Frontline workers, or those directly serving customers outside of an in-office or work-from-home setting, were massively impacted by the Covid era. This segment of workers quit jobs in record numbers, often for reasons of self-preservation, while their employers scrambled to maintain business continuity. There were enterprises or brands that notably coped well with these challenging dynamics, and there were those that did not. It’s also safe to assume that the success cases learned much more effectively “on the fly” given a distinct absence of time and space to systematically compile and assess workforce and productivity-related data.
The changes organizations had to make to their workforce management approaches were the focal point of those learnings. Simple logic dictated that when a workforce was dealing with heightened stress due to understaffing and the pressure to learn new skills or roles quickly as colleagues and friends were leaving or getting ill, the standard “people management playbook” would no longer apply. A new set of worker expectations had emerged which, if not reflected in appropriate adjustments by direct supervisors and managers, would threaten business execution if not business viability.
The Rise of Flexibility in the Frontline Worker Experience
Indeed, one could argue that in the pre-Covid era the hallmarks of a high-quality work experience for frontline workers were such elements as the ability to apply demonstrated skills, learn and grow in a generally linear manner over time toward career goals, avoid appreciable risk in daily work activities, as well as perceived fairness and equity in one’s compensation. While some of these elements remain relevant today in what we can ostensibly call the Covid recovery era, the one dimension that has risen to the top of what frontline workers now value in their work experience can be captured in one word: “flexibility.”
This notion was indelibly substantiated with the publication in the past year of Lighthouse Research’s Frontline Worker Study (chronicled in that firm’s blog), which featured findings from 3,000 frontline workers surveyed around the globe. The notion of flexibility was prominent throughout the results, which one might say totally revolved around what today’s frontline worker views as the foundation of a positive employee experience. While the study’s key findings also underscored the critical importance of a supportive manager (e.g., the absence of which resulted in the likelihood of a frontline worker quitting rose by 400%), there were several ways in which flexibility came into play.
These include a desire to have more choices at work, giving the hourly paid worker the flexibility to provide input and set preferences on how shifts are scheduled or general autonomy and discretion over how tasks are communicated, ensuring they are clearly defined, managed and completed while feeling supported to get those done easily, preferably through a mobile app. “Choice,” however, can of course be associated with skill and career development opportunities one might pursue as well. Additionally, deskless workers absolutely have the fundamental or universal human need to have a voice and give feedback on things one feels would benefit the business, and have those suggestions acted on swiftly. These employee experience features clearly emphasize the importance of finding meaning in the sizable portion of one’s life spent at work, and of ensuring clear communications that contribute to a thriving business, instead of feeling overwhelmed by seemingly irrational methods and processes.
While a major part of the “positive work experience” discussion can also be subjective, lending itself to individual preferences, priorities, and values, we should not expect the long-standing aspects of a “quality work experience” to become any less important anytime soon. These include having a manager that is an effective advocate (one that demonstrably cares about team member well-being and helps employees with their personal circumstances) or having clear opportunities for career and compensation growth. Still, the significant element that frontline workers clearly value today is more flexibility and choices over their work schedules, which in essence, is basically about more control (or agency, influence, etc.) over one’s experience at work. This should be no surprise as the Covid era was largely about feelings of considerably less control and more uncertainty in one’s life overall, and specifically related to one’s job.
Organizations today that want to have a better chance of attracting, retaining and truly leveraging top talent among their frontline workers—those who influence customer attitudes and perceptions about the brand every day—should understand the degree to which their workers enjoy adequate flexibility and control in their daily work experience, as well as being recognized, valued and appreciated for the work they do. Employee feedback can validate this and should be collected using a variety of means so that insights and sentiments gathered can be turned into impactful actions to close the feedback loop and therefore power further enhancements of business performance employee experience. When a gap or issue is determined, it is essential that frontline managers are alerted via intelligent automation so they could play their essential role to address this issue promptly allowing them to spend more time with their team and less time on administrative tasks. Consequently, it helps these managers clear the noise and improve management efficiency on the critical path of optimizing business results.