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When the grass is truly greener: How companies are retaining frontline talent

Our research suggests that nearly half of employers are not experiencing higher turnover than in previous years. What are they doing differently to better retain their talent?
Matt Fenton

Advises organizations on talent, operating model, and culture topics, helping build strategies to accelerate impact and drive sustained business performance

Neel Gandhi

Advises leading organizations on how to strengthen their talent-management capabilities and build an HR function that operates as a true strategic partner and value driver for the business

Taylor Lauricella

Advises organizations on a range of culture and talent topics with particular expertise in driving behavior change at scale through capability building, cultural transformation, and digital solutions

In our previous post, we defined five strategies companies can employ to enhance attraction and hiring of frontline talent. However, getting candidates into the organization is just the first step—it is equally, if not more, important that companies focus time and energy on retaining frontline talent once in the door.

According to recent research on the Great Attrition, 53 percent of employers said they are experiencing greater voluntary turnover than seen in previous years, and 64 percent expect that this problem will continue or worsen over the next six months. While these numbers are higher than years past, they also suggest nearly half of employers are not experiencing higher turnover and over a third do not believe turnover will worsen. This begs the question: What are these employers doing differently to better retain their talent?

To arrive at an answer, we conducted a series of analyses, surveys, and interviews of frontline workers across industries and roles—from truck drivers to salespeople—to understand what factors most directly influenced retention. While dimensions that mattered most across employee populations varied, five common themes stood out among organizations most effective at retaining frontline talent:

  1. They energize employees through meaningful work. Employees most likely to stay with an organization are those who consistently find meaning and enjoyment in their work. When a group of truck drivers were asked why they stay in their current role, one driver responded, “I love driving, and this job allows me to do that, travel, and meet new people.” Having a sense of meaning creates more fulfilled, and ultimately happier, employees.
  2. They invest early in relationship development with coworkers and managers. Employees that reported strong relationships with both their coworkers and their managers were more likely to stay with their current company. An advanced industrials company found that plants with high leadership scores also saw higher retention rates among frontline workers. In plants with lower retention, focus groups revealed strained relationships between leaders and peers. Foster relationships early to build strong bonds over time.
  3. They promote a culture of development. Employees who feel they have opportunities to grow and develop reported being more likely to stay. When a sales organization implemented a mentorship program that helped their frontline with career pathing, they saw a double-digit increase in the retention percentage of salespeople.
  4. They provide the resources and environment to balance stress and well-being. Employees likely to stay reported being equipped with what was needed to successfully do the job, manage stress, and navigate work-life challenges. In a round-table session with truck drivers, one noted that the main reason they intended to leave was that “hours are excessively long, which make it impossible for me to manage my personal life, work life, and health.” It is critical organizations find a balance between work and well-being.
  5. They motivate with both financial and non-financial incentives. While salary unsurprisingly emerged as an important retention driver, non-financial rewards and recognition were also found to be critical. During focus groups at an international distribution company, operators noted that lack of appreciation was one of the main reasons people left the organization. “We need to be recognized for a job well done,” one employee cited. “When this doesn’t happen, we feel undervalued and demotivated.” This demotivation often leads to attrition.

Retaining (and attracting) frontline talent is more challenging than ever. Getting it right means balancing both “hygiene” factors—basic employment features, such as compensation and working conditions—with “motivators”—elements that motivate employees to stay, such as positive peer relationships. Organizations that do this well will see their talent stay longer and have a distinctive advantage over competitors.

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