Supporting foreign language workers in frontline teams

A team meeting in a factory with team members of different cultural backgrounds

One of the major limiting factors for multi-cultural teams is that business is conducted in English, at least in many western cultures. This can lead to communication challenges for foreign language workers where they are;

  • Team Members of the same team
  • Management of overseas teams/sites
  • Overseas suppliers

A 2011 survey reported that Health and Manufacturing were the 2nd and 6th most ethnically diverse industries in the US and UK. This is also reflected in Australian data, where the 2016 census showed:

  • 32% of employees in Manufacturing and Healthcare were born overseas
  • Workers from China and Vietnam are the most likely to have low levels of spoken English skills
  • People with low levels of spoken English skills are 4x more likely to work in Manufacturing than Healthcare

Training and instructions can be translated or communicated verbally. However, day-to-day frontline activities on the shop floor occur in a dynamic, fast-paced, high-velocity environment where there isn’t time to translate every detail. If these employees are not confident in communicating, then it may prevent them from raising an issue, discussing an incident, or logging an improvement idea. Yet it’s exactly these high-frequency activities that incrementally contribute to operational excellence.

The frontline’s understanding of organizational strategies, priorities, and processes is critical in engaging and motivating them to achieve and sustain outstanding levels of service and performance. Therefore, supporting foreign language workers in frontline teams is necessary.

Enabling technologies

These solutions can assist teams with people from ethnically diverse backgrounds.

Speech to text

If written English skills are low, but verbal skills are good then mobile devices can assist dramatically. A little-known feature of both iOS and Android keyboards is the speech-to-text feature enabled with the microphone icon. No download required – this is a standard feature and will work with any app where writing is required. Check your phone’s keyboard and give it a go.

Animated example showing speech to text on a mobile device

Visual translation

Google Translate is perfect for digital documents, but did you know it also visually translates hardcopies? Take a photo of a sign, label or document that is in another language and this app translates it directly on your screen. This seems like magic the first time you use it. You’ll need to download the Google Translate app, but it’s free!

A phone with Google translate installed showing a road sign being dynamically translated

Two-way translation

For time-critical activities, which is often the case for frontline employees, seek out software that has built-in translation. This allows you to collaborate at the speed of business, keeps employees engaged and motivated (because they can do everything in their preferred language) and expands the possibilities with geographically separated locations (eg. an overseas site or supplier). The automated translations may seem stilted to a native speaker, however it’s suprisingly accurate and the meaning is easily understood. It’s a minor trade-off for real-time conversations across the language barrier.


Mathew Mafrici
Mathew Mafrici
Matt is CEO at TeamAssurance. His background is in Lean and Operational Excellence across Manufacturing, Healthcare and Local Government.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox