Jillian Ogawa: Whenever there's a discussion on the future of work, the topic of frontline workers, meaning employees who need to be physically present for their job, is often at the forefront. In the last couple of years, frontline workers have endured unbelievable pressure and demands. And in response, frontline workers have found their voice, vocalizing their own demands of the workplace. In fact, this group wants the same things as other workers. It's just that companies need to rethink flexibility and other benefits that have been traditionally considered impossible for frontline workers. If companies don't adapt, they risk a revolving door of resignations amid the ongoing tight labor market and rapidly changing economic conditions. I'm Jillian Ogawa, Senior Content Marketing Manager at Workday, and I'm here with Ben Eubanks, Chief Research Officer at Lighthouse Research & Advisory, to discuss redesigning the employee experience for frontline workers. Ben, welcome to the Workday podcast.
Ben Eubanks: Hey, Jillian. So glad to be here. Looking forward to a fine conversation.
Ogawa: So I'd love to start with, can you describe the current business landscape for industries with frontline workers?
Eubanks: Sure. We can pick a lot of adjectives for that: frenetic, harried, challenging, right? [laughter] It's a tough space. So we flash back about a year ago around July 2021, and we started seeing this tremendous demand as the world was starting to open back up from some of the COVID restrictions, things like that. And employers said, “Hey, w– let's bring some people in.” Suddenly, every employer was doing it at the same time, and it created this really intense frenzy for talent. Employers were struggling to bring them in. We started seeing pay rate starting to jump through the roof. And so that sort of has carried on for the last year as employers have tried to figure out, “How can we appeal to these people? What can we do to bring them in?” They are starving for frontline workers on a mass scale. And while we've seen some of the things recently ebbing and flowing with the economy—who knows what's going to happen overall—at the same time as some of those other signals are kind of popping up, I'm still seeing that employers who are doing frontline hiring are still doing it at as fast of a pace, pretty much, as they always have because there's gonna be a shortage for those types of workers. So it's an interesting time to be in, but there's a lot of opportunity, I think, to support and serve this segment of the workforce if employers are willing to put a little time and a little effort into it.
Ogawa: So how are those dynamics affecting frontline workers personally?
Eubanks: Overall, the frontline workforce for a long time has not had much of a voice, right? It's been difficult to tease out what they need from us as employers, what they're looking for, what their priorities are, things like that. And so we just finished this big study where we surveyed thousands of global frontline workers to understand some of those things. And what we find in there is that 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 gonna work for you as an employer, this is what I'm going to expect out of this relationship.” It's no longer just a give, give, give relationship, but it's a give and take relationship, much like it is in other areas of the workforce. It's just that for whatever reason, frontline workers, if– whether they're– we take them for granted, we– or whatever it is, we assume that there's gonna be someone else there available. If this person leaves, we'll find someone else. And the last year, employers have had to realize, “Wait a minute. We can't assume that there's gonna be another person standing behind them ready to take this job if this person leaves.” And that kind of pressure forces employers to stop thinking just about hiring and starting 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? And that requires a little different focus.
Ogawa: What are frontline workers saying they want from their employers?
Eubanks: So the couple things that show up in the data are, number one, flexibility. They're looking for employers that really think about flexibility on a broader scale. And for a long time, flexibility was a conversation that happened for other types of jobs and not for frontline workers. That's a big one. Number two, we're seeing this big focus on the value that managers bring to those workers, the priority those workers put on that relationship, and how much that influences across their entire spectrum of how they feel about the company. And number three, the tools that we offer to frontline workers to help them manage their work experience, to make them feel like they're connected to what's going on, to make them feel like they're in the know so they can take care of things that are HR-related tasks, for example, and still focus their efforts and their time and their creativity on their actual job they're hired to do, those sort of things pop up to the top when we start looking at and across the data for those things that come out, that are big priorities for them right now.
Ogawa: These are all great insights, and I really want to explore each of them more. So I want to start with flexibility. So why is now the time for companies with the frontline workers to rethink and embrace flexibility?
Eubanks: We have seen employers in the last two years that have really opened up what they mean by flexibility, right? For a long time, it might have been, okay, core hours, right? Or something like that. But more employers are saying, “You know what? Maybe you can work remotely. Maybe we can work some sort of hybrid schedule. Maybe we can do X, Y, Z. We can do different things to help create a more flexible work environment for you so that work fits into your life instead of having to fit your life around your work.” And for a long time, the frontline worker, that entire population was shut out of that conversation because there's not a single person right now who's driving a forklift, who's serving someone a meal, who says, “You know what? I'd love to do this from my couch.” Right? That's not a possibility. That's not gonna happen. And so the flexibility conversation comes down to different things when we ask this workforce what they mean. When you ask an HR audience or a business leader audience, we may think it's only about where I'm working when this gets done. But for the workforce themselves, when we ask them that, flexibility means flexibility in when they work, so having some options in their schedules, having some ability to come in earlier, leave later, right, work around whatever family responsibilities they might have. That's a big one. I actually talked with a company recently that has a manufacturing operation, and they actually have what they're calling their parent shift. So from 8:00 a.m. till 2:00 p.m. on weekdays, people can come in and work a reduced schedule, and it allows them to work around time for dropping kids off, picking them up from school, when most companies would not allow that. And this company has said that those people in that shift are more productive than any other shift we have. So some flexibility in the when and the scheduling is so important.
