How enablement can (finally) unburden managers

Posted on: August 4, 2023Updated on: April 16, 2024By: Alex Kinsella

One of the most significant challenges affecting frontline managers is not a new phenomenon but it’s no less pressing—burnout. According to The Deskless Report 2023, 49% say they feel burned out on a daily basis, which is especially troubling because of the ripple effect this can have on the whole team. Consider that if your frontline managers leave, a level of expertise has churned and there are fewer people left with the necessary experience to deliver on your business goals, which makes mitigating burnout a critical priority.

In this ever-changing workplace, meaningful frontline enablement—lead by the three pillars of learning, communications and operational support—is more necessary than ever to fuel the current and future success of your organization. So what is enablement? Simply put: frontline enablement is the tools, resources and support frontlines need to get things done.

By providing managers with what they need to seamlessly and effectively perform their tasks, they have a better chance of doing what you hired them do to—lead. And if you don’t, there’s plenty to lose.

A manager in a grocery store speaks to a group three associates

Overworked and burned out

Jane Smith (not her real name) was a frontline manager of three stores for a national cellular provider who left the retail industry in May 2023 due to burnout and switched to a new industry. Smith says poor process enablement and a lack of modern technology were partly to blame for the high workloads she and her team experienced.

“We were a high-tech company that still ran most of our processes on DOS-based computers. Everything was F keys. If you forget a step or are having an off day— which everyone does—then you had to go back through and re-open the day, redo the process to fix the mistake and then close again,” says Smith.

It’s easy to see how not properly evaluating what systems are needed to get teams operating efficiently can lead to wasted time, frustration and a discouraged workforce. You can’t expect staff to perform at a high level without the right technology and support.

Proper enablement tools and processes need to take into account how they will be used and by whom to be effective—not to mention financial gain. 

Research from McKinsey found that companies with effective capability-building programs for frontline workers had two times the shareholder return. Why? Because frontline workers are closest to the action, which puts them in a rarefied position: being able to identify and solve significant problems. The value this drives is indisputable and unfortunately, largely untapped. 

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Poor enablement adds extra strain on the frontline

Is frontline enablement really the answer? Researcher, author of “The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It” and happiness expert Jennifer Moss thinks it can be.

“Among the themes that came up [during our research], we found that workload emerged as a major cause of burnout,” says Moss. “But where does the workload come from? A big part of it was that process enablement wasn’t well designed.” 

In the research for her upcoming second book, Moss interviewed over 16,000 employees to understand what issues are driving burnout and what employers can do to address them and asked both preset and open-ended questions to generate qualitative data. The open-ended questions led Moss to dig deeper into the benefits of frontline enablement and the barriers to implementing it properly.

“There’s a significant misalignment between the process and its real-world application,” reveals Moss. “Employees weren’t involved in the design of the process. Instead, it was developed in a silo. Then the people actually using it in the real world were not able to give their feedback on how difficult the process was. It was tedious, it didn’t work and it added all of this extra workload.” 

“Workload is the leading cause of burnout. It was the leading cause before the pandemic, exploded during it, and it will be the leading cause forever—that’s why it’s the first thing we should be tackling,” continues Moss. “We need to make sure the people using the tools and processes are involved in the discussions at the start. That’s how they will execute better. That’s how they’ll diminish workload, and then inevitably, they’ll reduce burnout.”

Smith agrees that having clear way to track and measure tasks and assignments would have alleviated much of her day-to-day stress on the floor.

“If I had a system to perform a checklist, that absolutely would have made my life 10 times easier,” she says.

When ‘Just figure it out’ doesn’t cut it

An excessive workload is one of the six root causes of burnout Moss identified through her research, along with a perceived lack of control, lack of recognition, poor relationships, lack of fairness and a mismatch in values between frontline employees and their employers.

Lack of control was one that Moss kept hearing about, highlighting how transparent communication is needed to give back a sense of autonomy to managers so they can perform.

Frontline enablement works best when managers are empowered with the knowledge to make decisions for their teams.

“Frontline managers play a major role in that communication,” says Moss. “They are often sandwiched in by these big decisions that are made at the top, and then they have to play this dual role of being able to take all that information and execute it, and then getting their employees to be excited, engaged and energized about it,” she continues.

Smith knows this all too well, saying she often found herself in situations where she didn’t have everything she or her team needed to properly serve their customers. Some of the most challenging situations bubbled up during big launches, like when new smartphone models hit the market, where adequate training and clear communication was sorely lacking.

“We didn’t have the information, even though it was part of our job to know what these new products were. There was someone from the manufacturer who would come in to give us some training, but that was one person going to 30 to 40 different stores,” says Smith. “We felt like when a new phone was released, the message was ‘Just figure it out.’”

Making enablement meaningful—and continuous

One thing Moss says employers need to remember when implementing an enablement strategy is that it’s an ongoing process that should evolve based on feedback from the frontline. She adds that managers need to feel comfortable raising their hands and alerting leadership if their team is under-resourced or the workload is too high and be confident that the issue will be addressed.

“That’s how you come up with game plans to reduce the overload,” she offers. “It’s not just the overload, it’s the overwhelm. Frontlines aren’t just overloaded with work. They’re also overwhelmed because things are moving fast or they need to be reskilled or upskilled. Frontline managers need to be able to identify those gaps and handle that as needed.”

Frontline managers want to do their best work but you can’t expect people to stay at a job where they feel unsupported, overwhelmed or burned out.

Meaningful enablement strategies can translate to personalized employee learning paths that leverage AI, machine learning and scientifically-vetted methods to standardize and automate onboarding and training processes, helping to reduce admin strain on managers. Information-sharing becomes much more streamlined so managers aren’t stuck as communication bottlenecks, which frees them up to focus on leading their teams. And making a tangible enablement investment shows that your company is prioritizing and empowering your most valuable asset: your people.

Alex Kinsella

Alex Kinsella is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Kitchener, Ontario. Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, The Community Edition, Grand Magazine and more.

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