Empower the front line for a thriving organization

As organizations quickly pivoted to and, in some cases, struggled to adapt to remote work in response to the pandemic, 80 percent of the workforce—the front line—was all but forgotten. Essential workers were expected to accept the inherent hardships. Additional flexibility and work-from-home options provided to some corporate workers exacerbated the divide. Although the Great Attrition has slowed, the trend to underinvest in the front line continues.

Based on recent MGI research, organizational performance can no longer mean surviving; the goal must be thriving. Rethinking the skilled frontline talent lifecycle, focusing on the following four areas, offers an antidote to the complex challenges of today’s labor environment and can help build a competitive advantage.

  1. Hire for truly required skills, not outdated resume requirements. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 70 million individuals who have attained valuable skills through community college, workforce training, bootcamps, certificate programs, military service, or on-the-job learning. Far too often, these workers are not eligible for roles based on stringent, sometimes outdated criteria, such as college degree requirements. Tearing the ‘paper ceiling’ reveals talent that is often overlooked, widens selection pools to more diverse and non-traditional candidates, and supports driving upward mobility for millions of workers.

    Our research on skills-based hiring supports the importance of identifying relevant skills for a position and making hiring decisions based on whether an individual’s experiences align to those needs. For instance, a U.S.-based company identified manual dexterity and attention to detail as critical skills needed for manufacturing high-end lenses. The company then hired a mix of sushi chefs and nail manicurists—individuals with the critical skills needed, despite coming from non-traditional backgrounds for the role.

  2. Give frontline labor the competitive compensation and flexibility currently offered to the white collar. Companies that excel at creating strong value propositions look past the contractual nature of frontline roles. Many embed flexibility into their operations to build value propositions that better support frontline workers. Employers are also placing a broader emphasis on employee well-being and more competitive compensation packages. Those that prioritize purpose, belonging, pride, good leadership, and positive working conditions tend to see more discretionary effort and stronger engagement with their front line.

    In one example, a multinational investment bank announced that it would offer restricted stock to its employees, including frontline workers who earn up to a certain threshold per year. The value of the stock award is substantially greater than cash bonuses previously offered and represents a way that companies can foster greater employee ownership in incentive structures.

  3. Provide bite-size capability building for a high return on a relatively low investment. Capability building to improve skills, knowledge, and behaviors can transform how people do their jobs, and the lessons imbued can range from basic (e.g., how to improve written communication) to complex (e.g., how to plan and execute projects more effectively). Companies that develop and empower their frontline management with increased flexibility around decision making, creative thinking, and time to coach team members typically enjoy stronger operational and financial performance.

    One retail warehouse chain focused on its people development objectives through delivering bite-size learnings to thousands of frontline store associates on handheld devices. This delivery method allows store associates to apply learnings in real time while on the store floor in front of customers. The company also developed a tiered training program to upskill workers. Cake decorating for bakery workers and knife skills for butchers are among the skills taught in lower levels of the program, while budgeting and financial acumen are among those emphasized in higher levels.

  4. Give frontline workers avenues to management jobs. Our survey of frontline workers underscores the importance of talent advancement as a key ingredient in sustaining an energized and engaged frontline workforce. For this population, job growth is viewed as an even higher priority than pay or benefits alone—and is significantly more important to employees than employers think. Most frontline employees would rather stay and grow with their current employer than pursue external roles.

    Career development via formalized career paths, job rotations, or secondments are key avenues that organizations can consider. A multinational retail corporation, for example, recently introduced a program allowing recent college grads and current students within 12 months of graduating to be placed on a two-year fast track to becoming a store manager. Hundreds of college graduates applied to the inaugural program, which will represent a new pipeline for the company to develop high-potential store managers.

Building and retaining a robust pipeline of talent is vital to sustaining a high-performing enterprise in a rapidly evolving economy. However, we often see talent management over-index on executives and leadership. While these groups are indeed critical, cultivating a strong culture for talent must involve deeper participation of the entire organization, including its core value creators—frontline workers.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice