Businesses need different kinds of employees. But frontline workers are one of the largest employment demographics in a lot of sectors. These so-called “deskless workers” are the backbone of many industries. So, if you want to succeed, you need to know how to manage frontline workers effectively.

Today, we want to talk about how best to support frontline workers. It’s all about recognizing their impact on your organisation and giving them a voice. But what are frontline workers exactly?

Well, “frontline worker” is a very broad term by design. In a lot of cases, it’s what you might call “blue collar” work. Although that term is a bit dated, and technically inaccurate. Really, it’s any non-office-based role that still requires working from a specific location. That can even include aspirational “white-collar” professions like being a doctor.

Frontline workers perform the ground-level tasks that enable a given business to function. Quite often, these roles involve customer service or interaction with members of the public. For example:

  • Retail work
  • Hospitality (pubs, restaurants, etc)
  • Transport personnel (bus drivers, train conductors, etc)
  • Teachers
  • Medical and care personnel (doctors, nurses, paramedics, orderlies, etc)

But there are also some frontline workers that aren’t in public-facing roles, such as:

  • Maintenance work
  • Factory work
  • Packaging/shipping facilities (such as Amazon’s fulfillment centers)

The modern workplace is increasingly tech-driven. But, quite often, frontline workers lack regular computer access at work. And it’s important for HR to bear that in mind when setting communication policies.

Why your deskless employees are so vitally important to success

As we’ve pointed out, frontline staff are the people doing the things that whole businesses are founded on. They’re plumbers. Fast-food workers. Care-home staff. Pharmacists, and truck drivers.

Their efforts are what everything else gets built upon. But, if that’s not enough for you, there are plenty of other reasons why these employees matter. Reasons why you’ll never succeed if you don’t know how to manage frontline workers properly.

Frontline workers are usually your customer facing staff

Frontline workers are the face of your business. Public-facing employees take point on delivering customer experience as ambassadors for your brand. As such, not knowing how to manage frontline workers stands to massively impact your bottom line.

Unfortunately, the stats for people in customer-facing roles don’t look good. Just take a look at these stats from Harvard Business Review. 55% of executives agree it’s impossible to provide good customer experience without focusing on the employee experience. But only 22% of those surveyed are actually making employee experience one of their top five business priorities.

They’re the largest employment demographic for many businesses

The exact balance of employees you’d need to hire depends entirely on the sort of business you’re running. But, for many, a majority of roles can be categorized as frontline. Approximately 2.7 billion people are estimated to be in frontline employment worldwide. This accounts for roughly 80% of the global workforce (which totals approximately 3.32 billion people).

In other words, mismanagement of this vast section of the employee population can be disastrous. Despite this, a lot of workplace culture discourse tends to focus on office culture as the norm. And, if the vast majority of your employees don’t have a seat at the table with their needs represented, you’re likely to incur a lot of turnover. Speaking of which…

Replaceable in quantity maybe, but less so in quality

It seems like people are more likely than ever to pick up and find work elsewhere. The Great Resignation saw millions start looking for greener pastures. And a lot of frontline roles have high turnover at the best of times. Customer service roles in particular. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees aged between 20 and 34 spent roughly a year on average in a customer service role.

A lot of frontline work is condescendingly viewed as “unskilled.” As such, employers tend to undervalue their frontline staff. And that’s a huge mistake. Good customer service is a matter of confidence and emotional intelligence. But it also requires a good knowledge of the product or service being sold. These are vital skills on any level of a business, and yet for frontline workers, their value goes unrecognized.

Frontline workers are often a challenge for HR

So much workplace discourse has traditionally focused on office life. And what works for one group of employees won’t always work for the other. Frontline workers have their own obstacles that HR must help them with. They have some of these in common with remote workers. But there are pressures faced by deskless employees that office and remote-based staff never have to consider.

Frontline workers are less visible

The first HR challenge for how to manage frontline workers is improving their visibility. And that might sound surprising, given that they can be some of your most public-facing staff members. But what we’re talking about is organisational visibility.

Your average customer service rep in a big chain might get a lot of face-time with customers. But they’re several degrees removed from the corporate office responsible for setting policies. And that’s not even getting into the frontline roles that aren’t public-facing.

The problem is, people are susceptible to bias in their jobs. Even the most well-meaning CEO. Proximity bias is when we favour people and ideas that originate closer to us. And it goes some way to explaining why office-based work culture gets the most focus, even though the majority of employees are frontline workers.

Frontline workers often have less of a voice

As a consequence of being less visible to higher-ups, frontline workers struggle to make themselves heard. Meta conducted a survey of C-Suite executives and frontline workers, totaling over 8,000 participants. The results show a huge divide between how both parties perceive their relationship. 99% of C-Suite leaders believe their frontline staff trust them. In reality, only one in four frontline workers reported complete trust in their employer to be transparent.

And that’s not all. 71% of C-Suite leaders believe their organisation supports mental health on the frontline. But 70% of their frontline employees reported suffering from burnout or being at risk of it. Over half expressed a desire for more PTO, as well as more time off in general, to help combat burnout.

And they can be less in-the-know

Meta’s survey found clear trust issues between frontline staff and their C-Suite leaders. Only 55% of frontline workers felt connected to their organisation’s HQ. And 51% felt they were seen as less important than office-based counterparts. So, it’s no surprise that they feel out of the loop. For HR leaders, it’s about developing communication channels that are accessible by everyone. Not just those working from a computer.

And, a lot of the time, that’s unfortunately what it comes down to. It’s always easier to stay informed working from an office (or even remotely). Working at a computer puts so much at your fingertips. It’s easy to fire off an email, check your team’s Asana board, or hop into a virtual meeting.

By comparison, frontline workers usually don’t have access to a computer. And sure, everyone has a smartphone these days. But a lot of frontline workers are discouraged from checking or even carrying their phone on-duty.

Frontline employees can feel that they have fewer opportunities for development

It’s a sad reality that frontline work in a lot of sectors comes with fewer opportunities for advancement. In terms of how to manage frontline workers, changing this is an essential step. Sticking with that Meta survey for a bit longer, 43% believe their current role has no opportunities for career development.

Think about it. Let’s say you work in retail. In time, you might eventually end up the manager of your branch if the position opens up. But, working in the head office, you’ll be in departments that influence every location across the country. And you’re working directly with the people heading up those departments. Remember what we said about proximity bias?

Your frontline staff often suffer a comparative lack of recognition

This ties back to a lot of frontline workers being seen as expendable or unskilled. As a result, employers devalue their contributions despite the fact that frontline workers make business possible. McDonald’s couldn’t sell fast food without people flipping burgers. Amazon couldn’t deliver sell and deliver goods without its army of delivery drivers and fulfillment workers. We could keep going, but you get the idea.

In order to truly have a culture of recognition in your business, it has to affect every level of your organisation. That’s one of the main HR challenges of how to manage frontline employees.

It may be the last HR challenge on our list. But we see recognition as the crux of the problems faced by frontline workers. The question is, how do you enable recognition for staff who have fewer opportunities for interaction?

How to manage frontline workers successfully

We’ve laid out the key issues and the stats behind them. But it’s time to stop bemoaning the challenges involved and start looking at solutions. So, here are our best HR tips for how to manage frontline workers in your organisation.

Check in with your frontline workers frequently

Frontline workers may not spend much time on computers. But who ever said you needed a computer to submit an employee check-in?

All our check-in’s features are available through our mobile app. And it only takes a few minutes to submit an update, meaning there’s no disruption to employee schedules. Our check-ins make it a breeze to keep track of employee engagement and wellbeing. They’re even completely personalized to show your frontline workers that they matter.

A wide range of question types allow HR to collect a rich blend of qualitative and quantitative info. This sentiment data, gathered on a weekly basis, provides a real-time view of frontline employee engagement. Speaking of question types…

Encourage frontline employee recognition

Recognition is one of our most important question types. It’s one you can’t afford to ignore if you want to know how to manage frontline workers.

Employees can use @ to tag any of their colleagues with a Zensai profile. These mentions allow you to offer kudos when someone is helpful or goes the extra mile.

The best thing about peer recognition is that it’s self-perpetuating. Getting recognized encourages you to offer recognition to others yourself. It’s useful, not just for connecting frontline workers with each other, but also for breaking down the divide between them and office-based staff.

Support frontline staff wellbeing

Employee wellbeing has been one of the hot-button workplace issues of the last few years. And that’s great. But that means it’s doubly important for frontline workers. Between higher rates of workplace hazards, and high levels of burnout, something must be done. And HR are the ones to do it.A check-in is a great first step. But it can only identify the issues affecting your people. It’s on you to actually do something about them. Meta’s survey showed a lot of frontline workers want more time off, paid time off especially. But there are plenty of things your people might want, such as:

  • Safer work environments
  • Better compensation
  • Flexibility options (even if remote work is off the table)

Enable frontline employee career development

When it comes to adding new career-paths into your business, there aren’t any simple answers. But, if you want to know how to manage frontline workers, career development is part of that. Don’t forget that your frontline veterans are valuable wells of knowledge and experience.

For one thing, you could promote people to be consultants or knowledge specialists. Unlike HQ-based leaders, frontline workers have firsthand knowledge of what their workplaces are really like. But that’s not your only option.

Don’t forget that investing in employee education is one of your best ways for cultivating and keeping top talent. By upskilling your frontline workers, you can give them more options for their career. Upskilling is a long-term investment that plays a key role in long-term succession planning.

And, finally, remember the value of employee mentorship. Whether you recognize it or not, some frontline workers excel more than others. And those are the people who can push others onto new heights. Mentorships can even benefit the mentor just as much as the mentee.

So, there you have it. Those are our tips for how to manage frontline employees. And you might think it sounds easy. But frontline workers consistently get the short end of the stick in a lot of industries and sectors. If you want to keep them around, your HR policy has to be better.