Workday Study: Does Your Approach to Workforce Management Fit the New Frontline Experience?

New research from Workday, based on a survey of senior executives across multiple industries, shows how leading organizations are breaking the costly cycle of frontline employee turnover. Our study also provides a blueprint for managing the evolving needs of a frontline workforce.

All eyes have been on frontline workers. During the pandemic, they were praised as heroes for continuing to show up at their jobs that put them at risk of exposure. From healthcare to retail and more, frontline workers have been critical to their surrounding communities. Eventually, these same sectors—which employ a large number of frontline workers—began experiencing the highest quit rate of workers amid already historic levels of people leaving their jobs.

Frontline workers are quitting for the same reasons as employees in other sectors: They are prioritizing nonmonetary things such as flexibility over simply just having a job. But due to the demanding nature of industries with a large number of frontline workers, these organizations tend to focus on mitigating the quit rate by hiring more rapidly—instead of addressing what frontline workers really need.

All eyes remain on frontline workers, but now, forward-looking organizations are listening to them to gain a better understanding of what they truly value—critical to breaking the costly cycle of turnover and missed targets, such as not having enough workers to cover all shifts or declining customer satisfaction scores.  

Uncovering What’s Critical in Frontline Workforce Management

In partnership with Financial Times company Longitude, we surveyed more than 500 senior executives across healthcare, hospitality, manufacturing, and retail to understand how successful organizations are managing and retaining frontline workers. A majority (56%) said they’re grappling with frontline employee turnover that’s higher than the historical average, and 49% believe the historic rate of frontline employee turnover will be greater in the coming year, even amid fears of higher inflation or a recession. 

But despite the foreboding sentiment, a small but mighty group of organizations—which consisted of 11% surveyed—is breaking the costly cycle, experiencing a frontline turnover that is lower than the historical average.

We call these organizations “Frontline Leaders.” They are experience-makers, meaning they regard the worker experience as critical in managing and retaining their frontline workforce. For example, 56% value frontline employee experience as highly as customer experience (compared to 46% of companies overall), and 58% regard frontline workers as valuable as office workers while only 45% of overall companies feel the same way.

“An engaged frontline worker will give energy to the role that a disengaged one will not. If they get excited around the customer or they want to go above and beyond for that customer, that is absolutely going to impact our customer satisfaction scores,” said Jude Reser, vice president of human resources at Atrium Hospitality.

“People who run businesses need to have their frontline workers staff their business. But, if they’re not sensitive to their frontline workers as human beings, they may not have a large enough workforce to do business at all.”

Mark Cohen Director of Retail Studies Columbia Business School

Managing Frontline Workers: Focus on Empathy and Empowerment

The results of our survey with senior executives are covered in the report “Empathy and Empowerment: the New Frontline Experience.”

Stemming from the data in the survey, we defined the frontline worker experience as “the combined effect of the interactions of any employee who must be physically present to carry out their role within their organization.” 

These are the five main characteristics of Frontline Leaders. As experience-makers, their actions show that they are trying to make the frontline worker experience a better, more empathetic one:

  1. They empower their frontline workers with more control and flexibility.
  2. They invest in employee-first tools and tech.
  3. They rely on data insights to inform and improve employee experience.
  4. They are focused on frontline workers’ development and wellbeing.
  5. They listen to their frontline workers’ wants and needs.

Industries with a large number of frontline workers operate with urgency since many frontline workers are essential in maintaining much of the basic infrastructure of modern society. But rapid hiring and financial incentives, meant as a fix, are just perpetuating the costly cycle of frontline employee turnover. Instead, Frontline Leaders in our study focused on the impact of turnover beyond costs and are taking concrete steps to remedy high turnover. 

“It’s become quite evident that sensitivity to your workforce is more mission critical than ever before,” says Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “People who run businesses need to have their frontline workers staff their business. But, if they’re not sensitive to their frontline workers as human beings, they may not have a large enough workforce to do business at all.”

Building the New Front Line

Our report gives a blueprint for designing an employee experience for the new front line. For example, the ability to quantify the value of an engaged frontline worker is foundational to improving frontline worker retention. A majority of Frontline Leaders (60%) say data helps them evaluate the frontline worker experience, compared with 46% of organizations overall. And Frontline Leaders want more data. Roughly about the same number of Frontline Leaders (65%) say better access to quality data insights will improve their frontline workforce management, compared with 48% of organizations overall.

Flexibility is another piece of the blueprint. The top-down approach to scheduling workers—where employees have zero control over their working hours—is becoming a relic. Flexibility has become a must-have for all employees, and Frontline Leaders prioritize providing control and flexibility to employees over work schedules. In fact, for Frontline Leaders flexibility is second only to salary incentives as a workforce management strategy.

“Up until the onset of COVID-19, many employers had become increasingly aggressive in scheduling frontline workers to suit their forecast demand,” says Cohen. “But people cannot be living on a 48-hour cycle of change. Now, employers are doing everything they can possibly do to make it convenient for their workers to remain employed.”

As David Morrell, director of benefits at Albany Med Health System, succinctly describes our current moment: “The pandemic has led so many people to think deeply about what is most important to them—and, for many, it’s the desire to make a difference at work and at home. There is a huge strategic advantage to nurture that balance, too—employers will save money, improve morale, and increase their ability to recruit and retain.”

For more insights on managing a frontline workforce and lowering turnover, read our report “Empathy and Empowerment: the New Frontline Experience.”

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