Eubanks: Number two, autonomy. Flexibility in how I work. These workers are saying, “Hey, tell me what I'm accountable for. Tell me what I'm responsible for, but leave the how up to me. Let me have some decisions, some control, some span of authority within the job that I have.” And there are really great examples of how companies are doing that to really empower their frontline workers and give them a little more control in their day. Because we know that when people have more control, more autonomy in their work, they're genuinely more satisfied overall. And it's been hard to give it to that specific segment of workers, though, because a lot of the things they do are structurally rigid or they have safety concerns. And so employers are sometimes worried about, “Well, how do we give autonomy to someone in that kind of job?” But it is possible.
Eubanks: And then last but not least, one of the things we see in the data is that flexibility overall means we are letting you raise your hand and share ideas. Flexibility means we are giving you choices and training and career options. Flexibility means choices and benefits. And there's 100 different ways we can define what this is, and it's not just m-- us arbitrarily deciding that. It's what the workforce is telling us. They're ranking these things as big priorities for them, an individual worker, in what flexibility means to them. And if we are going to attract them, hire them, retain them, as employers, we're gonna need to put some effort and some focus in those kinds of things if we want to stand out from the rest.
Ogawa: I really want to explore that more. So have you seen employers experiment with this kind of innovative flexibility?
Eubanks: Actually, I have a very good friend who works for a large automaker. And one of the challenges they have is when they want to take off from work. They say it's easier to take off an entire day, just call in sick, than it is to get off for just an afternoon in order to go to their doctor's appointments or to pick up a grandchild, you know, in an emergency, things like that. Some of those kinds of things that seem fairly routine, fairly simple, if employers are willing to be a little more open with the flexibility when it comes to scheduling, maybe giving people the ability to swap shifts, maybe giving them and putting the power into the hands of the em-employees, that wraps across not just the when I work, but also the, the how I work, giving them some more autonomy and control in how they manage their schedule and how they can manage the schedules and share with their colleagues, their peers, the people who they work alongside every single day. That's a good example of how some of the more old-fashioned types of running workforce management can actually hamper the ability for people to do the work they're trying to do. Most frontline workers don't wake up in the morning saying, “How can I get the bare minimum done? How can I just, just avoid getting fired today but do nothing more than that?” They want to perform well, and in some cases, the structure or the policy we've put around them to try to help work flow sometimes gets in the way of them actually being able to be productive.
Ogawa: Those are great thoughts on rethinking flexibility for frontline workers. You know, that leads into the second insight that you shared earlier about the role of frontline managers. So I want to touch on the new expectations that frontline workers have for their managers. Can you tell me a bit more about what frontline workers say they need the most from their frontline managers?
Eubanks: So if you don't mind, I'm gonna back up just a step and say this has always mattered. Having a manager that supports you has always mattered. It has always shown up as a key thing that drives people away from a job if they don't have a leader that works well with them. And yet we're seeing a bigger focus on that in the last year because more of these workers are saying, “You know what? I have– I'm tired. I've had it working for people that don't care about me, that don't invest in me, that don't believe in me, that don't support me.” Right? So they are– it's always mattered, but it matters even more now because so many of them have been just fed up with poor leadership. For example, one of the things we see in our data is one of the top reasons for frontline workers ghosting an employer during the hiring process is because they don't see career growth opportunities during the hiring process. They don't see any opportunities or examples of how they're gonna be able to grow their career at the company. They see yet another dead-end job where that manager's gonna put them in. And in some cases, that manager may say, “Hey, guess what? W– don't worry. We'll talk about what's next for you at your mid-year review.” But that frontline worker knows that once they accept the job, they've lost their leverage. They are never gonna be able to force that conversation to happen. Many times, it never will happen. And so they care about things like that. And having a manager who's willing to invest and support them is so, so critical.
Eubanks: The big thing that stands out for those workers who say their manager is not yet supporting them like they want them to be, the number one way they say they can do it is just recognizing them. “Notice me when I do a good job,” which seems like such a low bar, right? Just, just notice when I do well, and le– and let me know you saw it. And yet that's not happening so often that that stands out when that does happen for these workers. That does stand out as a key moment, a key part of their employee experience when a manager says, “Hey, I saw that. I saw what you did. Great job on that. I'm so thankful you're on my team.” It costs them nothing. It takes virtually no time, and yet it stands out for them because they're so used to getting none of that in their jobs. So these sorts of things matter a lot.
