A century ago, academics identified that simply paying attention to the needs of workers improved productivity. These well-known workplace experiments created the term the Hawthorne Effect—the phenomenon that people alter their behavior when they know they’re being watched.
Today, we’re paying careful attention to frontline workers because organizations are facing both challenges in hiring and retaining them as well as improving productivity. There is clearly a critical need to support frontline workers, but first we need to understand these employees.
In this blog post, we’ll define frontline workers, discuss how employers can help their frontline employees grow in their careers, and emphasize the importance of responsible scheduling in keeping frontline employees.
Who are frontline workers?
The Brookings Institute noted early in the COVID-19 pandemic that various definitions of frontline workers have existed but they are essentially a subset of workers who must physically report to their jobs. While Brookings found 50 million people in the U.S. qualify as frontline workers—a majority of the 90 million people employed in America’s essential industries—other sources put the number at 70% of all workers.
Frontline workers are not just a large single group however. An analysis from research firm Econofact shows that this category of essential workers is very diverse—and on average tends to be less educated, have lower wages, and a higher representation of minorities, especially Hispanics, and immigrants.
Frontline workers are essentially a subset of workers who must physically report to their jobs.
In a January 2023 article, SHRM also noted that many frontline jobs are filled by members of low-income families, “disproportionately women, people of color and older than 50. They often work long hours—or not enough hours—and struggle to progress in their careers.”
Ironically, the consulting firm McKinsey did a special report last year highlighting research that shows that despite diverse representation in the frontline ranks, hourly employees are nearly 20 percent less likely than corporate employees to believe that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging policies are effective. At the same time, three of four frontline workers want to be promoted but less than one in four achieves it.
How to support your frontline workers
Why is there a disconnect in opportunity and advancement for this workforce? For many, it’s a lack of on-the-job development and advancement potential in employment organizations themselves, not lack of potential in workers.
There are specific targeted actions companies can take to address this disconnect. These include:
- Formalizing paths for advancement
- Defining the skills frontline workers need for higher level roles
- Overhauling the frontline talent management system.
Giving a voice to frontline workers, or being in tune to what they want and need, is also key to providing the right support.
Interestingly, there is a significant nuance in frontline worker development. To advance careers beyond frontline roles, a study by the Rework America Alliance non-profit showed workers need to develop their skills, particularly soft skills, through experience while on the job and getting more continuous coaching.
To progress careers beyond frontline roles, workers need to develop their skills, particularly soft skills.
This is where we can do a much better job matching aspiration to opportunity. The Harvard Business Review asked who was responsible for the upward mobility of low-wage employees, 53% of employers pointed to the employees themselves. Only 32% said their company had that responsibility. Of the workers surveyed, 33% reported that they were unaware of any opportunity to progress in their organization.
Tools for supporting frontline workers
We can address this disconnect with better scheduling practices: getting the right people in the right place at the right time. This benefits both the employees and their employers by matching skills to tasks that need to be completed, helping to achieve personal goals and opportunities for growth, and meeting business objectives.
Recent academic research shows that implementing “responsible” scheduling practices—addressing inconsistency, unpredictability, inadequacy, and lack of employee control—at retailer The Gap, Inc. resulted in increased store productivity of 5.1%, increased sales of 3.3%, and actually decreased overall labor 1.8%.
At The Gap, implementing “responsible” scheduling practices resulted in increased store productivity, increased sales, and decreased overall labor.
This responsible scheduling approach is more important than ever as research from the Harvard Kennedy School showed that racial and gender inequality in many dimensions of work schedule stability persisted or widened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of waiting for more regulations to address irresponsible frontline scheduling, organizations that largely employ frontline workers have the opportunity to explore the powerful effect time management and scheduling has on both personal satisfaction, mental health and employee engagement, including career development opportunities and advancement, alongside optimizing work output.
Supporting your frontline employees can help your bottom line
The biggest irony is that by being optimally deployed on the front line and gaining experience on the job, frontline workers are in the best position to identify how to solve problems, find new opportunities to serve the customer, and drive innovation. And more diversity there brings more empathy to the customer and ingenuity to solve problems.
In a white paper from Forrester Research, the clear conclusion is if we pay closer attention and support the frontline worker better, we better serve the customer.
Where can you find a bigger win-win from influencing behavior in the workplace for the better than that?