Most Hierarchies Fail to Support Frontline Workers

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Mar 11, 2021
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Over the last year, there has been plenty of conversation about frontline workers as critical but often under-appreciated resources for organizations. The pandemic has shone an intense spotlight on these workers, raising questions such as: 

  • Should frontline also mean essential, forcing workers to continue to come to the workplace and expose themselves to infection?
  • Are there ways we can empower frontline workers to work from home?
  • How do we treat teachers who have to weigh their pandemic exposure against their obligation to their students and parents?
  • What obligations do we have to those individuals who were laid off? 

Unfortunately, the current crisis has also revealed how little management knows about frontline workers and what they actually do. Consequently, companies have often shown how little they trust such individuals via the lack of empowerment they grant them. 

The Beating Heart of Your Org

All of us can easily recall a time when a salesperson, customer support, teacher, or nurse went above and beyond to create a memorable, positive experience — or the dreaded opposite where their lack of concern led us to think, “I’ll never come here again.”

Frontline workers are the beating heart of your organization. They engage with your market on a regular basis and are the personification of your brand. The service and interactions your customers and others experience with these frontline workers will have lasting impacts on how people perceive your organization. 

One would therefore expect organizations to equip frontline workers with the right knowledge, tools, and technologies to ensure they can perform at their best. But in reality, frontline workers have traditionally been overlooked.

This doesn’t just impact quality of service and customer satisfaction. It has a very real impact on the organization’s bottom line. For example, if frontline workers have a say in managing the supply chain, stocking levels, pricing, level of service, then your company is likely to see a dramatic improvement in productivity, inventory levels, and price optimization, etc. 

Moreover, by empowering frontline workers, you could reduce the manifold layers of management that currently exist to direct daily activities. In turn, this can dramatically accelerate decision-making and communication, leading to increased customer satisfaction and an improved bottom line.

A Lack of Trust

The problem is that historically we’ve pigeonholed frontline workers as doers, not thinkers. Anything out of the ordinary escalates to a senior decision-maker who applies judgement and corporate policy to the frontline worker’s actions. 

This structure is fundamentally inefficient. And if we take a different approach, we could revolutionize the way businesses operate for the betterment of both the organization and its customers.

That’s not to say that companies haven’t taken an increased look at improving their frontline experience — it’s just that they are focusing attention in the wrong place. 

In spending millions to optimize the customer experience, efforts tend to be top-down driven, with very little autonomy given to frontline workers. Businesses build and implement complex algorithms to provide direction to frontline employees, but there is little to no opportunity for individuals to provide their own perspective or chart their own improvement process. 

As a result, top-down-driven automation creates processes that often do not reflect what is happening on the ground, and there are very few feedback loops that enable changes in the process once automated.  

A Better Way With Data

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A grocery-store employee who, on a particularly warm day, sees an increase in ice cream sales and, using analytics based on history and algorithms, is able to readjust pricing to fit current supply and demand to improve profits. 
  • A produce-department employee notices that the pears are going soft and need to move fast, so therefore drops the price for a quick sale rather than end up with wasted fruit. 
  • A call center service employee who can make purchase recommendations to the customer based on historical customer interactions and best practices.

These scenarios are possible with today’s technology and data-driven analysis, but often a lack of trust and hierarchical organizational structures inhibit these changes and act as barriers to progress.

To be clear, this is not an argument for a democratic corporate structure. For this to be effective, a corporate strategy has to exist, data has to be collected, and algorithms must be designed. Employees will still need training to understand where their boundaries lie; measurement systems and tight feedback loops will be necessary. 

However, we should reimagine the management hierarchy as the support environment for the frontline execution. Not the reverse. Management must exist to empower frontline workers by giving them the right data, ensuring they have the right skills in an ever-changing world, and trusting them to execute on their best, analytics-enabled decisions. 

There are already progressive organizations that are working on educating and empowering their frontline workers to pair situational knowledge with big data. Walmart is a good example. The retailer gives department managers the opportunity to adjust pricing based on location, supply, demand, local competition, and other data. Moving this mindset and framework further down to the actual customer-facing people would be that much better.

Ultimately, innovation will be constrained if we continue to think of it as a top-down process. Every organization has many frontline employees capable of making impactful decisions if they are only given the power to do so. Frontline employees are the closest point of contact to a customer, the boardroom the furthest. Enabling these workers to understand, and more importantly act, on the data they generate daily can be a game-changing opportunity.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.