The frontline disconnect: how has the pandemic impacted leadership communication?

Written by
Julien Codorniou, Vice President, Workplace at Facebook

04 Jan 2021

04 Jan 2021 • by Julien Codorniou, Vice President, Workplace at Facebook

After a year of missed memos and communication breakdowns, a key lesson to take into 2021 is to centralise and simplify how we connect to others, writes Julien Codorniou.

Over the pandemic, businesses have been operating in a more distributed way than ever, with almost all staff who can work remotely doing so. But, as HR professionals know, frontline workers make up 80% of the workforce - so managing staff that work outside of company offices was an everyday reality for businesses, even pre-Covid.

Whether companies are operating near normal or have pivoted their entire business strategy, keeping employees connected, informed and empowered is mission critical to keeping the lights on. A solid leadership framework is integral to this, particularly as change is enacted around the business.

The leadership ecosystem

When thinking of company leadership, many people picture those that sit at desks in the organisation’s HQ. But in reality leadership roles are spread throughout the business. Frontline managers hold a particularly critical role - sitting between customer and organisation, and between frontline employees and HQ.

As such, it’s important their route into the business is seamless so information can flow freely. On top of this, with new safety guidance released sometimes daily, it’s a health imperative that policies are delivered quickly - but we’ve found that wasn’t always easy over the pandemic.

Workplace recently conducted research that found that frontline (59%) and HQ leaders (65%) in the UK agree on the need to communicate more regularly. Despite this, the survey shows that 43% of frontline leaders have missed important information from HQ during the pandemic.

For HR professionals in Covid-19, helping the business means getting to know how work and information flows through it. The end goal is having HR teams intertwined with communications functions to foster a consistent culture where every employee has a voice and can participate - no matter where in the organisation they’re based.

Two culture leadership

This breakdown of information is leading to a host of issues, which are widening the gap between frontline and HQ leaders and, dangerously, polarising both perceptions and communications.

Richard Florida’s 2002 Theory of Labor Market and Urban Change, found two classes have developed in the workforce ‘the service class’, with lower levels of education and skills, and ‘the creative class’, encompassing those with higher levels of education.

This theory provides the context for how leadership differences can lead to the creation of two disconnected cultures within a business: ‘two-culture organisation syndrome’.

When firms don’t have strong guiding cultural principles, it’s easy for these two perceived classes to determine company culture. Once this develops, communicating and enacting a consistent culture becomes more challenging, which will impact the bottom line.

Post-Covid-19, employer-to-employee interactions may in some cases become entirely digital. So it will be vital for HR to ensure a solid culture permeates through an entire organisation.

Communications tool divide

Another area where this polarisation has emerged is in an ‘office-biased’ communications approach, where companies favour certain communication tools.

Research from the ground confirms this, showing that while 84% of UK HQ leaders rely on email to communicate, just 29% of frontline managers do, choosing instead mobile methods such as texting and calling. This makes it difficult for the two groups to communicate efficiently, since each community naturally gravitates to different channels.

Therefore, pushing out critical information over email - as many businesses have over lockdown - isn’t fit for purpose as it won’t reach some of the most at risk employees. Gone are the days when businesses can rely on just email for internal communications.

Moving forward

By connecting all employees on a single, shared platform, HR leaders can start reducing the communication gap and empower frontline managers to be connected, informed and decisive. 

Clearly there is an appetite among both frontline and HQ managers to build stronger and more productive connections. But companies today must go further and ask themselves how they can begin to foster a culture where greater connection leads directly to more empowerment. Because this is the transition that will ultimately lead to better business outcomes.

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