By Gloria Lombardi

When leaders talk of engagement activities, culture, and good communications, there’s a risk they are focused on office workers and those who have easy access to the intranet and the usual digital channels. Frontline and field workers are often defined as ‘the hard to reach’ and yet that’s no longer a fair label, as mobile is now an essential channel for any professional communicator. Whether using company issued or personal phones, more members of the workforce are comfortable using company apps for formal and informal comms and everyday tasks.

Guy Chiswick, Managing Director of Speakap UK&I, finds that employees are enthusiastic about their communications and community app and, in this interview, highlights the link between higher engagement levels and better customer satisfaction. He encourages retailers to invest in the employee experience to directly impact the customer experience, and shares practical tips from clients he’s worked with.

Gloria Lombardi: How did Speakap come about and what does it deliver?

Guy Chiswick: Speakap was launched in 2009 by the two founders, Patrick and Erwin, who were at university and working in supermarkets. They saw, first-hand, how difficult it was to get information from head office into the stores, especially considering part-time workers, shift workers, and how everyone was mostly on their feet on the shop floor. Most employees didn’t have a work email address, and didn’t have a device that could access work email or messages anyway. So internal communication was paper-based, and updates and memos would be passed around. Of course, these young guys, like everyone else, were using social platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn and could see how communications could be improved.

They developed an app for their supermarket. It was originally like a mini intranet – open to all. They spent three years developing it for use across the chain, making it more location focused, and had soon rolled it out across most supermarkets in the Netherlands. So they’d proven the value, and could easily imagine how their app could help any organisation with non-desk based staff.

In the last six years, we’ve rolled out Speakap in Germany, Belgium, Spain, Brazil, and now we’re in the UK too. Over 300 organisations use Speakap, and not just those in retail and leisure, but any sector with non-desk based staff.

GL: Why is it critical that organisations focus on non-desk based staff?

GC: Well, there are a lot of people in retail and hospitality that work part-time, or in different shift patterns. They work on their feet, they have no desk, no laptop, and probably don’t have a company issued smartphone. They may not even have a company email account, and wouldn’t generally access it even if they did.

They never contact head office, and probably rely on text and phone calls to keep in touch with their manager. How are they made a part of the company?

Let’s not forget that bricks and mortar shops are competing with online retailers, and while employees are a massive cost to the business, they are of huge value, and a key differentiator. Personally and directly engaging customers is incredibly impactful, and so if the company can engage their frontline workers, then a better customer service can be delivered. Great employee engagement leads to great customer experience.

The Institute of Customer Service reported in January 2018 that a 1 point increase in employee engagement leads to a 0.4 point increase in customer satisfaction. I’m sure this impacts the bottom line, and it emphasises the importance of looking after staff.

When working within industries with higher staff turnover, there are obvious benefits in improving retention, not only to reduce recruitment costs but to deliver a higher level of customer service from experienced employees. When you look at the reports from Aon Hewitt that point to high levels of employee engagement linked to reductions in staff turnover between 25 to 65%, it’s clear that the employee experience – including recruitment, on-boarding, training, and ongoing communications and engagement – is vital to the health of the business.

GL: What strategies and tactics should companies use to engage non-desk based workers and frontline staff?

GC: For frontliners, the strategy has to be ‘mobile first’. Tactically, there are three main solution architectures you can consider. If we look at massive solutions offered by the likes of Microsoft, we’ll see several mobile apps, but the information architecture is very much ‘desktop first’ and I think it’s hard for mobile users to find what’s new and relevant amidst all the corporate comms and reference material. Then, in comparison, we can look at Workplace by Facebook, which delivers a great mobile experience, but seeing what’s new and relevant is governed by the algorithm, so again, I think it’s difficult for employees in a large organisation to see what they want.

Then there’s the dedicated approach of Speakap; the app was designed to mirror real-world communication flow and the organisational structure of the retailer. During deployment, we ensure employees are put into appropriate groups, as per their working location and department, so that communications are easy to target and always relevant.

This also means that when an employee opens the private chat function, they’re only presented with local employees – making it really easy to connect with their manager or colleague – no need to scroll or search through the whole company directory!

We generally see high adoption and usage rates; the average user opens the app 3 or 4 times a day for around 35 seconds each time. You can quickly check your timeline, check your messages, send an update, and you’re done in half a minute. This ease and speed is down to the local groupings – you risk losing employee productivity if they’re getting irrelevant news from other departments or locations, or contributing to global discussions. It’s all local, and all relevant.

GL: Which companies are doing a great job of engaging frontline workers?

GC: Rituals, the lifestyle retailer, uses ‘Rituals Connect’ branded App to aid their global rollouts and facilitate on-boarding new employees. They provide the app as soon as the new recruit has signed the contract, and capture personal profile details directly through the app, before they even start work. Paper forms are thus reduced and you’re not forcing people to sit down at a computer. Rituals then uses the app to deliver bite-size training videos around new products and promotions.

They also use Speakap announce market and store openings as well as recognition; the CEO regularly talks about customer service and recognises individuals for their efforts and achievements. And of course, colleagues can easily thank each other too.

Ikea staff found customers knew about marketing campaigns before they did. So Ikea started using Speakap to share marketing material and new product information. The day before a marketing campaign goes out on TV or in the newspapers, they push it to staff via the app, and so staff are aware of what customers will see and what they’re likely to ask about. Forewarned is forearmed, and staff feel empowered by their up-to-date knowledge.

A third example is De Bijenkor, the Selfridges of Holland, who wanted to make it as easy as possible to manage work schedules. As well as a communication channel, they have integrated their workforce management solution into Speakap. People can see their shift rota for the week, apply to change a shift, apply for holiday, and log sickness all on their mobile. A marked improvement from using print outs in the break room! Speakap can be integrated with any modern HR system, such as Workday, SAP, or any other solution on the market.

GL: What are your thoughts about the future of engagement? Will younger employees bring new needs to the frontline by 2025?

GC: I think the consumerisation of the workplace will continue; people with a Millennial-mindset, those used to living their lives digitally, and those who’ve adopted new ways of keeping up with family and friends – they all have expectations about the workplace and ease of access. People expect their workplace to operate in a similar fashion to their personal digital lives. All that stuff we used to do with paper – filling in forms, scanning them in, passing print outs to your boss – that’s all gone. We can enable and empower people with digital tools and systems in their pockets. Consumer tools are serving business needs. People want what’s familiar. But there are data protection and privacy concerns when using consumer apps within the business, and of course it’s difficult to ‘switch off’ if you’re using, say, WhatsApp for your personal and professional messaging.

So consumerisation – the ease-of-use expectations – will continue but, considering the governance concerns, I think purpose-built tools will be vital.