Premise: Enabling the Frontline Workforce

Posted on Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023 at 1:58 PM    


Why we care

In short:

The frontline workforce is vital to most organizations’ success, but they’re not being supported in the ways they need or want. Organizations need to do better. We're launching research into how organizations can enable frontline workers to thrive in their current and future roles.

In detail:

The frontline—AKA deskless—workforce is huge. A 2018 survey by VC company Emergence estimated that 80% of the global workforce is frontline, while McKinsey put the number at 70% of the US workforce. In early 2022, a Microsoft representative said the frontline workforce represents nearly 2 billion people worldwide.

And frontline workers are critical to many organizations’ success: They’re often the “tip of the spear” executing the organization’s strategies. In many industries—like retail, hospitality, healthcare, education, and transportation—frontline workers are the face of the organization to customers. They’re also an (often untapped) resource for innovation and improvement—with ideas to solve real problems they see on the ground.

Frontline workers are critical to organizations' success. But they're often underserved, under-supported, and unempowered.

But in our experience, many HR systems and processes aren’t designed with frontline workers in mind. For example, employee development opportunities are often created assuming that a worker has easy access to a computer and company email, some schedule flexibility, or the financial wherewithal to pay for learning and wait for reimbursement. That's simply not the case for many frontline workers.

In addition, there are indications that the ways organizations support frontline workers don’t align with what those workers need or want. Research by Axonify and Nudge found a mismatch between frontline workers' and corporate leaders' perceptions of what drives frontline happiness and success.  BCG reported that frontline workers want more flexibility and work-life balance, better career advancement opportunities, and better pay and benefits than they’re currently provided.

Something’s wrong with this picture. Organizations need to better understand their frontline workforce's needs and adjust systems, processes, and approaches to better enable their success.

Organizations need to better understand their frontline workforce's needs and enable their success.

But that’s more easily said than done.

What challenges are organizations facing when it comes to the frontline workforce?

  • Finding and keeping workers. In contrast to the late-2022 layoffs in the tech industry, the talent market in many frontline-heavy industries remains tight. For example, we’re still seeing articles (like this one from a Chicago-based PBS news outlet) about restaurants struggling to find staff. And unemployment rates across most industries are still below 2021 levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many employers are having trouble finding and keeping workers with the skills they need to compete in their industries.
  • Providing a strong employee experience—while preparing for a downturn. In many industries, employers are competing against one another to attract workers. They're vying to provide a better organizational culture and employee experience than other prospective employers—in addition to paying higher wages. For employers facing an uncertain economic environment in 2023, it may be challenging to pay employees more, invest in culture and employee experience, and prepare for a downturn…but it looks like that’s what many companies will have to do.
  • Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). DEIB efforts remain a priority—at least nominally—for many organizations. As BIPOC workers are overrepresented in the US frontline workforce (source: McKinsey), DEIB efforts can have an outsized impact on this group of people. If DEIB budgets are cut, organizations will need to find creative ways to continue to enhance equity and inclusion for frontline workers.
  • Connecting frontline employees. Many frontline jobs are becoming more digitized and siloed. Retail teams, for example, may see many customers but interact little with one another. One leader told us about manufacturing workers who work whole shifts in their warehouse section without talking to anyone else. In addition, communication from leaders or central parts of the organization may be fragmented and feel unreliable. Connecting frontline workers to the organization’s purpose and one another will be a challenge for many organizations in the future.

What will we research?

Heading into this research, our primary question is:

How can organizations better enable frontline workers to thrive in their current and future roles?

More specifically, what does frontline enablement look like in the following areas? And how should enablement differ for frontline and not-frontline workers?

  • Performance
  • Employee development (including learning methods)
  • DEIB
  • Management

In terms of our going-in hypothesis, we believe:

  • Organizations will need to use different approaches to enable frontline vs. not-frontline workers
  • Organizations will need to adjust their systems, processes, and practices to more effectively enable frontline workers

As always, we will do this research “out loud” by opening our research process to practitioners across the community. It makes us smarter and helps everyone gather ideas from a wider pool of people.

You can participate by joining a roundtable, volunteering to be interviewed, or simply commenting on this article. Thanks in advance for your participation!

RedThread Research is an active HRCI provider