Want to retain frontline staff? Get to know them

We all know quitting is becoming contagious.

The 2022 Deskless Report found 42% wanted to do just this (up from 36% in 2021), and all around the country, we’re seeing “Now Hiring” signs adorn shop windows and restaurant parking lots as companies struggle to attract talent in a tight labor market.

The problem with people leaving is that not only does it create an immediate staffing gap, but when frontline workers and managers leave, organizations are forced to rely on less experienced employees. When turnover reaches extreme levels, it becomes difficult-to-impossible to overcome the lack of knowledge and experience with a few veteran employees. People make mistakes, and the operation suffers as a result. Remember: customers don’t care if an employee has worked there for two days or twenty years. They expect a great experience and will look elsewhere if their needs aren’t met.

The problem is, traditional tactics, like hiring bonuses and job perks, have not fixed the frontline labor shortage.

That’s why I believe companies must reassess their entire employee experience. And it starts by answering the question: why would someone want to work here?

Addressing the frontline/corporate chasm

The reality is corporate teams don’t understand the frontline workforce. This may sound like a harsh assessment, especially as many corporate team members started will have their careers on the frontline. But the uncomfortable truth, is that data proves that while leaders might remember their own personal work experiences, they don’t understand what the job they once did is like today.

For example, 73% of corporate team members believe their organizations invest in new technologies for frontline workers. Only 39% of frontline workers agree.

This disconnect exists across a variety of employee experience themes, including communication, training and recognition. An assistant general manager of a regional food service chain shared their observation regarding this lack of frontline awareness in last year’s Deskless Report: “Corporate tried to roll out a core values thing. They invested a lot in it, but they’re working in the corporate office. They want to get people excited about things that people don’t care about.”

This is far from an isolated example. Only 39% of frontline workers feel heard by their organization. The situation is only getting worse, as this result dropped precipitously from 59% in 2021.

Get to know your frontline

There’s only one way a corporate team can understand the wants and needs of their frontline workers: by listening.

Too many organizations rely on annual engagement surveys as the lone opportunity to ask the frontline for their input. But 80% of frontline feedback is unstructured, often communicated in-person to managers. Unfortunately, this information rarely bubbles up to corporate decision makers.

“It can be like playing telephone, since we don’t have direct communication with some of our corporate higher-ups,” said one general manager of a regional retail chain. “We can communicate to our district manager, our director of store operations, but at some point they’re going to pick what they feel was most important in our conversation. So sometimes you don’t always feel your message actually gets across.”

Frontline workers may have ways to communicate common workplace problems, but they’re rarely afforded the chance to share new ideas, best practices or questions for senior leadership.

The simple truth is that people want to feel heard and play an active role in the success of their company. Therefore, frontline employers must embed feedback opportunities within the employee experience so everyone has an equitable opportunity to share their thoughts.

Walk in their shoes

Taco Bell requires every corporate team member to work in a restaurant location for at least one week during onboarding. This helps corporate employees approach their work from the perspective of their frontline counterparts. And Taco Bell’s CEO recognized the need to streamline the crew member workflow while working behind the counter.

“Turnover is so high, not just at TacoBell, but at any QSR [quick-service restaurant], right? Because the job is just really difficult. So how do we make that experience easier?”

This strategy makes corporate decisions more grounded, equitable and people-focused. It also fosters trust between frontline and corporate workers, who would otherwise go unseen by restaurant crew members. Working shoulder-to-shoulder promotes a strong employee community, which is the top factor for workplace success according to frontline employees. This is ranked above equitable compensation, at number two.

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Redefine opportunity

Growth is another key consideration for organizations trying to up their talent and retention game. How is a job with your company going to help frontline workers progress their career and improve their lives?

People are more likely to choose roles and stay with organizations that foster meaningful skill development. Training and upskilling are ranked as the third most important factor contributing to workplace happiness and success by frontline employees, after community and compensation. After all, acquiring new skills increases earning potential and opens the door to long-term opportunity.

However, growth does not look the same for every frontline worker. While some may be interested in taking on management positions, many are seeking alternative career paths. Companies must expand their perspective on talent management and consider their entire workforce – not just corporate teams – for ongoing upskilling and reskilling programs.

Walmart Academy applies this multi-faceted approach to frontline development. Associate training doesn’t stop with core job skills. Retail workers also have access to internal programs and secondary education offerings that prepare them for future careers.

I think the most important element is how you provide a pathway of growth and opportunity for individuals,” said Donna Morris, Walmart’s chief people officer, during a recent conversion with Forbes. “We have a really large workforce, and we’re a diversified business. If we can provide unparalleled growth opportunities for our associates, it will enable their future.”

Earn your workforce

Organizations are no longer competing with the business across the street for talent.

They’re up against remote employers who can hire people anywhere. Then there’s the gig economy that offers new levels of flexibility and autonomy.

To overcome labor shortages and ensure they’re always disruption-ready, organizations must invest in their own talent and build the skills needed to drive their businesses forward.

They must evolve their perspective and recognize that, in the modern workplace, the job must earn the employee.

 

JD Dillon has spent two decades working in talent development with the likes of Kaplan and AMC. He is currently Axonify's chief learning architect. His new book, The Modern Learning Ecosystem, is published on November 29, 2022.

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