When managing a large frontline workforce, it is often important for Human Resources to work hand-in-hand with Operations to achieve a winning workforce. This fireside chat explored Tools for Building a Winning Frontline Workforce at the HR Tech Festival 2021 on 23 September 2021, where Mathew Ward, CEO of Workmate spoke to Bhavani Shankar Mishra, Regional Director of Logistics (APAC) at foodpanda. Watch the webinar here.
Mathew (MW): Before we kick off, I think it's good to define what a frontline workforce is. We're talking about people that are often working in operational roles, in industries like logistics, warehouse, data entry, F&B, and service, which pretty much operate on a shift basis across the market. As we know, hiring for these types of roles and workers can be quite different from managing a professional, white-collar, knowledge-based workforce.
With foodpanda being a leader in the region with food delivery and grocery delivery, it’s great to get your insights in terms of how your organisation deals with building and managing a frontline workforce compared to a white collar workforce.
The last year and a half must have been pretty interesting for you guys. With COVID, everyone's ordering more food online and I'm sure you guys went through quite a big spike in terms of demand. I'd love to hear how COVID impacted your business in the last 18 months. Particularly, how that impacted your processes or how you dealt with scaling up and surging demand while onboarding a workforce.
Bhavani (B): COVID has helped increase the visibility of foodpanda and other such players in this business to customers, not only for food, but also for new use cases like groceries. When people are staying at home, they are saying “we need this and we need this right now”.
In this space, there are not many apps out there that are working on delivering on-demand, and this is where foodpanda really got some traction. This was happening from the customer side, and customers would come to these apps when the right selection was in place.
At the same time on the supply side, a lot of restaurants, shops or merchants were trying to find a storefront so that they could fulfil this consumer demand. All of a sudden, we saw a spike in interest from our restaurant partners, shops, and other merchants who wanted to be on foodpanda.
The biggest challenge we faced at that point was getting 10 times as many leads coming in and enquiries from a huge number of restaurants. How do we onboard them properly without compromising on the quality of the training during onboarding? How do we make sure that their menus are intact, their selection is shown properly, and whether their descriptions and the translation styles for multilingual countries like Thailand and Hong Kong are accurate? Those were the big types of challenges we faced at that point in time.
MW: How did you address that? I know that you were also dealing with lockdowns where people were working from home, but you also needed to scale up your team quickly to make sure you can onboard the merchants without sacrificing quality. As an organisation, how do you deal with having to not just ramp up a workforce, but also manage and maintain the output of that workforce at scale?
B: The availability of the workforce was a challenge, and at the same time, pivoting into a different way of working that has always been questioned. A lot of thought gurus have talked about working from home being a possibility, but now it wasn’t really an option and you just had to do it.
For us, that was when it really showed that Workmate had the solution that we needed. We decided then that there are companies and resources out there that let you hire a workforce through them. They’ll help you find the right candidates, train them and get the workforce working with tools that they already have in place, and remotely from anywhere. These platforms will monitor productivity, train workers if productivity is declining, and have support in place if workers are facing challenges.
So that’s what we did and managed to clear a big backlog when it came to hiring a proper workforce despite working from home. At the same time, we also started thinking about the services we could do for restaurants from home, which we implemented by working together with Workmate.
MW: What were the types of roles you're having to hire for?
B: A myriad of different roles. We started with data entry, which helped us put the right content in place and bring the restaurants onboard. Then there were also warehouse workers. As COVID happened, there was increasing demand for groceries, where shops needed more people to be working in warehouses. We were getting into that space but that was not really our forte and we didn’t know how to manage that. For our kitchen concepts and business, we were also hiring kitchen helpers, which helped us get through the COVID period.
MW: Just a question on scale, what's the size of the workforce that you manage in these kinds of frontline roles?
B: To give you a case of a specific country without really naming anything, we started with around 30 people across different functions and we scaled it to 500 workers within a month and a half.
MW: Wow, that's really interesting. Taking a step back, let's talk about technology. So you've got a business that’s seeing a massive surge in demand on both the supply side and the demand side and you've got to ramp up from say, 30 workers to 500 workers in these frontline roles. What have you found in terms of technology and how is this different from what is used for more traditional white collar or professional roles?
B: The good thing about white collar professional roles is that people out there know where to go and apply for jobs. They have emails and smartphones. They are educated and skilled. When you list a job, then they see it on LinkedIn and different job portals and then apply. But that's not something that happens with the frontline workforce.
The biggest challenge we face is - is there even a technology out there that can help us source for candidates and get good leads? Once we get the leads, how do we select the right candidates, all the while doing it remotely? And once we have found the right candidates, how do we onboard and train them all, again remotely. How do we manage their productivity? How do we manage their satisfaction?
