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.