Lost in translation: how courier companies can utilise the latest tech to address language barriers

The UK has seen record numbers of transport and storage vacancies caused in part by the impact of Brexit and coronavirus reducing the number of foreign workers coming to work in these industries. The need to fulfil these roles has been well publicised particularly lorry drivers adding to pressure for those in HR to recruit new talent.

Courier companies are having to work harder than ever to attract and retain foreign workers to help fill roles. But thanks to the greater adoption of digital technology it’s possible to overcome language barriers that can offer a range of tangible business benefits.

Risks and pitfalls created by language barriers

Recent research by the UK health and safety executive shows that the 370,000 overseas workers in the transport and logistics industry (7% of the total workforce) may be more at risk because of a range of language related factors.

The risk factors stem from foreign workers’ inability to communicate effectively with other workers and supervisors, particularly in relation to their understanding of risk. They are also at greater danger due to limited access of health and safety training, difficulty in understanding what is being offered, along with the failure of employers to verify their work and language skills.

Research tells us that language barriers in the workplace contribute to inefficiency, stifle collaboration and lower productivity. Thus, the ability for a supervisor or co-worker to communicate directly in the foreign worker’s first language will produce less mistakes, improved productivity and better health and safety outcomes, while helping to grow better relationships. Clearly there is a need for translation in logistics environments, but this comes with significant costs and is not always quick to implement.

For couriers, dealing directly with customers and other road users creates several challenges every day. Improving these interactions will not only cease frustrations felt by employees but also provide greater customer satisfaction and speed of deliveries and collections.

Current translation solutions

Ideally those who speak English as an additional language will have a colleague with them who can always communicate with them in their first language. Practically it’s impossible for courier drivers to have this.

One-way businesses address this is the use of language line but when you’ve got an issue with a customer or the depot waiting for someone to answer the call can take time and is also costly.

The pros and cons of tech solutions

There are various technology-based translation solutions available such as Google Translate that can help to overcome language barriers in the workplace. As you would expect, each option comes with its own pros and cons.

Google Translate gives instant translation but there are issues with the effectiveness of the translations. It doesn’t offer a high standard across all languages and it’s often those who speak minority languages that are most impacted by the disconnect. Google Translate doesn’t always consider regional dialects and slang. These solutions also rely on a smart device being available to facilitate the translation.

Stand-alone digital translation devices such as Pocketalk instantly translate languages both in audio and text making it clear for the users what is being asked or said. Not only does Pocketalk help to enhance communication, it also reduces human interpreter exposure to Covid-19 or higher risk environments. Anyone can use the device which fosters better inter-team conversations and relationships. Having foreign workers feel part of a team can be a challenge but the ability to chat with colleagues directly is a great facilitator of better rapport.

No silver bullets

Overall, there is no perfect approach to language translation in logistics and transport and each company will have different needs. At a time when English as an additional language is becoming increasingly common it is hugely encouraging for overseas workers that solutions exist to make their working environment safer, more inclusive and enjoyable.

Courier companies that make the most of digital technology will be able to attract and retain more foreign workers by improving communication, which is key for the rest of 2022 and beyond.

By Joe Miller, Pocketalk general manager of the Americas and Europe