4 proven ways to promote a more inclusive work environment

Posted on: May 24, 2023Updated on: April 16, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

In today’s complex and multi-faceted frontline work environments, organizations need to make and maintain a company-wide, authentic, long-term commitment to ensure every employee from warehouse associates to restaurant and hospitality staff, feels respected, included and valued. If not, they risk being left in the billowing “diversity dishonesty” dust where DEI becomes nothing more than a public-facing buzzword.

To dig deeper into what’s working—and what isn’t—when it comes to frontline inclusion and enablement, we recently partnered with RedThread Research on a new report that polled over 500 employees and 50 leaders from a wide range of industries and job functions.Here’s what the Getting Real About the Frontline Workforce revealed about how organizations can better provide work environments that motivate, engage and help employees feel included.

Resized Axonify Grocery Associates Belonging

How organizations can address challenges to frontline motivation, engagement and inclusion

According to the report, 47% of frontline workers don’t feel a sense of belonging at their organization, and based on their feedback, identified four significant ways that companies can increase an all-important sense of inclusion and recognition at work:

 1. Give back to the communities your organization is in

Show that you’re making a long-term effort to build trust, brand reputation and community influence by giving back to the communities you serve. 

Foster a culture of giving by starting local:

  • Support education in the community: Sponsoring scholarships, establishing relationships with local schools and opening up training programs to community members—instead of keeping them exclusive to employees—affords educational opportunities to people who might not otherwise get academic support.
  • Sponsor or donate: Make a direct donation or sponsorship to fund a community organization or charitable group.
  • Participate in local events and community efforts: Get involved in the community by having team members and leaders join in on local fundraising events and celebration days. Some organizations even give their employees paid time off to volunteer.
  • Provide services to the community: Think of creative ways your business can directly support community members in need. For instance, are there services you could provide to people in the community regardless of their ability to pay?

“We’re a part of these communities, and we want our customers to trust that we’re going to do the right thing… Once we have that trust from both the customer and the Associate, that can take us almost anywhere.”

– Brandon Carson, VP Learning & Leadership, Walmart quoted in Getting Real About the Frontline Workforce

2. Create onboarding that’s highly engaging and inclusive

It’s critical for organizations to nail onboarding so workers feel engaged, connected and like they belong early on—or they’re likely to leave.

Investing in a great onboarding experience can be an integral way for businesses to mitigate high turnover and prioritize belonging from the start. A few ways to accomplish this:

  • Assign long-term onboarding buddies or mentors: Making connections between new and experienced employees gives both groups additional support and community.
  • Involve the whole team in onboarding new team members: Sharing the responsibility for onboarding, rather than placing the onus on just managers, can help foster a positive team environment.
  • Equip managers to make employees feel welcome: Provide managers with the templates and other resources they need to support new employees.
  • Link onboarding elements to a cohesive experience: The onboarding experience shouldn’t be a chaotic one. Using tech, setting up workflows and working across functions makes onboarding more seamless, coherent and welcoming.

3. Recognize the many contributions of frontline workers

Frontline employees want to be recognized for what they do, and while employee recognition isn’t a one-stop remedy for every business challenge, it can be an effective way to boost team morale, trust in leadership productivity, retention and overall happiness.

The report found many frontline workers don’t feel adequately recognized or appreciated for their work which, in the short or long term, can be hugely demotivating. Because they’re the ones interacting with customers, making and handling products, delivering goods and more, they heavily influence how well your organization can perform against its goals and want to be treated as such.

Lack of recognition for the frontline was already a big problem before COVID-19, but the pandemic-driven public appreciation for frontline “heroes” that seemed to be everywhere—on signs, in emails and on social media—has faded, and organizations haven’t sufficiently replaced it with more permanent systems and processes for recognizing frontline employees’ hard work.  

Here are three opportunities for consistent frontline employee recognition:

  • Highlight positive customer feedback: Ensure positive feedback from customers actually makes it back to the employee by closing feedback loops.
  • Encourage managers to recognize employees more frequently: Managers have a lot on their plates, and they may not be properly equipped or supported to recognize employees as regularly as they should or would like to. Consider setting up a consistent cadence to remind managers to recognize their team members—and provide them with data, templates and nudges to do so.
  • Implement peer recognition programs: The people that your employees work with every day—their peers and colleagues—catch moments of great work that managers and customers may miss. Peer-to-peer feedback gives co-workers a way to voice their praise for each other, so their hard work gets noticed.

4. Improve communication between the frontline and other parts of the organization

Communication that doesn’t reach everyone on your frontline is the enemy of motivation, engagement and inclusion. Because these groups of workers are often dispersed, you can’t rely on the natural points of connection that would be available in an office or deskbound jobs when it comes to communicating input and receiving feedback.

The main communication challenges fell into two primary buckets:

  1. Tech and accessibility: Frontline workers don’t always have easy access to computers or email so it’s not guaranteed that they’ll receive communications sent by email or posted on an intranet. It can also be difficult for them to send information or feedback using these methods.
  2. Language and literacy: If employees aren’t fluent in the dominant language, written communication becomes especially challenging.

Enabling strong two-way communication

Poor communication can make workers feel siloed from the rest of the organization—or send a message that they matter less and don’t belong. It also makes the disconnection between frontline and HQ more pronounced, which can feed into a perceived lack appreciation, recognition and value.

The right communication strategy for your organization will depend on your frontline’s unique needs, but three possible solutions are:

  • Reduce dependence on the written word: To be more inclusive of frontline workers who aren’t comfortable reading or writing the dominant language, try adding in-person communication, video, audio and graphics to your communications. For example, hold office hours so employees can discuss questions in person rather than writing them down and investigate types of nonverbal communication that may unlock a deeper sense of understanding.
  • Provide many ways for employees to give feedback: Some organizations get employee feedback from surveys, email and chat, Q&As during town halls or passing information through managers. Others find having leaders walk around, observing and asking questions does the trick for collecting insightful input.
  • Communicate how you’re responding to feedback: If employees feel like their feedback is disappearing into a black box, they’ll be less likely to speak up. Leaders told RedThread Research they’re working to widely communicate how they’re responding to feedback. For instance, one CEO has an email inbox dedicated to employee feedback so they can ensure every suggestion receives a reply.

“They want to give us their input, and we need to listen to what they have to say. We have to recognize that and give them a plan, with timelines and deadlines, letting them know we’re working on it.”

Head of People Operations, Coffee Chain

Fostering an inclusive future for frontline workers

Being happy and fulfilled at work isn’t possible until an employee’s basic needs are met—things like a sense of belonging, being looped in about changes to their jobs and key company communications and being properly recognized and appreciated for their work.  

Businesses eager to invest in the employee experience by cultivating a sense of belonging within their teams can use these actionable steps to  provide them with the proper support and connection they need to do fulfilling work on the frontline, every day.

Maliyah Bernard's Headshot

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.

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