Young woman wearing a face mask working in a department store

Lessons Learned Communicating with Frontline Teams During COVID-19

  • By Jim Sourges

Over the past year, retail has changed in more ways than one could have ever imagined. 

In the span of a few months, stores were forced to furlough staff, embrace curbside pickup, boost their e-commerce capabilities, and navigate new ways of shipping, logistics, and order fulfillment, all during a deadly pandemic. Meanwhile, teams shrunk in size due to decreased business and to allow for proper physical distancing in-store.

It’s been nearly a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and we’re not out of the woods yet. Retailers are still struggling to communicate with frontline staff and ensure they follow procedures and protocols correctly. And when almost every customer has a smartphone in their pocket, one improperly sanitized surface or slip of a face mask could be the difference between a good shopping experience or an epic mishap captured on camera for all the world to see.

Frankly, it’s easy to make mistakes when things are moving this fast. But communication is the backbone of any successful business, especially one done at scale. And at this point in the pandemic, any missteps on the frontline could damage brand loyalty and realistically put your entire business in financial (and legal) risk.

As a seller in the retail technology space and restaurateur working face to face with frontline staff, I’m in a unique position. I’ve seen how hard it is to communicate with staff and ensure teams follow directives during the pandemic.

Here’s what I’ve learned—either through personal experience or speaking with some of the world’s biggest retailers—on how to communicate and keep track of what’s getting done during this difficult time.


Stop Using Outdated Tech

The COVID-19 pandemic and how retailers do business is changing every day. That means there’s not only more responsibilities for frontline teams but even more information to absorb and retain. And I hate to break it to you, but directives buried in long-winded email chains or sent over company intranets are bound to get lost in the day-to-day noise, and aren’t necessarily effective when it comes to communicating with staff in even normal circumstances.

Instead, put their mobile devices to use.

Retailers need to reach their frontline where they are, rather than force them to use outdated modes of communication that don’t meet today’s requirements. Teams have to be nimble and responsive during this period of great change, and communicating with staff over mobile devices can open up the lines of communication and help them connect in real time.

Smartphones aren’t a hindrance to your frontline’s productivity but simply another communication tool at your disposal. Use it wisely.


Keep Track of What’s Happening

Whether it’s to assist with contact tracing or prevent future liabilities, it’s important to keep a record of what procedures get completed, and what protocols get followed by your frontline in-store each day.

By sending checklists to complete while doing daily duties and other tasks, retailers can ensure stores are taking the right steps to keep everyone safe while also mitigating future damages in the event someone accuses your team of involuntarily endangering customers or getting someone sick. 

That way, you have evidence everything is being done correctly and to the best of your frontline’s ability and can provide adequate feedback if there’s room for improvement before it becomes a problem.


Communicate Expectations and Objectives Clearly

Throughout the pandemic, your frontline has hopefully learned how to keep customers and fellow employees safe.

All that’s great, but it’s also important to reiterate why they’re doing it—whether it’s physical distancing, sanitizing surfaces and commonly used areas (like change rooms, washrooms, and other work areas), or safely assisting with curbside pickup.

Transparency, trust, clarity, and constant feedback are essential qualities, attributes, and actions retailers need to provide and instill in their frontline teams. At the end of the day, you’re counting on them to get the job done—the fate of your business is ultimately in their hands.

Having a clear communication process, proof of what’s getting done in-store, and contingencies should things go sideways can help mitigate risk and ensure everyone stays safe. Because while sales will always be a priority, the health and safety of your business and its extended family is a far more precious commodity.

Stay safe out there.


About the Author

Jim Sourges is a 20+ year veteran in the software and retail technology space. He is passionate about collaboration and employee engagement. To read more of his thoughts on the retail and software industry, connect with him on LinkedIn.