Remember, Disruption Isn't Just About White-Collar Workers
It’s hard to overstate the impact COVID-19 has had on workers. A sudden shift to working at home has challenged IT platforms and working practices. Culture and engagement must now be viewed through the lens of an entirely virtual workforce. We’re all wrestling with Zoom fatigue, with a full return to the office a fair way off for most of us.
In all of this, however, it’s easy to think that what I’ve just described is the whole picture. It’s not. Every issue outlined above applies largely to people like us, the so-called ‘white-collar workers.’ Office workers, knowledge workers and other desk-based folk.
What is all too often overlooked are the huge cohort of blue-collar workers that underpin our society, industry and organizations. These are the folks already working in the field, in frontline roles or in environments such as factories.
The impact of COVID-19 has been much worse for blue-collar workers than white-collar workers. Higher rates of layoffs and tighter COVID-19 restrictions are just a few examples, and these are compounded by their tighter economic circumstances.
So when we talk about digital transformation, we should be doing three things:
1. Give Recognition and Show Empathy
I’ve lost count of the number of articles on this site and others that make no mention of blue-collar workers and their issues in this pandemic. I’m just as culpable as others in talking about things like the adoption of Teams, without making explicit the context of white collar employees. (For example, while it’s great that many organizations are using more and more of Office 365, do we really think a factory worker should be bombarded with all these complex tools?)
The starting point should therefore be to give appropriate recognition of the diversity of roles within most firms, beyond the core group of office-based knowledge workers. If that feels uncomfortable, then it’s beholden on us to read further about the current impact on blue-collar workers, so we feel knowledgeable enough to talk about their issues.
As people, and as part the wider communities within the real world, we also need to show empathy for the millions of people who lost their jobs, or who have had their hours slashed as a result of the pandemic.
There is a widening disconnect between the 'haves' and the 'have nots,' and while our work is done just within our own organizations, we should take every effort to highlight the importance of bringing blue-collar workers along the journey of digital transformation.
2. Really Understand Blue-Collar Needs
For 20 years, I’ve conducted in-person research with perhaps a thousand employees across hundreds of organizations. The focus has always been on the staff who 'do the actual work,' and this typically means frontline and operational roles (such as in call centers).
The needs of these staff, many of whom would be considered blue-collar works, is sharply different from head-office knowledge workers. Too often they haven’t been given the digital support they need, or provided with clunky and poorly-designed digital solutions.
So every digital workplace project should conduct meaningful field research, spending time one-on-one with staff that encompass the full spread of job roles. This needn’t be a big deal: in my consultancy work we find that as little as five days of research uncovers a wealth of insights to shape project decisions.
The results of this research can be captured in the form of employee personas, journey maps and day-in-the-life narratives.
3. Prioritize Blue-Collar Needs
Here’s a secret: while blue-collar needs are often treated as second-best to white-collar considerations, it’s the blue-collar staff who usually do the most important work. This includes most of the work in the field, and the majority of direct customer interactions.
Digital transformation must therefore go beyond generic all-staff approaches, to segment out the specific needs of each staff group. Invite blue-collar staff to co-create solutions, it will lead to better designs, easier change management and greater end-user adoption.
In Microsoft 365, organizations can take an approach of rolling out capabilities in ‘waves,’ which combines technology enhancements with the support people and process aspects. This also enables a ‘purpose-driven’ approach to more meaningfully meet the needs of both employees and organizations.
Related Article: Frontline Workers: The Untapped Knowledge Workers in Your Midst
Meeting Obligations and Finding Opportunities
C-level leaders understand the obligations they have to support all employees, particularly those most impacted by COVID-19. Many organizations have taken extraordinary steps to provide greater flexibility to blue collar workers, to retain staff wherever possible, and even to provide direct financial support.
Digital transformations can — and must — also consider the needs of blue-collar workers, and to provide them with the digital tools and solutions they need to deliver their jobs effectively and to a high standard. More than just an obligation, the sudden focus on remote working provides a new opportunity to take field and frontline solutions to a new level.
Even during this extraordinary crisis, both health and financial, digital transformation can re-energize digital solutions and practices for blue-collar staff, to the benefit of all.
About the Author
James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces.