The Critical Need to Support Frontline Workers

Nurse Frontline Worker

Frontline workers are the backbone of our world. Precise definitions vary, but around 80% of global workers cannot work from home and do not sit at a desk. They educate our children, care for our sick, deliver our packages, protect our homes and communities, and much more. As the last few years have demonstrated, without frontline workers, society would not function. 

For most businesses, the frontline staff is also critical for serving customers and identifying areas of improvement and innovation. Yet in too many organizations, these employees are overworked, underpaid, and their needs for success in work and life are often ignored. Many of these issues are rooted in outdated or outright incorrect assumptions employers make about their frontline staff. 

A recent Harvard Business School spotlight series on frontline workers noted that CEOs “have lost touch” with frontline workers. Many employers think frontline workers will quit quickly, yet survey data shows that more often these workers want to stay with their firms. They quit because of the way they are treated by management, lack of support on the job, or instability in location and hours. 

Consultancy McKinsey conducted a survey that showed that not having flexibility was the number one reason frontline workers quit their jobs. Academic research supports this: In healthcare, the nursing shortage is getting worse. Nurses leave because of administrative tasks and paperwork; not because of patient care demands. 

Frontline workforce: What’s on the line 

This outright neglect of the frontline workforce can’t go on: Demographic and political trends portend fewer people will be available to work in these critical positions. Shrinking birth rates, declining workforce participation, and immigration restriction means recruiting and retaining frontline workers will remain difficult. 

Shrinking birth rates, declining workforce participation, and immigration restriction means recruiting and retaining frontline workers will remain difficult.

And in 2022, 96% of American CEOs surveyed said they are evaluating or already reshoring manufacturing, and unions had a resurgence winning more elections than in the previous 20 years. Gallup reported 71% of Americans now approve of unions, the highest level since 1965. If organizations don’t voluntarily give more consideration to delivering a positive and empathetic frontline worker employee experience, they may find they will be compelled to. 

Frontline workers are diverse and complex 

As these forces play out, companies have to work harder than ever to source, attract, onboard, enable, support, develop, and retain the frontline workforce. Yet frontline workers are not a single category but a disparate set of individuals across industries like healthcare, public safety, transportation, manufacturing, retail, and hospitality, who all have unique human wants and needs. They are more and yet less diverse depending on industry: Many frontline workers come from socio-economically disadvantaged groups, such as immigrants, and we see far more women in healthcare and education, for example, and more men in manufacturing and transportation.   

Companies must work harder than ever to source, attract, onboard, enable, support, develop, and retain the frontline workforce. 

While some may be lower skilled and lower paid and others are highly skilled and hard to find, frontline workers do share common traits beyond just not toiling behind a desk: Their working time likely needs to be scheduled, they cannot feasibly work from home, and they may not even have access to email or a mobile device on the job.

Yet in many ways, technology is changing the role of the frontline faster than those working primarily behind desks. Frontline roles, also labeled gray collar for falling between traditional white-collar knowledge work and pink/blue collar technical work, are seeing more and more of their work digitized. And we know the growing power of AI has unlocked unprecedented ways to both augment and understand the entire workforce. 

Meeting frontline workers where they are 

In practical terms, to provide the best support for these workers, we need to meet them where they are. The diversity and complexity of frontline work means this cannot be solved with a single system or siloed solution. As the U.S. Air Force found out the hard way, “there are no average pilots”—a solution developed for “everyone” is designed for no one.

Supporting this diversity requires the ability to handle different mechanisms and ways of engaging: both figuratively by understanding their personal situations, aspirations, and limitations, and literally in the flow of their work by delivering tailored workforce support. This means technology must have the capability to exist in industry-specific systems and common communications tools and apps must be accessible from personal devices, in-plant kiosks, or digital displays.

Organizations employing frontline workers today also have significant responsibilities to support employees’ complex scheduling, union abidance, and compliance needs. Organizations must also have an in-depth understanding of them through voice of the employee, talent management, compensation and benefits competitiveness, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging insights. The ultimate goal should be to help adapt to the distinct and dynamic needs of frontline workers to support more resilient and productive workforces that in turn improve standards of living and sustain our society.

In the following installments of this “Facing into the Frontline” series, we will follow the life-work journey of frontline workers. This starts with understanding their strengths and skills, looking in new places for talent with unbiased eyes, matching aspiration to opportunity, and getting the right people in the right place at the right time—examining what a powerful effect time management and scheduling has on both personal satisfaction and work output.

Then the focus will move to connecting these workers in the field to the resources they need to succeed on the job and off through coaching and community—things that are already happening in many successful frontline worker firms. We’ll explore new opportunities to deliver just-in-time enablement and microlearning to provide continuous development that promises frontline workers share in the benefits of growth.

Along the way, we’ll consider how the greater flexibility and responsiveness AI tools deliver might just be the key to achieving new levels of productivity and engagement in the face of the troubling trends above. In all, we’ll discover how to break out of the vicious cycle of frontline worker churn and burn through serving the human needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose to enable and inspire workers serving in the mission-critical and economically vital roles necessary for our world to not only survive but thrive for years to come.

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