Portrait of a Black man wearing a surgical face mask
Inclusion

Experts on the Front Lines

Client
Ford Foundation
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Recognizing the power and creativity of essential workers.

When it comes to improving customer experience, large corporations often get in their own way. Workers on the front lines—a category that expanded during the pandemic to include food service, hospitality, transportation, and other work that deals directly with the public—have key insights about how to improve things, but their observations get lost in layers of operational friction. That frustrates everyone. To address these pain points, Ford Foundation and IDEO helped three companies test a theory: If they relied on frontline workers as experts, could they accelerate innovation while improving job experience and retention at the same time? Together we created the Worker Voice Lab, a program focused on advancing business innovation and work life in parallel.

Progress

2 pilot Initiatives launching

Frontline workers are leading this launch in 2022
Workers in an airplane factory
Healthcare workers at a rally

A large portion of the job churn since March 2020 has been concentrated in frontline services such as accommodation, food services, and retail.

Lack of career growth is the number one reason people leave their jobs according to more than 18,000 frontline workers across 150 companies.

For many organizations, frontline workers like grocery store clerks, nurses, hospitality workers, and transit employees are an essential part of doing business.

So much so that they continued to show up at the office throughout the COVID-19 pandemic even as everyone else went remote. As the point of contact with customers and key systems, these workers often know exactly when, where, and why things don’t work, and they come up with powerful hacks and workarounds to make things better. Yet these insights and innovations rarely make it to the corporate office. And that’s a problem: large organizations often hire design and innovation consulting firms while not taking advantage of a latent source of deep, in-house expertise. It’s equally discouraging to workers who would gladly share their ideas if they were only asked. No surprise, then, that frontline workers are quitting their jobs in droves.

What could companies learn by listening?

IDEO partnered with the Ford Foundation to create the Worker Voice Design Lab, where leaders from a port authority, an airline, and a health care provider worked alongside frontline workers. That led to the planting of a seed of innovation in each organization, with interventions designed with and by workers implemented operationally at the core of the business. In one case, a group of workers zeroed in on specific problems with such clarity that they were quickly able to develop a digital prototype for testing. No one was less surprised than the workers themselves, who simply said: Well, nobody ever asked us before. Sometimes the most innovative idea a leader can have is to listen, learn, and act on their employee’s smart ideas.

Airplane pulling into its gate at the direction of a worker on the tarmac
“Engaging frontline workers is a really good retention strategy. Increasing engagement reduces turnover.”
Health Systems Leader

Health Systems Leader

Transforming workWorkers in front of a wall of computer screens
Mobile app for workers to report issues

Thank you

Thank you to every frontline worker and manager who participated in this project.

Other organizations supporting corporate engagement for greater worker voice include the Good Jobs Institute, Just Capital, and the Aspen Institute.

Explore More Work

Valuing frontline workers can’t wait

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Valuing frontline workers can’t wait

Inclusive innovation can’t wait

Worker-led problem solving can’t wait

Worker-led problem solving can’t wait

Valuing frontline workers can’t wait

Inclusive innovation can’t wait

Worker-led problem solving can’t wait

Valuing frontline workers can’t wait

Inclusive innovation can’t wait

Worker-led problem solving can’t wait

Worker-led problem solving can’t wait

IDEO + youIdeo + You
What else can't wait?

Whatever challenge your organization might face, you don’t have to solve it alone. Let’s talk about the work that can’t wait for you and get started.

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