Frontline Workers:
Differences in Performance Management Practices?

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This article is a continuation of our recent Performance Management study. Specifically, it explores the practices of performance management as they relate to frontline workers: Are they currently treated differently? Should they be? A special thanks to our sponsor, Centrical.

Frontline workers are those in customer-facing or product-making positions. While they are often overlooked, frontline workers play a fairly significant role in providing a great customer experience. And, as markets get more competitive and customers become more informed, organizations are relying more heavily on customer experience to compete.

Forward-thinking organizations have looked at frontline workers differently in the last few years. Whereas they were once seen as cogs in a machine (who, it was believed, just work for a paycheck, are inherently disengaged1i and are doomed to turnover2), they are now seen as a source of future leaders, innovation, and a strong customer experience.3 

We think that as the focus on these workers increases, organizations will take a closer look at their performance management practices – perhaps reevaluating how these workers are measured, engaged, and developed. 

We recently looked at over 20 academic and business articles, reports, and book chapters to better understand these changes. Not surprisingly, some of the things we learned align nicely with what we found in our modern performance management model. 

What we learned: 

From our review of the literature, it appears that organizations are waking up to the notion that many workers on the frontlines have significant impact on customer experience,4 and as such, need more attentionAs an example, a 2018 study by The Institute of Customer Service shows that increasing employee engagement also increases customer satisfaction.5 

In general, we uncovered a collective urgency to move frontline performance management away from traditional operational-driven approaches to more modern development-driven ones.  

Three overall themes emerged from our review of the literature:  

Frontline workers need empowerment 

With the current focus on customer experience and its perceived role in driving market competitiveness, there is a general sense that frontline workers need to be better empowered.  

To do this, forward-thinking organizations are using development to equip frontline workers – especially those directly serving customers – with soft skills (anywhere from emotional intelligence and communication skills to problem-solving and conflict resolution) so they can better address customers’ needs.6 

Additionally, real-time and individualized feedback are also seen as ways to empower frontline workers7,8 – including those in manufacturing roles – to think critically, solve problems, and make effective on-the-spot decisions.9

Frontline managers play an important role and should be held accountable for performance development – their own as well as their workers

The bulk of the literature on frontline performance management focuses on managers. The idea that frontline managers play a crucial role in the development of frontline workers is widely accepted (and aligns with what we found more broadly in our recent research as well). Most of the pieces we read mentioned the lack of accountability for the development of their people as a pervasive problem among frontline managers. 

 Some advocate for offering more formal training to frontline managers in traditional performance management aspects such as: giving and receiving feedback, engaging in frequent 1:1 conversations, setting goals, and addressing performance concerns. This suggests that organizations are beginning to rethink the role of frontline manager from enforcer and doer to manager as coach. While it may seem generally appropriate, it will require changes to their responsibilities and mindset, not to mention to the systems and processes that support them. 

Frontline engagement likely requires moving away from industrial-era performance management approaches

The literature suggests that performance management practices for frontline workers are somewhat stuck in the industrial era. And if we ever want to build a fully engaged frontline workforce, then organizations need to re-think how they currently evaluate and address frontline performance.  

 For example, there is a tendency to measure frontline workers against operational efficiency metrics such as: hours clocked, calls handled, and products assembledWhile tracking these metrics may be necessary at timesorganizations are itching to improve frontline performance in a more developmental manner,10 and as such, bring more value to customersSome recognize the importance of connecting frontline workers’ performance to the organization’s mission and making sure that frontline workers see the big picture.11  

There also seems to be a desire to make performance management for managers and employees more meaningful – moving it away from only transactional process focused on hard skills to a developmental process also focused on soft skills.12 This is in large part driven by the current focus on providing a positive and compelling experience for both employees and customers. 

What we read: 

Several pieces stood out from the literature we reviewed. Each of the following pieces explored ideas that we found useful in expanding the way we think about frontline performance management  

Frontline Workers and the Skills for Tomorrow’s Economy 

College for America 

Even jobs considered entry level,’ or frontline, such as call center customer service reps, require workers to do more than merely handle a transaction; technology now handles those straightforward processes. 

This article defines U.S. frontline workers. It also describes industries with the greatest number of frontline workers and the specific skills they need to be able to fill market needs. 

Highlights:

  • Defines frontline workers, their demographics, current skills, and the skills they need to develop to compete in the marketplace.
  • Offers a framework for evaluating frontline workers' skills.
  • Recommends developing frontline workers in higher-level cognitive and soft skills such as: problem-solving, critical-thinking, and relationship-building.

Developing America’s Frontline Workers 

Kevin Oakes and Kevin Martin / i4cp 

Companies need to be clear on the positive business impact of frontline worker development, provide the support mechanisms to reinforce this, and measure it through the performance review process and reward (or hold accountable) managers accordingly.

