How to reward and motivate frontline workers

Frontline workers can be critical to an organisation's success. So how do you reward and motivate deskless employees while saving them from frustration and burnout? We find out.

Rewarding and motivating frontline workers - Workplace from Meta

There are very good reasons why we call frontline workers "essential workers". Yet these crucial employees are often overworked, underpaid and undervalued. Last year, 57% of frontline workers were planning to leave for a better-paid role, and 45% 1 were considering leaving the frontline altogether, mainly due to frustrations around lack of well-being support, engagement and appreciation.

With 88% of organisations depending on frontline workers 2, it's clear that C-suite executives need to prioritise motivating and supporting these essential employees to retain talent and boost business performance.

"Over the last number of years, we've proven that when companies invest in their frontline workforce, they become more attractive for people to work at the company and stay at the company, [with] higher retention rates, higher recruitment rates, higher upscaling rates and a more positive brand", Guild Education co-founder and CEO Rachel Carlson told Forbes.

The pandemic has given frontline staff greater awareness of their worth, not to mention the power of choice from now being in such high demand. If these employees can now pick and choose where to work, and the success of your business rests on their well-being, growth and development, it stands to reason that rewarding and motivating frontline workers should be at the top of your to-do list.

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Why frontline workers are so important

Why frontline workers are so important

Frontline workers make up 52% of the total workforce in the US, and 33% in the UK. From nurses to bus drivers and factory floor workers, the pandemic shone a spotlight on just how important frontline staff are – not only in keeping daily life functioning, but in keeping society and the economy afloat.

While marketing and sales strategies might be debated in the boardroom, frontline employees are the face of your organisation – in effect, they represent your company's mission and values. They are the first people that customers interact with when they engage with a brand. And it's that first impression, as well as subsequent touchpoints, that informs business reputation and drives sales.

Engaged and enthusiastic staff will be more productive and create a better customer experience, helping increase business profitability. But beyond this, frontline staff have first-hand insights into customer behaviour and demand. Who knows your customers better than the people that interact with them day in, day out? Employee feedback from the frontline strikes a unique balance between product/service knowledge and customer intentions/actions.

Outdoor clothing brand Carhartt is rooted in this outside-in approach. The company started in 1889 when Hamilton Carhartt started overalls for railway workers based on candid discussions with his customers. And it continues to stay close to their customers today, by constantly visiting job sites to see how their hard-working gear serves hard-working people. Speaking to Forbes in 2020, VP of Creative Brian Bennett said, "What I really appreciate about this year is that everyone is paying tribute to our essential workers. That's something we've always done. We're here to serve and protect hard-working people. We did that in 1889, and we're still doing it today."

Why is it important to motivate and engage frontline workers?

Why is it important to motivate and engage frontline workers?

Over the last 3 years, the percentage of employees who feel empowered and valued has risen by 41%. Yet more than 1 in 2 workers are planning to resign – either to move to a better-paid role or leave the frontline altogether to pursue a different career.

The Great Resignation has caused almost 11 million job losses in corporate America, and in Europe, the construction and retail industries are leading the escalating post-pandemic job vacancy rates. A Workplace by Meta survey found that 68% of business leaders are either experiencing or expecting high rates of frontline worker attrition.

While lower pay, poorer conditions and lack of progression in frontline jobs all existed before COVID hit, these disparities have been exacerbated by longer hours and increased demands brought on by the pandemic. As a result, 70% of frontline workers say that they have either suffered from burnout or felt at risk of burning out as a result of increased workload, long working hours, lack of pay rise, not enough staff and fear of losing their income.

A workforce suffering from burnout and staff shortages is a worrying prospect for business performance and productivity. However, the Harvard Business Review indicates that small improvements can have significant returns. Their "rough calculation" found that a 1% improvement in retention of a 5,000-person frontline can benefit a business by around USD 2.5 million a year.

Rewarding frontline workers

Rewarding frontline workers

In the wake of the pandemic, various companies and governments have proposed "pandemic bonuses" to reward public sector staff for their service. North American sweet snacks producer Hostess3 rewarded almost 2,000 of their bakery and distribution centre staff with a bonus of up to USD 750, as a thank you for their hard work during the pandemic.

Across Europe, the EPSU (European Federation of Public Service Unions) estimated in 2020 that 15 nations gave financial rewards to healthcare staff. In 2021, The Republic of Ireland gave frontline healthcare staff – including cleaners, student nurses and army personnel deployed to vaccination centres – a one-off tax-free payment of EUR 1,000.

But is a one-off financial reward enough to retain staff in the long term? Pablo Sánchez of EPSU takes a cautionary view on pandemic bonuses: "It's good that they are getting paid more, but the issue is that it's usually a one-off. It could mean that you pay a little more and everyone goes back to normal when – especially for the care sector, which is less qualified, more female and low-paid – there has been a huge increase in workload."

Seven ways to motivate frontline workers

Seven ways to motivate frontline workers

With the Great Resignation in full swing, employers need to do more to address the core concerns of frontline staff. Issues of equality, feeling valued and being cared for cannot be addressed by gestures of goodwill or one-off rewards. Organisations must be prepared to act on their promises and invest in frontline workers' futures.

Help workers feel empowered

Feeling like a small, insignificant cog in a big business machine definitely doesn't engender purpose, fulfilment and potential in a job. But only 57% of frontline staff say that they feel empowered to suggest ideas and new ways of working.

Autonomy and voice are big drivers of employee motivation, so engaging regularly with your frontline staff should be high on your priority list. In-person get-togethers, pulse surveys and online chat can all open up a dialogue. The business will benefit from frontline workers' first-hand knowledge of products/services and customer behaviours, while the staff will understand more about the company on a higher level and feel valued in making contributions.

Invest in learning and growth

It's easy to think that if employee turnover is high, there's little point in investing in staff training and development. But doing so is much more cost-effective than continually replacing staff, not to mention that providing opportunities for employees to upskill is key to retaining talent. 43% of frontline workers don't think that there's opportunity for growth in their current role, and 54% say that they're likely to take another frontline role if it offers more learning opportunities.

With a recognised disconnect between career advancement in frontline and office-based staff, companies need to level the playing field. Having the opportunity to develop new skills and acquire knowledge can be a significant motivator for frontline workers. Investing in learning and development to offer greater career growth not only shows how much you value frontline employees, but gives them the ability to work smarter, feel more fulfilled and increase productivity.

Focus on well-being and safety

Throughout the pandemic, it became clear that frontline workers had the least physical and emotional protection despite being under the most amount of pressure at work. Fortune identifies that frontline well-being is an emerging trend that will not only be rooted in company culture, but also a measurement of success.

With burnout a widespread issue across the frontline, well-being and safety have never been more important. Staff are expecting business leaders to prioritise their mental and physical health by providing resources and developing processes. Employee experience platforms exist to do just that, using technology to offer touchpoints and identify issues, just as you would with product sales.

Give equal access to information

Only 55% of frontline workers say that they feel connected to their organisation's head office. And 51% think that their organisation sees them as less important than HQ employees. This has been recognised by the C-suite: 59% of HQ managers said that the pandemic made them realise how "office-biased" their communications were.

Building a greater connection between frontline workers and leadership is key to increasing transparency and communication across the business. As well as earning trust from a frontline that currently feels adrift from corporate HQ, better communication allows more effective distribution of company values, which can only foster a stronger brand.

Improve connectivity and empower collaboration

61% of frontline employees are keen to be better connected to the rest of their organisation through collaboration tools and technology. Texting, calling and using messaging apps are the most common ways of communicating with frontline workers, but only 46% use platforms such as Workplace.

Being able to share information and data is hugely important – especially with the physical distance between the frontline and HQ. Organisations should utilise technologies that work around frontline demands – mobile optimised, accessible from various locations, flexible to fit around changing schedules and offering formats such as videos and polls.

Earn trust as a leader

Eduardo Leite, Chairman of the Executive Committee, Baker & McKenzie says, "trust is an asset that companies need to understand, but also manage and nurture in order to succeed". But trust looks very different for the C-suite and frontline staff: 99% of C-suite executives believe that employees trust them, while only 25% of workers on the frontline completely trust their organisation to be transparent about company news.

Earning this trust won't happen overnight, but opening a dialogue, being transparent and granting more autonomy is a good start. And with this trust comes improved performance, increased employee retention and better brand reputation – all of which means a better frontline working environment for employees and a better experience for customers.

Utilising technology

We all know how powerful technology can be in empowering staff and creating connections across the business. COVID-19 put a rush on digital comms when it became an essential part of day-to-day health and safety, and there's now more awareness than ever about how workplace tech can transform frontline worker experiences.

80% of frontline workers believe that their employee experiences will be dictated by the quality of their workplace technology, and 52% said that they would move jobs if there was access to better tools and technology.

Health, safety and performance all depend on having the right technology to do the job effectively. The case for good communications technology as standard for frontline workers is simple: Making frontline workers' lives easier increases physical and mental well-being, reduces work pressures, decreases the risk of burnout and means that you keep your frontline talent.

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1 "Deskless Not Voiceless 2021", Workplace from Meta, 2021
2 "As the Workplace changes, don't leave frontline workers behind", Frost & Sullivan
3 "Hostess rewards frontline workers with 'Thank-you' bonus", Bakery & Snacks, 2022
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