I stopped at a 7-Eleven the other night. While my cashier rang me up I asked him if he was getting off work soon. His response? “Soon, hopefully. I’ve been here since 2 pm. My shift ends in an hour, but we’ll see if the night shift shows up. Sometimes I’m stuck here until 2 or 3 in the morning.”
I was stunned by his nonchalant tone in how he conveyed this information. Like he had accepted his fate of never knowing for sure when he got off work. The unpredictability of his schedule had become an accepted norm that just came with the job. Can you even imagine an office worker casually telling you, “Maybe I’ll be stuck here until 3 in the morning. Sometimes it happens. We’ll see.”
“Quiet quitting,” absenteeism, and ghosting have become common business challenges that companies with large populations of frontline workers are all too familiar with. While staffing has always been a pain point in frontline-majority industries, widespread labor shortages have become a major blocker, and the problematic ripple effects impact everyone — especially the frontline workers still in the labor pool who are often left holding the bag.
We have now reached a tipping point. Hourly workers are still leaving jobs at record-breaking levels, and there remain more open roles than job seekers.
So what happened? How did we get here?
Let’s take a deep dive into the complex, (and somewhat controversial) reasons why frontline workers are quitting in such high numbers.
1) Frontline Workers Have Post-Pandemic Burnout
In the midst of a global pandemic, where the public was being urged not to leave their homes and limit interaction with other people, frontline employees were given the nebulous and often unclear title of “essential workers.”
The reality is that many frontline workers did not feel fully prepared or equipped to protect themselves while working through a pandemic. Inadequate PPE, unclear instructions, and confusion around vaccination policies and public safety standards left many hourly workers feeling frustrated and disillusioned with the whole situation.
The podcast This American Life captured this sentiment in an episode called “Essential.” Shelly Ortiz, a food service worker who left the restaurant industry during the pandemic says,
“Thousands of people are dying right down the road at the hospital. And I’m here serving your margarita because I have to. Because I have to live.”
She goes on to say,
“I definitely saw my job differently with my COVID goggles for sure. That is what made it really ugly for me.”
For service workers like Shelly, and countless others, working during COVID was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back. In an occupation that already struggled with high turnover, adding a pandemic on top of verbal abuse from customers, long hours, unpredictable shifts, and a lack of opportunity for professional advancement, essential workers like Shelly decided it “just wasn’t worth it.”
“Now, all our recent studies on health workers and other frontline workers suggest that burnout is increasing, anxiety is increasing, and so we expect that the rates are going to kind of stay high for public servants for a while,” said Elizabeth Linos, a behavioral scientist at University of California, Berkeley.
2) Hourly Workers Often Have a Subpar Onboarding Experience
Often companies launch retention programs aimed at improving life for existing employees, and overlooking gaps in their onboarding process as a result.
The reality is that there is a strong link between employee onboarding and employee retention that cannot be ignored in the age of The Great Resignation.
Frontline jobs typically have higher turnover rates than office-based employees. For decades, many organizations accepted this as the status quo and little was done to address the core issues of attrition and improve frontline retention rates.
For this reason, the onboarding process for hourly and part-time employees has historically not been as comprehensive as it would be for a full-time office worker.
Common pain points around onboarding frontline employees include:
- Geographic distance makes comprehensive, in-person onboarding too difficult
- Turnover for hourly workers is too high to justify the extra investment
- High numbers of seasonal and temporary employees cause companies to cut corners in their onboarding processes
- Inefficient processes: Outdated new hire packets, unclear expectations, and incomplete training often leaves new hires feeling unprepared to succeed in their roles
The Link Between Onboarding and Retention
A negative first impression of a company can push new hires out the door before they even finish training.
- 50% of hourly employees quit within the first 120 days at a new job
- One in five new hires is unlikely to recommend an employer to a friend or a family member after their onboarding experience
- A great onboarding experience can boost employee retention by 82%
- According to Gallup, only 12% of workers think their companies do a good job of onboarding
3) Many Frontline Workers Quit Because They Don’t Like Their Boss
Frontline managers are the lynchpin of an organization. Oftentimes they are not adequately equipped with the proper tools, budget, or training to excel.
Boston Consulting Group researchers found last year in a survey of hourly U.S. workers in the retail, distribution, travel, and food service industries that while compensation and COVID-19-related reasons were the biggest reasons for turnover, next on the list was a bad relationship with their boss.
At a time when tensions were running high for frontline workers (working during a pandemic, civic unrest, and constant economic uncertainty tends to have that effect) frontline workers needed stable, consistent leadership to look to for guidance.
Many frontline teams were left without the support and leadership they needed from their direct supervisors. These fractured relationships only served to widen the already-growing disconnect between frontline workers and their loyalty to their employers. So they left.
Pro tip: Set your frontline managers and team leads up for success. A mobile platform like Beekeeper can significantly boost communication and help build relationships within the organization.
4) Frontline Workers Grew Frustrated by the Lack of Career Growth Opportunities at Their Current Company
Many frontline workers want a career — not just a paycheck.
A recent study by McKinsey that examined frontline employees’ perspectives on career advancement revealed just how important opportunities for growth are to these workers.
Key findings of the study included:
- The opportunity for job growth or promotion is an even higher priority for frontline employees than pay or benefits alone
- Employees desire jobs that make the most of their current skills and allow them to learn and build new ones
- Compensation, growth through promotion, paid training, and high-value traditional benefits have the largest impact on frontline employee preferences among job profiles
- Frontline employees are highly motivated. More than 70% of frontline workers that were surveyed have applied for advancement opportunities — but only 40% successfully moved up
This is why we’re seeing more global corporations that rely on hourly workers highlighting hiring benefits like tuition assistance, management training, and educational benefits on their careers page. Check out McDonald’s restaurant jobs page to see an example of this trend in action.
5) Frontline Employees Feel Disconnected from the Rest of the Company
“Many brands assume it’s all about pay — which is an expensive and incorrect assumption to make. There is so much more at play. We’ve found that very few organizations properly engage their employees, and collect and act on meaningful feedback. The typical management team at a Global 1000 is completely in the dark on what matters to their frontline workers.”Dan Johnston, co-founder, and CEO of WorkStep (and a former warehouse manager)
The general topic of frontline disconnect is complex and complicated. But it generally follows this pattern in many organizations:
- Haphazard onboarding, a lack of training, and no clear path to professional development negatively impact the employee experience at the onset of joining the organization
- Top-down, one-way communication from corporate leaves frontline teams left feeling like their needs and ideas go unheard
- Misalignment around what executives think hourly workers want vs. what they really want intensifies
- No feedback loops in place so the gap between how frontline employees really feel about their jobs, and the perception of morale by management grows wider
- Lack of training and professional development opportunities cause them to feel disillusioned and “stuck” in their current roles
- Frontline workers ultimately get frustrated and burned out causing them to seek other opportunities
- Frontline workers quit
Frontline Success Is Critical to Business Success
We are witnessing a fundamental shift in how companies view the hourly workforce. To overcome current staffing and retention shortages, it’s more important than ever to prioritize the needs of frontline employees and give them the training and support they need. And it all starts with a winning onboarding experience.
Building a frontline workforce that’s empowered, engaged, and enabled with the right technology will be key to ensuring success and surviving the challenges brought on by the labor shortage.