Why you need to put frontline workers first
Organisations need to take greater care of frontline workers. Here are three ways to build trust and connect with your front-liners and why it’s critical for your organisation.
The Frontline tipping point
They’re the workers who are so familiar to us, sometimes it feels like we barely notice them at all. They drive delivery trucks, make coffee, look after us when we get sick, stack shelves in our supermarkets, or make sure our flights leave on time.
But in the pandemic, everybody paid attention to these frontline employees. Because none of us would have got through it without them.
They kept our economy running and our lives working. But only at a price. According to our research, 70% of frontline employees have suffered from or felt at risk of burnout in the last year. The result? Forty-five percent of people we surveyed are thinking of leaving frontline service altogether.
The “Great resignation” has led to a great reckoning with the reality of working life for frontline employees - and not a moment too soon.
“After the pandemic, some companies hoped that things would go back to normal - but this approach isn’t working,” says Abby Guthkelch, Head of Global Executive Solutions at Workplace from Meta. “Companies must take very bold action because failure to change means you won’t have a business. It might not happen overnight, but people will walk. We’re already seeing that happen.”
After all the sacrifices they’ve made, frontline workers are now demanding a fair share of the benefits that other employees already enjoy - from greater flexibility to better tools and increased financial security.
“Expectations of what people are looking for within their workplace have changed,” says Guthkelch. “People have had a lot of time to reflect during the pandemic about their situations. They want to get more out of work.”
And if they don’t get it? Well, companies have been put on notice. When it comes to putting the frontline first, employees are done asking nicely. Failure to stem the exodus of frontline talent is now a mortal threat to business.
How did we get to this point? And where do we go from here?
Live Fireside Chat: The Frontline tipping point
When it comes to putting the frontline first, employees are done asking nicely. Join our Live panel of experts and learn how to transform your relationship with your frontline.
Frontline workers and HQ: A history of disconnection
While the pandemic has exposed the cracks between frontline employees and organisations, it didn’t necessarily create them.
At Workplace, we’ve been tracking the relationship between frontline and office-based workers since 2019, when we first discovered that only 14% of frontline employees felt connected to their HQ, while 54% felt like they didn’t have a voice.
As much as anything, this disconnect was about an old-fashioned, command-and-control style of leadership that simply didn’t value the voices of non-traditional workers.
That model had already started to look outdated, as new leaders embrace values like openness, trust and authenticity. As Abby Guthkelch puts it, these leaders realised that “respect shouldn't just happen because you're behind a laptop.”
Industry analyst Wayne Kurtzman agrees. “Work is becoming more human,” he says. “And to be more human, you need to be more transparent and communicative.”
We were already starting to see evidence of this shift before the pandemic. For example, take the story of Virgin Atlantic who initially turned to Workplace back in 2017 to better connect its pilots, cabin crew, ground staff, office workers and leaders.
With all interactions on one platform, frontline workers could quickly and easily communicate with people at every level of the organisation, across every location. This engagement helped them foster deeper connections with each other and boost team morale.
What changed during the pandemic?
The last two years have simply increased the momentum - while dramatically raising the stakes. Not least because it gave some frontline employees a taste of something they hadn’t had before. Options.
Tech companies like Google and Salesforce have started to offer free courses to help furloughed workers upskill. These workers found they could get customer service positions working from home that paid three to four times what they previously earned while working fewer hours.
So by the time businesses began to reopen, not only were there fewer employees to go around, but new questions were being asked. If frontline employees were going to put themselves at risk by working outside of the home, what, they asked, would they gain in return?
Suddenly low salaries, lack of flexibility, zero autonomy, fewer benefits, and overall disconnect were exposed. Simply put: The widespread disparity in working conditions between frontline and desk-based workers became too obvious to ignore.
“The balance of power has shifted,” says Guthkelch. “In fact, it's shifted more than I think a lot of executives want to realise it has.”
Eventually, those executives began to act. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2020-2021 businesses raised wages for frontline workers by 7% to 10%. But that hasn’t been enough to completely win back frontline talent. Job vacancies have continued to reach record highs throughout 2022 in both the US and UK labour markets.
For Kurtzman, this goes back to the size of the change that’s needed. “If companies don't embrace a massive shift, they're going to fail,” adds Kurtzman. “The ability to connect frontline workers is essential. They are the people who interface with customers and partners. If you think you can stay in business without that information - you’re kidding yourself.”
