During the COVID-19 pandemic, desk-bound workers switched to remote work, continuing their work lives despite the global crisis unfolding around them. Whether they were happy, how long they could work from home, and when they would have to go back to the office became topics of general interest to the public and conversation in the media.
In contrast, frontline and deskless workers—and their work contributions—were largely taken for granted during this time. The assumption was that frontline workers don’t quit.
In reality, as we all know from the endless “now hiring” signs at our local restaurants and stores, hourly workers are leaving jobs at record-breaking levels, and there remain more open roles than jobseekers.
While new topics and phrases like “Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting”buzz around workforce-related conversations, these discussions are often within the context of office-based work. Meanwhile, it’s the struggles with employee absenteeism and ghosting within the front lines that have so deeply impacted our economy (think about the supply chain alone) and brought us to a tipping point.
The situation begs the following questions: What happened, and how did we get here? Perhaps more importantly, how can we meet the challenge?
To answer that, we must ask the essential question: What are the real reasons behind why frontline workers are quitting?
1. Post-Pandemic Burnout Is Prevalent Among Frontline Workers
As the pandemic raged on, remote workers and the general public were encouraged to practice social distancing and isolate at home if possible. Frontline workers, however, were labeled “essential workers” and told to report to work as per usual—even though nothing was as usual.
The reality is that many frontline workers did not feel adequately prepared or equipped to protect themselves while working on the front lines in the middle of a global health crisis. Inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), unclear instructions, and confusion around vaccination policies and public safety standards left many hourly workers feeling frustrated and disillusioned with the whole situation.
For service workers and countless others, working during COVID was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back. In an occupation that already struggled with high turnover, adding a pandemic on top of verbal abuse from customers, long hours, unpredictable shifts, and a lack of opportunity for professional advancement left essential workers questioning whether they wanted to keep working.
As a result, many deskless workers opted for gig work, switched to entrepreneurship, or made a total career change. Additionally, the frontline workforce began to question their focus, prioritizing time with family and friends or giving back to the community. Consequently, many frontline workers shifted their career paths to pursue vocations that were more aligned with their broader goals.
Poor Onboarding Hinders Frontline Work Experiences
There is a strong link between employee onboarding and employee retention that cannot be ignored in the age of the Great Resignation. Subpar onboarding experiences for frontline workers do not set them up for success and often sabotage retention. Essentially, negative first impressions of any organization can push new hires out the door before they even finish training.
In fact, frontline jobs typically have higher turnover rates than office-based roles. Research has found that 50% of hourly employees quit within the first 120 days at a new job. This is a huge loss for employers, which could retain staff—and build employer brand loyalty—if they improve the frontline onboarding process. Remember, a great onboarding experience can boost employee retention by 82%.
For decades, many organizations accepted this as the status quo, and little was done to address the core issues of attrition and improve frontline retention rates. For this reason, the onboarding process for hourly and part-time employees has historically not been as comprehensive as it would be for a full-time office worker. In fact, one in five new hires is unlikely to recommend an employer to a friend or a family member after their onboarding experience.
Common pain points around onboarding frontline employees include:
- Geographic distance and multilingual teams to which communication is not delivered in their native language.
- Turnover for hourly workers is too high to justify the extra investment.
- High numbers of seasonal and temporary employees cause companies to cut corners in their onboarding processes.
- Inefficient processes such as outdated new hire packets, unclear expectations, and incomplete training often leave new hires feeling unprepared to succeed in their roles.
3. Frontline Employees Quit Because of Inexperienced Leadership
Harvard Business Review found that as many as 40% of frontline managers are in the first year of a leadership role. While frontline managers are the lynchpin of an organization, they are often not adequately equipped with the proper tools, budget, or training to excel in their roles—or keep their staff.
This ineffective leadership from frontline managers and even head office was glaringly obvious in times of disruption. At a time when tensions were running high for frontline workers due to working in potentially dangerous environments during a pandemic, civic unrest, and economic uncertainty, frontline workers needed stable, consistent leadership; fair compensation levels; and robust workplace safety policies. Many were let down. This fractured any existing manager-employee relationships or only widened the already growing disconnect between frontline workers and their loyalty to their employer, leading to widespread churn and frontline turnover.
4. Lack of Career Growth Opportunities
In contrast to what some may inaccurately think, frontline workers want more than a paycheck—they want a career.
A recent McKinsey study examined how frontline employees view career advancement, and it showed just how much the frontline workforce values growth opportunities. Key findings of the study included:
- The opportunity for job growth or promotion is an even higher priority for frontline employees than pay or benefits alone.
- Employees desire jobs that make the most of their current skills and allow them to learn and build new ones.
- Compensation, growth through promotion, paid training, and high-value traditional benefits have the largest impact on frontline employee preferences among job profiles.
- Frontline employees are highly motivated. More than 70% of frontline workers who were surveyed have applied for advancement opportunities, but only 40% successfully moved up.
Frontline employers are (slowly) realizing this for themselves. Increasingly global corporations that rely on deskless or hourly workers are highlighting benefits like tuition assistance, management training, and educational benefits on their careers page, aiming to appeal to frontline workers who want to work for organizations that invest in them and their futures.
5. A Growing Disconnect Between Frontline Employees and Their Organizations
There are numerous ways in which the disconnect between frontline workers and their organizations or head office has grown recently. The pandemic only exacerbated poor connections and made them more apparent. Some widespread ways in which frontline workers are often disconnected include:
- Haphazard onboarding, a lack of training, and no clear path to professional development negatively impact the employee experience at the onset of joining the organization.
- Top-down, one-way communication from corporate leaves frontline teams feeling like their needs and ideas go unheard.
- Misalignment around what executives think hourly workers want vs. what they really want intensifies.
- There are no feedback loops in place, so the gap between how frontline employees really feel about their jobs and the perception by management grows wider.
- A lack of training and professional development opportunities causes them to feel disillusioned and “stuck” in their current roles.
These disconnects understandably frustrate frontline employees and lead to disengagement and low productivity. And ultimately, they can undermine their loyalty and negatively affect retention rates.
Frontline Success Equals Business Success
The way companies view their hourly workforce is shifting, and change can’t come quickly enough. As companies face economic uncertainties and staffing and retention shortages, it’s vital they focus on their frontline employees and provide them with the training and support they need to succeed.
The key to surviving these challenges and coming out successfully on the other side is to equip frontline workers with the right technology that empowers, engages, and enables them to do their job to their best ability. Mobile platforms, for example, that foster two-way communication and collaboration strengthen relationships across all levels of an organization and become essential tools for frontline workers. They help them stay informed and connected in one place—whether looking for shift schedules, onboarding, training, pay stubs, tasks, safety checklists, announcements, and more.
If employers are to retain frontline workers—and help them flourish in their roles—it’s important they update their technology solutions, update their onboarding processes, and create a workplace that puts the needs of its people first.
Cris Grossmann is the CEO and co-founder of Beekeeper.