This report presents findings from a study on development practices for frontline workers among 365 US-based businesses. It describes the increasing demand for skilled workers to fill US-based jobs. It discusses the need for greater frontline manager involvement and accountability for frontline worker development. 

Highlights:

  • Shows a high correlation between bottom-line business impact and when frontline workers take advantage of development opportunities.
  • Examines the current skill level of frontline workers and emphasizes the need to upskill this segment of the workforce for future growth.
  • Supports the idea that managers serve as coaches and mentors to those on the frontlines.

 

Ten Steps to Supercharge Performance Management 

Tony DiRomualdo / American Management Association 

HPOs [high performance organizations] replace annual or semiannual formal performance reviews with regular (monthly or quarterly) informal discussions between frontline managers and their direct reports. This establishes better communication and helps to both maintain consistent focus on what needs to be done and gauge progress. 

This article outlines ten ways in which organizations can improve their performance management practices. It also provides ideas on how organizations can improve the effectiveness of performance management practices for frontline workers and their managers. 

Highlights:

  • Discusses the importance of creating an environment of ongoing frequent conversations between frontline workers and managers.
  • Proposes maintaining a consistent performance management culture throughout the organization to gain buy-in and enable high performance.
  • Emphasizes the need to train frontline managers on effective performance management practices.

 

Frontline Managers: Are They Given the Leadership Tools to Succeed? 

Harvard Business Review Analytic Services 

“…feedback managers receive is largely punitive: ‘Only negative feedback [is given] when failures happen. Punishment in the form of bad performance reviews, notices of corrective action, and terminations are the rewards for failure’…” 

This article highlights findings from an online survey to HBR’s readers aimed at understanding the importance of frontline managers to organizational success. It discusses frontline managers influence on key organizational outcomesYet, it contrasts frontline managers’ importance to organizational success with the lack of managerial effectiveness.  

Highlights: 

  • Describes how frontline managers are crucial in helping organizations reach business goals.
  • States that few organizations invest sufficient time and resources in the professional development of frontline managers.
  • Argues that frontline managers lack basic leadership competencies and need further development.

 

Unlocking the Potential of Frontline Managers in Global Health 

Arnab GhatakSrishti Gupta, and Ying Sun / McKinsey 

“…the typical frontline manager is time strapped, multitasking, and lacking critical elements needed for success: an understanding of priorities, management skills, motivation, autonomy, and information.” 

This article examines frontline managers in a healthcare setting. It outlines specific challenges that frontline managers face in their role and suggests six ideas for improvement. It also provides examples of successful frontline management development programs in health-related facilities globally.  

Highlights: 

  • Mentions the adoption of a service industry framework to better understand and relate to customer-facing employees.
  • Suggests a 6-pronged approach to support frontline managers in healthcare settings throughout developing countries.
  • Advocates for disciplined performance management practices to motivate and develop frontline managers.

 

Other good reads if you have the time: 

1 “Developing Skilled Workers: A Toolkit for Manufacturers on Recruiting and Training a Quality Workforce,” The Manufacturing Institute, 2019. 

2 “How to Motivate Frontline Employees,” McGregor, L. & Doshi, N.Harvard Business Review, 2018.

3 “Front Line Staff, the Patient Experience and Your Bottom Line – Avoiding the Cultural Hourglass,” Warren, B. & Kinney, T., Select International, 2015. 

4 “Maximizing Frontline Sales in Retail Banking,” Maxwell, M, Derraik, R., & Ross, E., McKinsey, 2014. 

References

Why Frontline Workers are Disengaged,” Bazigos, M. & Caruso, E., McKinsey, 2016.

Why Employee Turnover is Gutting Frontline Businesses,” Zeisloft, B., Medium, 2019.

How an Engaged Front-Line Workforce Contributes to Great Customer Service,” Goodchild, L., CMS Wire, 2018.

4 “How Good is Your Company’s Internal Customer Experience,” Maechler, N., McKinsey, 2017.

UK Customer Satisfaction Index,” The Institute of Customer Service, 2018.

Frontline Employee Training: Best Practices that Drive Customer Satisfaction,” Rallyware blog, 2018.

A Simple Plan to Empower Your Frontline Workers with Technology,” Chow, C., Social Chorus, 2019.

Maximizing Frontline Sales in Retail Banking,” Maxwell, M, Derraik, R., & Ross, E., McKinsey, 2014.

Developing a Skilled Workers: A Toolkit for Manufacturers on Recruiting and Training a Quality Workforce,” McNelly, J., The Manufacturing Institute, 2019.

10 Ten Steps to Supercharge Performance Management,” DiRomualdo, T., American Management Association, 2019.

11 Frontline Managers’ Contribution to Mission Achievement: A Study of How People Management Affects Thoughtful Care,” Knies, E., Leisink, P. &  Kraus-Hoogeveen, S., Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance, 2018.

12 Frontline Workers and the Skills for Tomorrow’s Economy,” College for America, 2017.

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