten to 20, or 20 to 50 percent? How are you willing to utilise the technology?”

 

I have never known a project in this area that did not have a positive return on investment

 

Likewise, it’s suggested that business’ digitalisation of the frontlines will help sustainability efforts by creating much greater efficiency. 

“This isn’t a ‘cost’,” Martin says. “Yes, you can get the benefit from a better ESG rating and things like that, but this actually is good business for you, as well as for the climate, your people, and your customers.”

 

The best process to implement frontline digital tech

No matter the potential benefits of welcoming digitisation to your frontlines, ensuring buy-in from your frontline workers is essential for good returns on any investment. Bringing the frontline worker experience in the field to the boardroom in a way that decision-makers can relate to, find interesting, and know how impactful solving pain points can be, is key for successful implementations. For Martin, many organisations are missing the trick when digitising frontline operations for employees, especially when investment decision-makers are often office-based. 

“When we talk about business value realisation from a frontline digital transformation perspective, I want to encourage enterprises to think about business value realisation from their data. We need to have more operations and I’d say more practical people thinking about what is the most useful data. 

“When there is enough data to be meaningful and statistically significant, you can map that to asset longevity and uptime in ways less binary or obvious. Plus, as a next frontier, having that raw data will also enable us to do better and make better training models for AI and machine learning, and, hopefully soon, create predictive models that aren’t trained from historical data.”

Taking away focus from task solving, Martin recommends focussing on improving the frontline total experience.

“Business processes aren’t the sole outcome we’re looking for anymore. We’re no longer thinking about digitalised frontline workers as a means to an end of tracking hours, billing the customer, or providing status updates. 

“Yes, you want these functions, but we need to start thinking about customer experience and employee experience as the main goal that we’re driving in the outcomes. That’s really where we will start galvanising what we can do with these digital tools, utilising also the power of devices that we have today and finding the crux of pain points in operations.”