Why connecting frontline managers is good for business
Brand new research shows how organisations are neglecting essential frontline managers. We dig into the data and explore five ways to untangle the lines of communication and start connecting them.
Frontline employees, also known as desk-less or dispersed workers, make up a huge variety of roles, from shop assistants, kitchen staff and truck drivers to nurses, pilots, sales teams and factory workers.
Over the last few years, there has been an increasing focus on how technology can connect and support these frontline workers. How the right business communication tools can give them a voice and be part of the company conversation. But there is one role that has often fallen through the cracks: The frontline manager.
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Why should you connect frontline managers?
Frontline managers are in the bottom tier of most organisation’s leadership structure, which means they get precious little time and attention from the C-suite. When you look at the data, that is clearly a mistake.
Frontline managers make up roughly 60% of a company’s management ranks, and oversee up to 80% of the entire workforce. That means they wield significant influence. But according to new research conducted by Coleman Parkes on behalf of Workplace, 59% of frontline managers do not feel like head office is nurturing their careers. While only 43% say leaders regularly consult them on business decisions that affect customers - even though their teams work directly with those customers every day.
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In many organisations, the connection between HQ and frontline is paper-thin. Literally. Notice boards and posters are still a primary means of business communication. Perhaps a senior leader will visit a store or plant once a month, but what do they really achieve beyond creating a bunch of headaches for the people who work there?
While the research shows that business communication strategies have improved in response to COVID-19 (the number of frontline managers who think there’s a communication gap in their organisation has dropped from 60% to 25% since the pandemic), frontline and HQ employees remain fundamentally disconnected.
This expresses itself in a couple of critical ways. First, they’re using different tools to talk to each other. While 90% of HQ managers relied on email to communicate during lockdown, barely a quarter of their frontline counterparts did the same. Instead, over half of frontline managers turned to messaging apps on their personal devices.
But perhaps more important is the perception that frontline and office-based managers belong to different cultures. Only 25% of HQ managers say their empathy for frontline colleagues has increased over the course of the pandemic. This will come as a surprise to the 59% of frontline managers who think their colleagues in HQ now better understand the issues they are facing.
Perhaps frontline managers would not feel these disconnects so severely if they could simply focus on their core responsibilities - running teams, solving problems and looking after customers. But even that is not the case. A McKinsey study found that frontline managers spend anything up to 60% of their time on administrative tasks. According to that report, managers can spend as little as 10% of their time actually managing.
That is not just bad for individual morale. When you oversee 80% of the workforce, your personal frustrations can quickly become an issue that has a company-wide impact.
How you can help frontline managers unlock their potential
Why are frontline managers being neglected? Especially when they are so close to a company’s core business processes? And don’t forget: Frontline managers are often the face of an organisation to customers. You want that face to be a happy one if customers are going to have the best experience possible with your business.
In part, the lack of urgency in connecting frontline managers is rooted in an old-fashioned view of their role. Traditionally, the perception of the frontline manager is little more than a link between management on one side and workers on the other. Their job is simply to pass on information from the top or enforce company policy.
But this overlooks the ability of frontline managers to play a much more central role in the business. As we have discussed, frontline managers oversee the teams that have day-to-day contact with customers. That gives them unique access to customer insights and feedback. They know what is working and what is not (and they probably know why) - long before these things become apparent back at corporate headquarters.
The goal for organisations should be to tap into that potential and empower frontline managers to make decisions or act on opportunities that only they can see. So it is disheartening to see that the number who felt empowered to make decisions dropped from 64% to 50% during the pandemic. In contrast, the number of HQ leaders who say they’re empowered to make decisions has grown from 71% to 78%. Far from encouraging autonomy among frontline managers, organisations are becoming more centralised than ever.
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How do we reverse that trend?
Businesses need a strategy to engage, nurture and listen to frontline managers consistently. And it starts by connecting them - to headquarters (including the C-suite), to their own workforce, and to their peers. Only by connecting frontline managers can companies give them the context, the tools and the training they need to reach their potential.
When that happens, you move from a world of trickle-down impact, where decisions are made at the top and pushed out through a rigid hierarchy, to a ripple-up effect, where insights and knowledge from the bottom lead to better-informed decisions further up the chain.
- Get information quickly and directly from senior leaders
- Ask questions and give feedback
- Understand company priorities
- Communicate with their peers
- Communicate with their team
This leads to both individual benefits for the frontline manager and broader benefits for the company itself.
Five benefits of connecting frontline managers
#1: Motivated managers lead to happier customers
When frontline managers are connected to HQ, they have more access to information about business goals and strategy. That makes it easier to understand the contribution their team makes to those goals and their part in the overall strategy. That added context makes for more motivated managers.
From a company-wide perspective, frontline managers greatly influence employee morale and employee engagement (remember, they oversee up to 80% of the entire workforce). More motivated managers lead to more engaged teams, which drives both employee sentiment and better customer experiences.
#2: Autonomous managers lead to more agile companies
Connected managers do not just pass on information. Because they understand their role in company strategy, they are also empowered to make decisions and solve problems on their initiative, rather than simply passing them back up the ladder or, even worse, ignoring them altogether.
The business benefit of more autonomous frontline managers is that the entire company becomes more agile. Problems are identified earlier and solved quicker - before they can grow and spread to other parts of the business. Over the long term, this helps connected companies improve productivity.
#3: Influential managers drive better decisions
Most frontline managers have never been able to contact their company’s senior leaders. When they are connected, they can provide unique and unfiltered feedback that can influence decisions that make the entire company better.
This is a game-changer for companies. Imagine a group of executives in a boardroom examining a chart that shows falling productivity at a factory. They can concoct any number of theories to explain the numbers. But actually hearing from the line supervisor gives them a ground-level view they would never otherwise be able to hear. That leads to better, faster decision making.
#4: Engaged managers carry the culture
CEOs and CHROs spend a lot of their time designing strategies to improve culture. But those strategies are executed on the ground - and frontline managers are the critical audience. When they are connected, they are more likely to be true culture carriers, with the time and inclination to pass that culture on to their teams.
Why do companies care about this? Because there’s a growing understanding that people, not just profits, are essential to long-term business health. But CHROs cannot be everywhere. By leveraging frontline managers as committed culture carriers, they can dramatically scale the reach and success of their people programs.
#5: Better trained managers impact long-term performance
Companies have typically underinvested in training for frontline managers. When they are connected to their peers, it is easier for them to receive informal training through sharing best practices and asking questions, rather than waiting for infrequent (or nonexistent) classroom training.
The impact of a better-trained workforce is obvious. Increased productivity, better customer service, fewer fires. But over the longer term, investment in training, whether formal or informal, cements a more fundamental change in mindset when it comes to the role and expectations of frontline managers as the centre of the modern workforce.
Frontline managers may be the most important - and most overlooked - employees in an organisation. Traditionally, their role has been to enforce policies and pass on information that trickles down from above. But by using technology to connect frontline managers to the C-suite, their teams and their peers, companies can empower them to make decisions, solve problems and deliver impact that ripples up from the bottom to the top.
When frontline managers are connected, they’re more motivated, more autonomous, have greater influence, are better trained and can inspire cultural change. All of those benefits lead to a direct business impact.
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