Frontline Employees are Speaking Up. Here's What They Want From Work.

frontline employee doing inventory check in a grocery

The U.S. labor market is still far from recovery, and today’s predicament has imposed long-lasting changes on the employee-employer relationship. People have come to some realization that there are things that are more important in life than work, which has prompted employers to quickly adapt their strategies and reimagine — or at least begin to reimagine — the employee experience for frontline employees.

Taking action on many fronts, employers have leapt to increase starting pay and offer highly attractive incentives to get talent in the door, just as others have introduced compelling initiatives focused on work-life balance and workforce wellbeing, or invested heavily in long-term benefits that improve the quality of life at work for frontline employees — benefits that have historically been “out of reach” for most hourly workers. 

Without a doubt, employers today know people have a choice — ample choices, in fact — in terms of where they work. It’s no longer exclusively about getting a paycheck or even climbing the corporate ladder. In this period of uncertainty and reflection, many have made the intentional choice to make a change, to stop tolerating a subpar frontline employee experience, and to start doing what they love. They’re not necessarily relying on employers in the same way employees have for decades. More and more we’re seeing people assume responsibility for their own life-work journey and take matters into their own hands. 

And, because the strength of our economy depends on a reliable labor force, employers must increasingly bend to the demands of this newly empowered and highly selective workforce. That is the reality of this changing dynamic in the job market: how employers react is going to make a big difference in how successful they are in attracting and retaining talent. 

But what exactly do frontline employees want?

It’s been about 18 months since the start of the pandemic, and hourly workers continue to face many complicated decisions, like how to balance work with unpredictable school or daycare schedules, or how to reason going into a work environment and assuming the risks of exposure to COVID-19 if, for instance, they also need to care for a parent who is immunocompromised. Or whether their hourly wage is worth the time and effort expended to get up and go to work; whether “just another job” is worth missing out on time spent at home with young children, or worth passing up the chance to focus on schooling or getting a degree. These are difficult decisions — and they don’t all boil down to pay.

To find out what is really incentivizing frontline employees at work, Branch and UKG surveyed more than 600 workers in the grocery industry, 64% of whom are full-time, 36% are part-time, and 92% are paid hourly. The study found that, above all, grocery workers want higher wages (62%), stable and predictable work schedules (56%), and scheduling flexibility — i.e., more control over when they work and don’t work (41%). This survey also uncovered a problem, which is that only half of grocery workers (51%) are content with their current work schedule; 36% actually want more hours, while 12% said they could stand to cut back.

This issue is hardly uncommon. Perception of management vs. perception of frontline employees can often be critically different. Employers must learn to listen to their staff, whether through employee surveys or more regular manager check-ins. For employers struggling to fill gaps in the schedule, it might be as simple as asking your people, “Anyone interested in picking up more hours?” and then adjusting schedules as needed. If you have a mobile app that allows for automatic shift-swaps or an intelligent scheduling platform that lets frontline employees input their own scheduling preferences (preferred availability, as well as black-out dates and times), that’s even better!

Survey says: Nothing beats having a good work schedule.

The annual “Voice of the Blue-Collar Worker” survey provides year-over-year insights into the preferences and motivations of frontline workers. For the past 14 years, EmployBridge has surveyed thousands of hourly workers across America — primarily in manufacturing, warehousing, logistics, and distribution industries — to publish what has become the nation’s largest and longest running survey of the hourly workforce.

Interestingly, the 2021 survey asks, “What is the top reason you stayed with a company the longest?” and, for the first time in survey history, EmployBridge reported that schedules are the top retention factor for employees: 22% of frontline, hourly workers said they stayed because they like their work schedule. 

In fact, respondents said good schedules are more of a reason to stay with a company than good company culture (15%), consistent pay increases (13%), worksite location (10%), promotions and coworkers (both 8%), and having a good supervisor or boss (7%). This shows that money truly isn’t everything when it comes to employment; scheduling is impacting the hourly workforce. If an employer can offer their people flexible schedules that both meet their personal needs and adapt to the realities of their day-to-day lives outside of work, that’s a genuine benefit that you can’t really put a price on.

Are we surprised?

We shouldn’t be! People value their time, plain and simple. When people have the time they need to do what they want to do in life, they’re going to be happier, more productive, and more loyal as an employee.

In fact, many frontline employees are eager to give their loyalty to an employer. Branch and UKG found that 21% of grocery workers have a goal to be promoted internally by their current employer, suggesting employers can retain these employees if only they invest in their futures and provide the development opportunities needed to help their people achieve upward mobility. This, of course, also requires the presence of supportive managers — which is something 27% of grocery workers said they wanted most in their workplace.

EmployBridge, too, found that 32% of frontline workers envision themselves 2-3 years from now working as a lead or supervisor in the industry they currently work in, while 23% see themselves working in the same role or a similar role in their current industry. 

The opportunity to retain talent is huge and within reach for employers who take time to listen to what their frontline employees and potential new hires want, and who make a concerted effort to take care of their people. If you can do this well, you’re going to benefit from the actions taken today to put people first. 

To hear more of Dr. Chris Mullen’s insights into the frontline employee experience, tune into the Punk Rock HR Podcast where he joins Laurie Ruettimann for a special Labor Day conversation. Click here to listen in.