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Nick Henderson Mar 7, 2022 5:20:24 PM 5 min read

Sustainable operational excellence depends on empowering people

If you’re a leader aiming to embed sustainable operational excellence, you’ll need to keep a critical group of people at the centre of your plans. Despite advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and automation, frontline deskless workers are still the beating heart of operations in industries from healthcare to hospitality.

The big challenge is that deskless workers are leaving in droves. This is the age of the great resignation. It just doesn’t leave a gap in immediate capacity but deprives employers of the skill, energy and experience that deskless workers bring to their roles.

So, the question is, how do employers hold on to the value that deskless workers bring and harness it to enable sustainable operational excellence?

To find the answer, leaders will need to look closely at how deskless operations are managed on a day-to-day basis.

Too often, deskless workers are mired in paper-based checklists, spreadsheets and makeshift technology that isn’t designed to meet their needs. That’s a problem because far from supporting productive working, these outdated reporting mechanisms actually stand in the way of efficiency, risk management, engagement and growth.

Most checklists are static, linear and backwards-looking.

They ask a binary question: did you complete these tasks? This leaves little room for anything but a yes or no. In their most popular form, checklists are no more than a compliance tool – and they do very little to improve compliance anyway.

For employees, there’s no real-time support, no mechanism for adapting to solve additional problems, and no sense of achievement. Static checklists are seen as a form of ‘big brother’ management.

For a manager, the static checklist provides little detail of where, when and how a task was completed. Paper checklists and spreadsheets create mountains of hidden and unstructured data. It’s tough to spot patterns or compare performance. It’s even harder to roll out new, better working practices.

How do static checklists get in the way of sustainable operational excellence?

From retail store opening routines to safety checks and stock management, static checklists are no longer enough to meet the needs of deskless workers and their managers in today’s fast-moving world. They are inhibiting progress in numerous ways.

Disconnected staff don’t help sustainable operational excellence

Labour shortages are eating into frontline services with record shortages across healthcare, hospitality, food service, retail and logistics. Job roles that don’t involve desk work account for the highest proportion of vacancies.

A range of macro-economic factors is fuelling this crisis, most of which are way beyond the control of individual employers. What employers can change, however, is the way they coordinate, support and communicate with their deskless workforces.

Management of deskless workers has traditionally adopted a command-and-control approach. But the disengagement that lies behind the staffing crisis demands a new strategy.

Sustainable operational excellence occurs when employees are empowered to contribute to growth, customer experience, productivity and safety.

Employers must give more autonomy to frontline workers operating far away from company headquarters.

A study published this year highlighted how giving frontline workers greater control over their time and scheduling could drive up their productivity.

Poor digital experiences are driving deskless workers away

The digital experience of deskless workers demands more attention. This issue will become more pressing as a new generation of digital natives enters the workforce.

According to one survey, 73% of frontline employees still use pen-and-paper checklists. These are in stark contrast to the digital experiences employees enjoy at home. Employees know what good technology feels like, from smartwatches that prompt healthy behaviours to central heating that reports on overspending. Yet when they arrive in deskless jobs, they are confronted with working practices that have hardly changed in the past two decades.

The real-life experience of doing frontline work does not get enough consideration. Long lists of manual tasks that look fine on paper do not quickly transfer to the real world, where there are always additional demands. The immediate needs of customers, visitors or patients will always take precedence. Reporting is often tacked on to the end of a shift, with additional unpaid hours being spent completing checklists.

Slow onboarding stands in the way of sustainable operational excellence

The process of onboarding and training staff can eat up many hours of valuable time – particularly in sectors with high levels of staff turnover. Some deskless staff, including international recruits without native language skills, may struggle with written checklists.

Lack of recognition leads to lower engagement levels

Sustainable operational excellence depends on employees feeling valued. If frontline activity is noted on paper or stored in spreadsheets that are filed away for monthly or quarterly reporting, it’s no wonder achievements go unnoticed.

Safety concerns point to the absence of sustainable operational excellence

One of the central tenets of sustainable operational excellence is safety. But poor reporting mechanisms put a veil over daily operations, leaving leaders vulnerable to risks that they cannot see.

All too often, potential risks are not recognised until after something has gone wrong. Paper checklists and siloed spreadsheets conceal insights that could enable the early identification of poor practice.

Thankfully, there are signs of change. Employee health and safety is one of the top drivers of increased investment in operational excellence, according to research by consultancy group Verdantix. More than 85% of operations leaders in the survey said protecting workers’ health, safe operations, and reducing environmental risk mitigation were high or moderate priorities. Worker health protection was top of the list.

In summary...

To achieve sustainable operational excellence, leaders need to ensure their deskless workforces are appropriately supported in the here and now. The limitations of static checklists are causing disengagement. Frontline staff are left feeling undervalued, lacking digital experience and exposed to avoidable areas of risk. However, a shift is underway. Static checklists are being replaced by dynamic digital assistants to engage frontline staff in their work better and drive up deskless performance.

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Nick Henderson

Content & Communications Manager at Checkit

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