COVID-19 and Lessons in Associate Communications
Vice President of Product Management
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need for collaborative communications between businesses and their associates. Leveraging communication options available through employee self-service portals has delivered significant advantages in keeping associates informed, reducing associate trips to the store to get future schedules, minimizing distractions to managers, allowing associates to expand availability for additional hours, to bid on open shifts and to share company guidance on the pandemic.
Not all employee self-service portals will prove equally capable to the task. Associates must be able to rely on the schedules. Companies must ensure the schedules posted on portals are correct and up to date. Companies must leverage the portal for communicating with associates. A company deploying employee self-service through a portal must ensure the employees and supervisors are trained and use the services to communicate necessary information between the business and the associates.
Earlier this week we posted a special blog post on the importance of emergency communications using push to device delivery. Today’s post deals with more typical communication needs, important for everyday use but also the foundation for an emergency communications strategy, enabling digital interactive communication between the company and associates.
Essential workforce management features
Most associate portals get installed as part of a larger workforce management system deployment. Numerous benefits are associated with workforce management portal interaction:
- Viewing current and future schedules
- Viewing past week or week-to-date gross pay and hours
- Maintaining availability
- Submitting requests for time off or for PTO
- Viewing accrued balances, like PTO
- Requesting shift swaps or changes
- Relinquishing shifts due to special circumstances
- Bidding on available shifts
- Messaging supervisors
The net effect of all these functions is to empower associates and to save managers time in individually responding to associates either in person or on the phone. It’s a convenience for associates and a significant time saver for managers.
Businesses have the option to allow greater access to the system for managers or associates but need to stay within applicable regulations relating to associate work off the clock.
The bigger communication opportunities
The COVID-19 pandemic has made apparent that delivery of emergency communications to associates is a necessity. An employee self-service portal capable of those emergency communications has been a key differentiator during the pandemic. Consider the need to inform associates of dress code changes to include protective gear. Or the importance of informing all associates of the symptoms they need to be mindful of so as not to come to work if they could be infected with the virus. Or changes in store hours, changes in store policies, the status of goods in limited or short supply, changes in return policies. The examples are endless.
Having the right communication vehicles
Three types of communication vehicles are particularly important both for daily communications and potentially for emergency messaging. They are:
- Alert messages or notifications
- Communication board postings
- Group interactive chat communications
Alert messages or notifications may be pushed through the employee portal to reach each associate or a designated group of associates. Often these communications are short and to the point, but they may also refer or link to longer message content that is posted on the associate communication board. One example of routine use is to communicate that the system has detected a missing punch and inform the associate to provide the correct time or to contact her/his supervisor to fix the missing punch. Messages of this type should be routed to standard communication locations, easily accessible from the portal.
Communication boards are the digital equivalent of breakroom bulletin boards, only with greater functionality. These postings can support longer content, pictures, and even video to carry or support messages. The content supported by bulletin boards can be vital in an emergency, but associates should be notified by message on their device that a bulletin board posting has been made, with a link to the communication board posting. There are many uses for this type of communication, and some may be fully automated by the system. However, pandemic-related communications—or hurricane, snowstorm, tornado or other force majeure events—should be tagged as emergency or priority status with far greater exposure. This might be achieved through either push to device delivery on the main screen or in a special overlay popup seen immediately upon entering the portal. Whatever the mechanism, it is critical to deliver heightened visibility for emergency communication.
The third component is a vehicle for group communication akin to a group messaging system like Skype. This would operate with defined channels (predefined groups) for communication. Managers can inform and respond to questions from group members via texts, video or audio, to accomplish full interactive communication. Everyday uses of this functionality may be within departments to convey transitional information through the day, communications between managers on duty during the course of the day, communications from a store director to all department managers, or communications between department managers within a district or area for resource sharing or collaboration.
Communication tools have been an essential component of workforce management implementations in many companies. They deliver a base value proposition on a weekly basis. However, the depth and versatility of these tools have proven especially useful when emergency communication is required. The pandemic has brought that additional value proposition to light, and retailers will be wise to upgrade their tools as soon as conditions permit.