What Frontline Communications Can Learn from Southwest’s Meltdown

January 31, 2023

As communicators, we all know how important it is to effectively communicate with frontline employees.   

Google “communication” and “frontline workers,” and you’ll find a slew of strategic frameworks, guides, how-to lists and best practices for reaching them and inspiring action and change. We’ve got resources coming out of our ears advising on how to get in front of frontline employees, what to say and how to say it.   

But Southwest Airline’s 2022 meltdown highlights an oft-missed important first step in frontline communications that is a crucial failing: listening.  

Table of Contents

@linkList; ;Frontline Workers vs. Consumers;How Internal Communications Can Advocate for Frontline Workers;Questions To Assess Your Frontline Employee Experience and Communications

Frontline Workers vs. Consumers  

But first, some context. Of course, there were some unforeseen circumstances that caused many cancellations – bad weather systems and snow. Add to that Southwest’s aging IT system and you’ve got an even bigger storm. It goes deeper still.   

Adam Johnson, co-host of the podcast Citations Needed, makes a broader observation about the chaos: the nature of our corporate system structures has often created tension and “mutual antagonism” between frontline workers and consumers.   

Johnson lists three main sources of this tension…   

  1. The Snitch Economy: By equipping consumers with apps, websites and customers surveys to provide feedback (or “snitch”), corporations are effectively providing consumers with the tools to do the job of middle management without any of the context for the decisions being made.

    The snitch economy creates an environment of surveillance between workers and consumers. It reduces millions of interactions between frontline workers and customers to an opportunity for “snap judgment and subjective rewards and retribution,” which are not positive or rewarding experiences.  
  1. Increasing Automation: Consumers have fewer opportunities to talk with a real person in the first stages of reporting a problem or accessing a service.

    When they finally make it through the layers of pre-recorded messages, number selections and automated mailboxes to the frontline employees, “they are annoyed, frustrated, and angry at this faceless entity and more willing to take it out on someone making $13 an hour.”   
  1. Deliberate Understaffing: Under the guise of “necessary” cost-cutting, we’re seeing many businesses reducing staff (switching over to automated systems to compensate) and reducing pay (while CEO pay is at an all-time high). This creates a stressful environment for employees who now have to manage the wrath of consumers with complaints they had no power to prevent in the first place.   

It’s clear that many, if not all, of these conditions contributed to Southwest’s meltdown. Now, Southwest union leaders have called for a vote to authorize a potential pilot strike to address these conditions, citing the many pilots and flight attendants who were not only being bombarded with angry customers, they themselves were stranded and unable to get home.  

But what does this all have to do with communicators? After all, we’re not positioned to fix all of these systemic issues, right? 

How Internal Communications Can Advocate for Frontline Workers

We, as communicators, must understand the true reality that frontline workers face on a day-to-day basis to effectively reach them with messages that resonate. Communicators can’t fix it all, but we can listen, connect the dots and advocate.

It’s impossible to create a sense of community with a successful feedback loop when frontline workers’ true reality isn’t being considered or rectified in the corporate office. While we may see our main job function as the creator and purveyor of messages, it’s clear that brilliant and engaging communication starts with active listening.   

Of course, we are well aware of how many tasks and responsibilities communicators have already (and we at Brilliant Ink actively work to help comms teams set the appropriate boundaries and take on the right work). The data from our annual Internal Communications Industry Salary Report shows a long list of communications-related activities for which comms departments are responsible.   

And while communicators aren’t in the position to functionally change the day-to-day operations of the corporations in which we work, we are a centrally located function with the broadest access to information outside of the C-suite with the ability to connect the dots and surface the reality of frontline staff.   

We have an opportunity to expand our influence beyond order-takers and content creators. We are the connective tissue between the frontline and the corporate office, with a seat at the table to ask difficult questions about how initiatives, campaigns and other changes will be received by team members in the trenches and how they’ll be impacted.   

Get Insights From the Internal Comms Salary Report

Questions To Assess Your Frontline Employee Experience and Communications  

Here are questions to consider and discuss with your fellow communicators to improve frontline communications:   

  • In what ways can internal communication functions work with marketing and customer service organizations to both ensure customer success AND frontline worker wellbeing?  
  • How can we work with L&D to help them provide the best training for frontline managers so we’re not relying on the so-called “snitch economy” to encourage great customer service?  
  • When we’re working with IT on communications for company technologies, what questions should we be asking to surface potential issues and drawbacks from the perspective of our frontline staff?
  • How can we influence employee satisfaction and employee engagement survey questions to get to the heart of the frontline worker experience?  
  • Using employee satisfaction and employee engagement survey data, how can we get in front of the right people to surface negative aspects of the employee experience to individuals and teams that have the power to address them?  

Internal Comms Can’t Solve It All – But We Can Help

Communicators cannot solve all of the challenges and opportunities listed here. But, more so than many functions, we have a seat at the table to be the voice of frontline workers. To be their voice, we must truly understand their struggle.

How to drive meaningful change with employee surveys

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Lauren James

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