Frontline Workplaces: Experiencing High Turnover? The Cause May Be Your Manager

Feeling supported by their managers is the strongest indicator of a frontline employee’s sense of belonging and desire to stay, according to findings from a Workday-sponsored report. Here’s how companies can enable their frontline managers to foster an engaging employee experience.

It’s no secret that industries with frontline workers are struggling to hire and retain talent. Frontline positions require workers to perform their job in person, which talent may view as a drawback in a competitive labor landscape where many industries offer hybrid or remote work. Cash bonuses and free college tuition are among the incentives businesses have used to attract potential candidates, but lucrative benefits aren’t what entice workers to stay at a workplace.

What does it take to retain frontline talent? It’s the connection and support from their frontline managers. This is a top insight from the Workday-sponsored report “Frontline Workers: How to Connect, Enable, and Support Them in the Modern Workplace.”

Ben Eubanks, head researcher at Lighthouse Research and Advisory and author of the report, says, “We’re seeing this big focus on the value managers bring to those workers, the priority those workers put on that relationship, and how much that worker-manager relationship influences the entire spectrum of how frontline employees feel about the company.”

The report’s findings, based on a survey of 2,000 workers in the U.S. and 1,000 workers from across Australia, Canada, China, India, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK, make it clear that support from frontline managers is vital to creating an employee experience that fosters retention.

In fact, having supportive frontline managers should be a business priority for any company that wants to reduce chronic turnover, an issue that impacts its bottom line. Enabling frontline managers to enhance employee experience is an indicator of high-performing companies, an insight highlighted in another Workday study focused on frontline workforce management. The findings in that study highlight how companies focused on the employee experience are seeing lower frontline turnover than the historical average. 

“The truth is, it’s much harder to hire people these days, and so retention is the other side of that coin,” Eubanks says. “How do we keep our people? The easiest job to fill is the one where you don’t lose the person in the first place.”

Why the Role of Frontline Managers Must Evolve 

From performing administrative work to scheduling staff, frontline managers focus on maintaining daily operations. But as the labor landscape becomes more competitive, companies face a sobering reality: There might not be another person ready to take the job if someone leaves.

“That kind of pressure forces employers to stop thinking just about hiring and start thinking about retention and, ‘How do we connect with these people? And how do we make sure they feel like they truly belong at our organization?’,” Eubanks says.

Enabling frontline managers to enhance employee experience is an indicator of high-performing companies.

The paradigm shift reflects a permanent change across industries, but companies with a large workforce of frontline workers face an acute challenge. Having a typical high turnover rate—as high as 60% in retail, for example—sets up companies with a short runway to demonstrate a culture of belonging. Otherwise, if leaders wait to act until, let’s say, nine months after hiring an employee, the employee most likely will no longer be at the company.

From Eubanks: “Employers are feeling pressure to come earlier and earlier into that employee experience and saying, ‘How can we start showing them some value, demonstrating our commitment to them as early as possible? Because if we don’t, someone else will.’ And employees will jump ship early for that.”

And after coping with unprecedented change and disruption in recent years, frontline workers are emboldened to unabashedly state what they need.

“Overall, the frontline workforce, for a long time, has not had much of a voice,” Eubanks says. “What we found is they’re starting to raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea. Hey, I’ve got this thing that I need. Hey, if I’m going to work for you as an employee, this is what I’m going to expect out of this relationship.’ It’s no longer just a give, give, give relationship, it’s a give-and-take relationship, much like it is in other areas of the workforce.”

And what frontline workers are saying they need the most is support from their managers. 

Consider this finding in the “Frontline Workers: How to Connect, Enable, and Support Them in the Modern Workplace” report: When workers feel supported by their frontline managers, retention significantly improves—as much as 300%.

From the study: “In the raw data, 57% of workers said that their manager regularly supports them, and 80% of those workers were happy in their job. But when we look at the workers that say their manager doesn’t consistently support them, just 20% of them were happy in their job with no plans to quit. A supportive manager can improve a frontline worker’s chances of staying at the company by 300%!"

Frontline managers are in the position to significantly influence employee experience and retention of frontline workers, and consequently, the company bottom line.

Let’s be clear: Supportive frontline managers have always mattered to workers, but managers primarily functioned in a supervisory or a tactical role. Then, as companies began facing a competitive labor landscape and high turnover, managers were being looped into other parts of the business, specifically talent management.

“These managers, they’ve had to become heavily involved in recruiting, retention efforts, training, career development,” Eubanks says. “And so the focus on them as a key point in this relationship has increased.”

What Frontline Workers Want: Manager Feedback

Frontline managers greatly influence employee engagement and sense of belonging in the workplace, but that begs the question: What measures will make the greatest impact on workers? In other words, what do frontline workers need the most from their managers? 

In the study, workers said they need a manager who understands them, starting by recognizing them for doing good work and then regularly interacting with them through one-on-one meetings.

This finding is consistent with the overall guidance of performance management—that steadier, consistent feedback is important for enabling better worker performance.

In fact, numbers tell the story: Of the frontline workers who expect and receive daily or weekly feedback, only 15% of them plan to quit their job. For workers who expect daily or weekly feedback but get feedback monthly or less frequently, they are 2.5 times more likely to quit.

Clearly, managerial feedback impacts the employee experience. However, according to responses in the study, most frontline workers said they aren’t getting manager feedback as often as they want. In other words, no matter if an employee wants performance feedback daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly, their managers aren’t providing feedback at the frequency that makes employees feel supported.

Eubanks says: “Overall, managers who are aligned with how their people want to get feedback and are actually giving it on that same frequency, their people are more likely to have plans to stay at the company.”

Company leaders should select managers based on their demonstration of leadership qualities, such as openness and transparency.

An employee engagement survey, for example, is a way for company leaders and managers to understand their employees. An employee engagement survey gauges the organizational climate of the workplace, such as if an employee feels connected to their work, colleagues, and the wider business. Connection is key, Eubanks says.

“So much of how we feel about our company is tied into that relationship with our manager,” he says. “If there’s a sync between what I expect and what I actually get, people are much happier. They feel like they’re connected, respected, and appreciated at work.”

What Companies Must Do to Support Frontline Managers

Frontline managers are in the position to significantly influence employee experience and retention of frontline workers, and consequently, the company bottom line. But what remains challenging is the lack of investment in developing and training frontline managers to become frontline leaders.

Frontline managers are more likely to be held accountable for sales metrics and proper staffing than receive training on showing support to their teams. That signals a need for all parts of the organization—human resources, business leaders, and managers—to create an environment of empowerment and engagement.

“The relationship changes when we stop fighting against each other and start fighting together for something we both believe in,” Eubanks says. “And in this case, it’s about creating an environment where people can succeed at work, where they can do their best work, where managers aren’t pulling their hair out every day, stressed out beyond belief. We all want to create that, and it’s not about pointing the finger and saying, ‘Managers should do this, or HR [human resources] should give them that,’ but, ‘How do we come alongside each other and support each other?’”

The biggest action companies can do is reevaluating how they select managers. Oftentimes, companies pick managers by seniority. However, company leaders should select managers based on their demonstration of leadership qualities, such as openness and transparency. A poorly placed manager too often equals poor team performance and a revolving door of employees. 

Another impactful action is enabling managers to find out what’s going on with their team. Besides employee engagement surveys, weekly one-to-one meetings between managers and their employees can help build trust and transparency. At times, company leaders have commented that the time spent on weekly meetings would be costly to the business. But Eubanks looked at the actual cost to the business of a manager meeting weekly with an employee for half an hour: less than $2,200 a year. 

Replacing an employee through recruiting and re-training a new hire can cost thousands of dollars more, depending on the skills required for the position. Rising inflation is making the cost even higher.

“Managers, in general, want to do well, but we’re expecting them to do too much, or we’re not giving them the right tools in the beginning, and we’re setting them up for this no-win scenario,” Eubanks says. “I’m hoping that through some of this research, some of these pieces of encouragement, we can help business leaders think about ways to make sure they’re picking the right people to become managers, and developing and giving managers what they need to truly serve their frontline workers well.”

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