Three ways to put frontline workers first
All of which brings us back to today, and that nagging question: What now? How do you respond to the changing expectations of frontline workers? What can you do to improve the employee experience so it’s your company that has the competitive advantage?
Unsurprisingly, there isn’t one thing - no magic solution to fix such a multi-faceted problem. Instead, as Kurtzman says, it requires “a total shift in terms of mindset, transparency, trust and giving everyone a voice - as well as giving people access to information.”
And further to this, it’s also about bringing your people together inclusively and equitably that makes them feel seen, heard and valued. “There is the cultural part,” agrees Guthkelch, “then there is the workplace tools part and the training part.”
Let’s take a look at each of these parts.
1. Enabling a culture of respect and collaboration for frontline workers
According to a recent survey by Meta, only 26% of frontline workers say they feel valued and recognised. Yet, 99% of C-suite leaders say their frontline trusts them. Clearly there’s a disconnect between how words and actions from a company are perceived by people on the frontline.
Guthkelch likens those leaders to the Wizard of Oz. They’ve been behind the curtain focused on financial results and quarterly KPIs. But now they’ve realised that’s not the only thing they should be thinking about. It’s time to step out from behind the curtain.
“You can't show empathy through email,” Guthkelch says. “You have to be able to build trust and talent for the long term. Companies need to think really, really seriously about how to better connect their leadership with employees at all levels in all environments, and enable them to build those human connections and really encourage two-way dialogue, especially in distributed environments.”
It’s for that reason that businesses are starting to turn to workplace communication tools. But that’s not enough on its own.
“Even if you have the technology, you have to invest in the human interaction piece, and actually have that empathy. The experience is built by the work and the people you interact with,” says Guthkelch.
Kurtzman agrees: “For change to happen it has to come from the bottom up and start with communities. When you create a community and back it with technology, it is powerful and effective.”
2. The right training for frontline workers
The key relationship for frontline workers isn’t with the most senior leaders; it’s with their line manager and immediate peers. And yet line managers are often the most under trained people in an organisation.
In a recent US survey that asked frontline workers why they were resigning, the most popular answer was wages. But in second place was a bad relationship with their boss.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the job of frontline managers has become more critical and challenging during the pandemic. Workers look to their managers for stability, empathy and support — especially when staff schedules, work responsibilities and personal stresses have never been more difficult to manage.
When managers are stressed or struggling, their team members are impacted, either directly or indirectly, and are unlikely to feel well supported. This loosens the ties that bind people to an organisation, and they seek to leave.
“What’s really needed is immersive training on how to do their jobs, and this immersive training creates empathy and develops EQ skills,” says Guthkelch.
Beyond training, it’s also about:
3. The right tools for transforming culture for frontline workers
Technology plays a key role in helping frontline employees feel more connected to their leaders and colleagues across the organisation. The right technology can turn one-way comms into two-way conversations, and just make day-to-day task management easier.
So it makes sense that according to the most recent results from our annual frontline survey, 61% of frontline employees are keen to access tools that would make them better connected to the rest of the organisation. Up until now, though, technology is just one more example of the divide between desk-based and frontline employees.
Our research in the early days of the pandemic found that 90% of HQ managers relied on email to communicate during lockdown, but barely a quarter of their frontline counterparts did the same. Instead, over half of frontline managers turned to messaging apps on their personal devices.
Frontline workers are hungry to be better connected to their organisations, but they need leaders to make the investment. “If a company doesn't provide a way for them to work, they will create a community outside of their organisation’s security and governance. An App Store’s worth of collaboration tools are at their fingertips,” says Kurtzman.
“Collaboration is people doing things together for a common purpose, but that's not just about technology,” he continues. “The right technologies and the adoption of those technologies is what helps collaboration scale. So the culture of collaboration is really about peer mentorship. It's about executive willingness, it's about setting up a meritocracy. It's about changing how business is done.”
Putting it all together
Organisations know the great resignation is here and they know they need to change how they work with their frontline employees. However, it’s more than just tweaking one or two things. It’s a total bottom-to-top transformation - of culture, training and infrastructure - and one which needs to happen all at once and urgently.
Organizations that fail to make these changes do so at their peril - they ultimately won’t survive as a business.
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