It’s a whole different ball game. Getting frontline workforce is much more complicated than finding skilled white collar labour.
MW: What do you see as the key differences between the types of tools that you use? Maybe you can talk about the types of tools that you use for the more professional white collar roles and what does or does not work for the frontline workforce.
B: I think all of us here know that job platforms like Indeed, JobsDB, or LinkedIn will not work for frontline workers to the same degree of success.
On the white collar side, we use application tracking systems. There’s a proper resume that would be able to tell a lot and help you screen candidates. You can also interview them online, and they’re familiar with digital tools like Zoom. Onboarding or communicating basic tasks are also much easier when it comes to the white collar workforce. You can keep them engaged, have hangout sessions or even play games online.
MW: How does that translate across to the frontliners? Do you have to use different systems or processes?
B: It seldom translates across to the frontline workforce, and if it does, it’s very difficult and takes a lot of effort. You need to think about engaging frontline workforce in a very different rhythm from hiring and engaging a white collar workforce.
For example, is having an application tracking system for the frontline workforce a core competency for foodpanda? Or can we find someone out there who does that better with better productivity tracking tools, proper payroll or processing tools for a frontline workforce? It’s a very different ball game and this is where the involvement of experts with proper dedicated technology for handling a frontline workforce is needed
MW: In the last 18 months in particular, what are the biggest things you've learned from the experience of having to scale this frontline workforce so quickly and going through that hyper-growth that you guys have had across the region?
B: To cater to this hypergrowth, one needs to really stick to their strengths and foodpanda's strength is bringing together the right sellers and customers on the platform. Is foodpanda’s strength running the warehouse and attracting the workforce? I don't think so.
It starts with recognizing that, and finding the right partner who has the relevant expertise to help you. It’s the basic thing that one could do to scale things fast and efficiently, instead of spending a lot of money just to do a mediocre job.
MW: Have you found parts of the process where you really need to make sure that you're using technology? Because I'm assuming that if you're trying to ramp up 500 people within a few weeks, you can't do it all manually. Are you gonna need additional staff to do that? Are there any parts of the process that are still manual in terms of sourcing and managing people?
B: What we are really good at scaling is the rider side, and there are definitely learnings, But when it comes to warehouse workers, kitchen help or data entry operators, it's not really our strength.
We have proper productivity tracking systems and a brand name when it comes to hiring riders. So this particular workforce is automatically attracted. And once they are in, we are able to track their productivity and help them improve in areas requiring help.
But when we think about the other frontline workers like warehouse workers, kitchen helpers, and data entry workers, the first challenge we face is not knowing what makes the right persona and whether there is a space where they can list their availability. So that's the number one challenge, lead generation.
Number two would be after you've identified and hired them, how can we engage them by providing the right framing and tools? When we face a challenge at work, we know our way around. But frontline workers without the right onboarding tools and knowledge face difficulties in completing their tasks. Can we help them from a technological aspect? Having those kinds of tools helps a lot.
And who's going to manage the no-shows? A worker’s not going to say they are on leave, they’re just not going to show up.
MW: That's a big problem.
B: And with COVID, issues like that are magnified. How do you manage these no-shows, replace them on short notice, or compensate for their absence? Who's going to manage the payroll or overtime? How do you make sure that workers are working the right hours? What if they are faking their productivity? It sounds simple to us, but there's a lot of tech and data behind it. And this is where one has to leverage experts in this field.
MW: Yeah. I totally agree. Would it not be more practical to have AI screen the prospects and take it forward? Working with customers in the region, we’ve found that a lot of these roles don't require any specific skills.
Skills can be trained quite quickly once they start. The key thing is really determining whether this worker is going to show up, work hard and have a good work ethic. And one of the things that we've learned is that data is a really effective way to do that.
One thing we help our customers with is looking at workforce attendance data. Are the workers showing up on time? Are they showing up late? Are they showing up at all? Then we use that data to model and predict the likelihood of workers showing up in the future, and match that with lookalike models across a pool of workers.
To that point, using data and AI is something that we're seeing as a really good path forward, specifically for frontline workers. For white collar jobs, there's a lot of personality and culture involved as well as multiple interview stages, whereas with the frontline workforce, it's more of a mass hiring. It’s a sector that can use technology and data to do a lot of the upfront screening and grunt work.
So what I'm hearing from you is that hiring for these types of frontline roles is quite different from hiring for your core business, and that if it isn’t your core, then it’s something you should work through partners to help you do? And you've found certain technologies that have helped you scale quickly while maintaining that quality of workforce.
B: That’s right. I would sum it up by saying that you have to really understand your strengths. When you find something that is not your strength, you should really stick to using these specialised services, which helps you achieve quality and productivity at the right efficiency.