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Mobile Tech’s Role in Overcoming the Frontline Labor Shortage


Businesses of every size in consumer-focused industries such as retail, hospitality, food service, banking and grocery are in the throes of a labor shortage with their frontline workers.  

According to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), 632,000 retail workers quit in June — the highest total the Bureau of Labor Statistics has ever recorded. Restaurants such as McDonald’s and Chick-Fil-A have been forced to temporarily close dining rooms and focus on drive-thru traffic due to limited staffing. The workers who do show up face ongoing concerns from COVID-19 health risks, heavy workloads and impatient customers. It should be of little surprise that 45% of frontline employees are actively planning to leave their current jobs, according to new research from Arlington and Axonify, scheduled to publish in October.

To keep the doors open and customers happy, managers must figure out how to retain existing workers while onboarding new employees as quickly as possible. And they must do so while hitting their key performance indicators (KPI) — without adding more risk to the business.

The good news is that many organizations already have a big part of the solution in place. In fact, most frontline employees have the answer in their pockets. Mobile technology transformed the customer experience the past few years through practices such as mobile payment, online ordering and curbside pickup. Now, this technology is helping companies overcome their staffing problems.

Pre-Boarding

Managers don’t have time for new hires to complete hours of traditional onboarding. Once you find a qualified candidate, you need them on the job ASAP. Mobile technology is helping businesses overcome this challenge by accelerating the process. Companies are taking advantage of wide-scale smartphone ownership (85% of US adults own one) by pushing important work information, such as company policies, payroll details and orientation materials, directly to employees via mobile apps as soon as they’re hired. They can then complete most of their onboarding before they even clock in for their first formal shift.

Job Training

Rather than forcing new hires to spend hours, days or weeks on computers in back offices training on "what-if" scenarios (or, worse, skipping job training altogether in the name of expediency), companies such as Lowe’s are using mobile apps to move training out of the back room and into the workflow. Rather than overstuffing new hire training with information that employees will never remember, they provide just what employees need to know to get started. Workers then use mobile devices, including handhelds, tablets and smartphones, to complete five-minute training activities as part of every shift. This helps employees rapidly increase their knowledge without stepping away from their jobs or interrupting the operation.

Digital Communication

Frontline workers continue to rely on analog communication methods, such as break room postings and pre-shift huddles, and are often the last to know when things change. This persistent instability drives many employees to look for new jobs, even if they enjoy the work they do now. Mobile technology is helping companies eliminate the guesswork and create a more consistent frontline employee experience. For example, New Zealand-based retailer Briscoe Group Limited uses a mobile communication app to push timely, consistent messages directly to employee smartphones. Now, workers don’t have to wait until their next shift to find out about a big announcement.

This has proven especially critical during the pandemic, as digital communication helps employers stay connected with their frontline teams. Lots of messages are focused on the work that needs to be done. But managers also use this channel to share messages of appreciation, motivation and hope.

Real-Time Performance Support

New and veteran employees alike are struggling to keep up with the past 18 months of non-stop workplace change. They are also facing customers who are well-informed about your products and services and demand prompt service so they can get in and out of your business quickly.

Mobile tech provides an essential crutch as frontline workers get up to speed so they can still deliver the best possible customer experience. The ability to pull up information and answer any customer question with just a few clicks (like they do in their everyday lives) is also a tremendous confidence booster. Companies such as Walmart are going as far as to provide employees with smartphones so they can access information on-demand.

Ongoing Career Development

Training supports employee retention in two ways. For new employees, training sets people up for success by building core job skills and ensuring regulatory compliance. For existing employees, it provides the opportunity to take on new responsibilities and advance their careers. Despite these obvious benefits, frontline employees face a major obstacle when it comes to ongoing training: time. Workers in contact centers, retail stores, restaurants and manufacturing centers have strict schedules and can’t just walk away to take a course, especially during a labor shortage.

Mobile technology is helping companies break the “time barrier” by embedding training into the everyday workflow in seamless, nondisruptive ways. Employees use available devices, such as the point-of-sale or their personal smartphones, to learn during their natural downtimes. For example, lift truck drivers in warehouses complete 10-minute training activities as they wait for their batteries to charge mid-shift. By making training part of the job, companies can go beyond the basic requirements and provide development opportunities on more in-demand topics, such as digital skills and mental health awareness.

Plus, mobile access increases engagement as employees take greater control over their professional development. Axonify found that companies with 75% of their training accessed via mobile devices recorded 15% higher participation and 10% higher frequency. In other words, more employees trained more often. When training is 100% mobile, these numbers rise even more — 20% higher participation and 15% greater frequency.

Technology continues to change the way businesses operate and, as a result, the roles people play in their day-to-day execution. The labor shortage is further accelerating this transformation. In some cases, employee headcounts will be reduced in favor of automation, robotics and self-service options. At the same time, people are shifting into new roles that take advantage of their uniquely human skills. Mobile technology is helping companies get the best (not just the most) out of their people by keeping workers informed, closing skill gaps, fostering a greater sense of workplace community and providing access to new career paths.

In a talent marketplace with abundant opportunities, mobile technology is a gateway to attracting and retaining the people who will ultimately be responsible for executing your next big business strategy.

About the Author

JD Dillon is chief learning architect at Axonify.


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