Eubanks: One of the other things that really stands out in the data is around frequency of feedback, how often managers engage with their people. It's– what's interesting is when I talk about feedback, talent leaders, business leaders often are like, “Okay, what's the exact golden ratio? What's the number, right? Is it 2.7 pieces of feedback per month or per week? Like, that's– how can we just get the– you know, what's the answer to the test, essentially?” And what I find in the data is that it's not about the spacing, like how often that happens. It's more about the synch. Is this aligned with what that employee actually wants? So if that employee wants to get feedback, wants to engage with their manager on a monthly basis, and they're only getting than on an annual basis, guess what? That's a big thumbs down. They're not gonna feel like they're connected. They're not gonna feel like they have a supportive leader. On the flip side, if they're expecting to get feedback weekly, and they get that, they're much more likely to plan to stay with the company. They're much more likely to say they feel like they belong and are connected. They're more likely to say the company overall is more transparent and equitable. Even though this is just about their manager, so much flows from that relationship that it colors and impacts every other part of how they feel about that work experience.
Ogawa: These are really amazing insights. it sounds really just so simple that workers just need feedback and recognition. And I think that segues to your third point that you mentioned earlier about having the right tools and technology to perform the job. How does technology help create a supporting employee experience?
Eubanks: So overall, the technology that we as employers give our frontline workers influences how they experience and perceive work, right? We talk about employee experience all the time, and this is a key part of that overall experience that they have. If they are a shift worker, how they select or are selected for shifts, how they can swap shifts, is a part of their experience. If they are allowed to or encouraged to give feedback to the business, right? We want to hear what's going on with their manager. We want to hear what ideas you have. If they have those opportunities to share back with the business, that is a part of their employee experience. And so overall, the technology that we're using is either a detractor or an enabler of that overall experience they're having at the company. That said, for some more practical sorts of things, I mentioned tools for helping with scheduling, um, ways that we solicit their feedback, giving them access to online training, right? Again, these are fairly simple examples for employers. And yet we see people– when frontline workers tell us they have access to those kinds of tools, those things to help them manage their work life, they're more likely to feel like the company overall treats them equitably when compared to non-frontline workers or that the company is more open and transparent with them because they have the ability to help manage these things that are key parts of how they interact with Workday today. The company is making that easier. It's making it frictionless. It's making it simpler, right? We could throw in all the buzz words, intuitive, we could throw those things in. But they're overall saying, “Hey, frontline worker, I see you, I know what's important to you, and I'm giving you things that help you take care of the most important parts of your day so that you can get your schedule set, so that you can get paid, so you can take care of your family, right, all those kinds of things.” Employers that are putting the resources into that and making sure they're giving those tools to those people are sending the message that they really do care, and that they want that experience to be a positive one.
Ogawa: These are really great insights coming from your report. And I also wanted to get your take on how receptive you think companies are to these kinds of expectations that frontline workers are saying?
Eubanks: I'll tell you that some of the employers I talk to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but.” Right? They're, they're, they're still stuck in this mindset that I could post a job and have as many workers here tomorrow as I need. And in many cases, that is not the case. Or if you're– if they're showing up, you're gonna pay a lot more for them tomorrow than you did yesterday. So for the employers that are not quite making that decision yet or they're not bought into this yet, they are still operating under that illusion that they can snap their fingers and they can hire anyone else. The truth is, it's much harder to hire people these days. And so retention is the other side of that coin. 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, right? So the ability to do that– those companies that are really focusing on this, that are investing in these types of things we're talking about here, they're saying, “You know, we care about flexibility. We think that it's important to respect the time that these people are willing to give to us as employers but also respect the time they have outside of the hours we're paying them for.” Because guess what? They're real people too. And thankfully, I would say the, the latter, the employers who are willing to do this, who are willing to invest in their people, that is– that is where I'm seeing the majority of companies moving to. But the hard part for them– even if they believe the things we're talking about here and the things we started out the conversation with around flexibility and so on, if those employers believe those things, they don't always know how to support that or how to implement that. And that's why I love this piece of research so much because this is drawn not from our perspective of the world, but from the perspective of the people doing this work every single day, many times, as you've heard, with no thanks, with no appreciation. And we're getting the insights directly from them to help their employers, hopefully, steer in the right direction, make the next right choice to invest in and support the frontline workforce.
Ogawa: I would like to explore that thought about the companies who are “operating under the illusion that they can snap their fingers and they can hire anyone else”. So what is the operational shift that needs to happen so that companies treat frontline workers as adaptable as opposed to disposable?
Eubanks: Many employers today are looking at their overall skill strategies. They're thinking about, “What skills do we have in the business? How do we tap into those? How do we make sure we understand the capabilities of our overall workforce and make sure that's aligned with the direction we want the business to go?” That is a common conversation happening in boardrooms and leadership teams around the world. At the same time, there are some companies that are saying, “Well, you know what? If we've got to reduce our workforce, we'll just let them go, and we'll bring more back later on.” And yet that's expensive. It's time consuming. It's challenging for the people who are left behind because they're thinking, “Okay, am I next?” And so that creates a lot of emotional baggage. What I find is that world-class organizations, ones that are kind of leading the pack when it comes to this, they are prioritizing developing and re-skilling their people into other types or roles, into other types of positions, because they know it costs less, it's less risky, and you're more likely to retain someone if you're giving them a chance to develop different skills that lead them in a direction. That goes back to the autonomy point we talked about earlier where people want to feel like they have some control over their destiny. And if we say, “We want you to join our company,” and then a little while later, we say, “You know what? We want you for a different role, a different position, a different opportunity inside the business,” we're recreating that feeling of being desired all over again. We're not treating people like they are disposable, like we can just throw them away and find some more later on. Because in some cases, you won't be able to.
Ogawa: Those are great points that you made. I’m also curious to find out what can happen if companies ignore the expectations of their frontline workers?
Eubanks: There's a very real cost if you are ignoring some of these things we're talking about here, if you are saying, “We'll put that off. We'll get to that eventually. We've gotta focus on something else now.” Those companies that are doing those kinds of things are finding out that they're still gonna have to make up for that somehow. So instead of offering a solution that allows your people to give feedback back to the employer, or to be able to ask for what their inputs and ideas are, instead of doing that, guess what? You're gonna have to pay them X dollars more an hour to make your workplace look equitable and valuable and treating them like a real person compared to some of the other companies that are doing some of those things. So even if a company says, “We're gonna try to skirt this issue by not providing these tools,” or, “We can get by with not doing this flexibility thing,” someone else who does may be able to offer less money because they're able to support that person with the key things that they're trying to get done without having to pay them as much. And we're seeing in the data, by the way, that even frontline workers are juggling multiple offers. They're looking at different companies at the same time. And that's where they're using things like career opportunities, and growth opportunities. They're using salary transparency. They're using some of those kinds of things as decision points to help them figure out which of those offers they wanna take. And the company that's willing to offer some of these things that help them to manage their work life, to create a more equitable experience for them, those companies are gonna look much more appealing when it comes decision time.
Ogawa: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your latest research on frontline workers. Before we wrap up our chat, I just want to ask you, what are the top three takeaways you want to highlight to our listeners?
Eubanks: Number one, flexibility is so, so critical. Those employers who are willing to do that, especially for frontline workers, in some cases, they've never experienced flexibility in the past. And so offering that is a new and novel and different kind of idea that really excites them and makes them excited about work in a way that they haven't been in the past, potentially. So flexibility is so critical. Empowering and enabling your managers– I know managers get beat up. Managers get– you know, they have a lot of things on their plate. They're stressed. They're struggling. They are burned out just like the rest of us. And yet if we can enable them, we can give them the tools to help understand and support their people in a better way, they are gonna be more capable, that are going to support their people, and we're gonna have the compound interest of a great employee, as I call it, right? Those employees will stick around longer, they'll perform better, they'll be more engaged, and they're more likely to refer others to come and work for the business, which are all benefits that we would all care about.
Eubanks: And then lastly, the technology piece of that. If– it sounds really easy to say just flip a switch. Technology is good. We're– we've solved that problem. We all know there's change management involved and other pieces of that puzzle to make it really work properly. But the same thing on the flexibility side. When you start giving some tools to your people to help them manage their work life, we've found in our research over and over again that when someone says, “I feel like I have more control over my work,” they, interestingly enough, also say that they have more control over their life. And so we're giving them things that help them with this mental health epidemic, right? The stress problems, everything– all those things that are compounding and layering on top of how they feel when they show up at work every day that a pa– are a part of who they are as humans, not just as workers, we are giving them tools to help them manage those things, as well. And that's such a powerful place to be. I talked to an HR leader recently that said they are making more no-regrets changes, more no-regrets investments in their people. And this is an example of that. Even if the person ends up leaving at some point in the future, we've made their life better, not just their work better, but their life better, while they were here with us. And that's something that most of us would not regret.
Ogawa: Thank you so much, Ben, for your time and all these insights you shared.
Eubanks: Absolutely. So glad to be here with you.
Ogawa: We've been talking about redesigning the employee experience for frontline workers with Ben Eubanks, Chief Research Officer at Lighthouse Research. Don't forget to follow us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts, and remember, you can find our entire catalog at Workday.com/podcast. I'm your host, Jillian Ogawa, and I hope you have a great Workday.