8 must-read frontline 2024 trend predictions
Often, transformation will happen whether you want it to or not. That’s certainly the case in the world of frontline work, where organizations continue to navigate a rapidly changing landscape. As staffing challenges, endless emerging technologies and supply chain issues persist, frontline leaders have no choice but to change—or get left behind.
But here’s the challenge: how do you take employees along for the journey to make sure transformation doesn’t become disruption?
That’s one of the big themes we’re predicting for 2024 and to learn more about what the year ahead has in store for the frontline, we recently sat down with leaders from Marriott International, Giant Eagle and RedThread Research, who all exhibited encouraging attitudes about what lies ahead:
“We’ve been through a lot of change over the past few years, but I don’t want to go to a doom and gloom space. I’m actually quite optimistic about the current state of frontline work. We’ve had lots of hiring that’s been happening in our hotels, people who are interested in getting into our industry after it’s experienced some bruises.”Jessica Lee, Senior Vice President of Global Talent Development at Marriott International
Lee, along with Cris Harper, Vice President of Talent Experience at Giant Eagle and Dani Johnson, Co-founder and Principal Analyst at RedThread Research, cast 8 trend predictions that organizations should start tracking NOW.
1. Less focus on hiring, more focus on retaining
Although next year’s labor market isn’t yet set in stone, we can anticipate some things based on our end-of-year hiring trend survey: finding and attracting skilled workers is becoming more difficult, so organizations should save their energy and avoid overburdening the people they’ve already invested in. A big way to do that, which is a win-win for both leaders and workers, is upskilling and cross-training.
It can be tricky logistics-wise to do at scale, but if you can figure it out in 2024, you’ll benefit from a more agile team, and they’ll have access to additional career development opportunities without needing to put extra stress on managers. Harper highlights retention as a major focus at Giant Eagle moving forward, and getting employees to see the value of having transitional skillsets will play a key role.
“Cross-training is honestly something that we’re still trying to tackle. We have very defined roles in the grocery store. People find their routines and they love what they do, and they’ve done it for 55 years. So there’s a pool of talent in our stores that sees cross-training as scary, that sees it as something that they don’t understand, they probably don’t want to do and they don’t really know what the value is for them. We’re in the process of building career paths to help them understand the value of what that means to them. The fact that you may have been working in the deli for the last 15 years and you love it is great, but have you thought about what those skills from a guest interaction standpoint could do to serve you in cash? It’s about removing some of the fear of transitional skill sets and helping people understand true crossover capabilities.”
“We’ve been able to attract some really great talent, but we also still have some long-term team members. We just had people celebrating 50 years with the company.”Cris Harper, Vice President of Talent Experience at Giant Eagle
Lee echoes that continuous improvement of existing teams and processes will remain a priority at Marriott.
“There’s a lot we’ve had to do internally to reflect on how we make the lives of our frontline associates better with the tools they have access to. But then also, how do we train them up? We’re probably just as guilty, maybe more guilty than others, around trying to cram a ton of stuff into that onboarding experience. What will be interesting for us is that the cadence of daily learning for us happens through live huddles, and we’re in the process of implementing Axonify, so we’re going to have to figure out how we shift some of that live huddle or complement it with daily questions.”
2. Tackling the scale and complexity of frontline work will start with fostering confidence
Do your frontline employees already have the confidence to make the right decisions at the right moments? No matter the scale of your business, your company’s confidence culture should be treated as a critical KPI to employee training and development.
Confidence is highly connected to customer satisfaction scores, brand reputation and, ultimately, bottom-line success. Building employee confidence so they’re less reliant on others and know what makes a return-worthy customer experience takes an intentional, whole-team effort, and that will remain true in 2024.
Lee offers this advice for nurturing customer-centric employees who are proud to work for your brand, and have the skills and training to use that pride to deliver an extraordinary experience:
“[J. Willard Marriott] has this very famous line you’ll probably hear in a lot of our hotels around the world, which is, ‘If you take care of your associates, they’ll take care of the customer and the customer will keep coming back.’ For me, that translates to trying to build confidence in our associates so they can be their most proud, empowered selves, full of mutual respect when they’re walking into a hotel and engaging with a customer who might live a very different life. But culture also means that we translate it into certain processes or norms.”
She paints a picture of this in practice by talking about how when Marriott opens a new hotel, they’ll sometimes have new hires walk a “catwalk” in their new uniform to get them feeling good about what they’re about to embark on.
“Then, multiply a practice like that across many different touch points. Our hope would be that they are full of confidence because we’re putting them first culturally, and then we’re doing fun things to make them feel great about what it means to work for us.”
3. Autonomy will start with empowerment; empowerment will start with culture
According to the American Psychological Association’s 2023 Work in America workforce survey, one-third of employees feel out of control when it comes to when, where and how they do their work. So, once you have confident, capable workers, how do you empower them to make decisions and ignite change on their own?
Lee shares how one of Marriott’s brands, the Ritz-Carlton, goes above and beyond hospitality policies and has built a narrative of trust and empowerment among staff.
“We talk about the concept of empowerment all the time, and we put some teeth behind the idea of empowerment with a policy, but it’s not really a policy that matters. What does is this idea that any individuals in Ritz-Carlton hotels, any of our Ladies and Gentlemen, are empowered to spend up to $2,000 a day to solve a guest’s problem or to delight a guest. That dollar amount doesn’t actually matter. It’s just the concept of we trust you, we believe that you are going to do smart things and take care of our guests in the right way. It’s something that is so deeply rooted in that brand, but having a policy and saying, spending $2,000 a day to solve a guest’s problem or make them happy isn’t enough in and of itself.”
“To get to that consistency, we have a daily huddle. In that setting, there’s a lot of storytelling that happens. For example, every Monday and every Friday, we talk about wow stories. What are things hotels have done to take that concept of empowerment and bring it to life for a guest? And I think it’s with that steady drumbeat coupled with the idea of a policy of empowerment that gives people the ability to have autonomy, but also for us to get consistency because they hear every single day how others are doing it, which hopefully should inspire them to go that extra mile themselves as well.”
Offering more employee autonomy to solve problems, amaze customers and improve service quality should be on your “to-improve” list in 2024, and it starts with teaching employees to operate within a service framework—without stifling their independence.
4. The definition of stability will change
As you invest in your employees, do they know what a meaningful career path with your organization looks like? Are they being given equitable access and opportunities to learn and grow? When new technologies are introduced by corporate, are they simple enough for employees to use and understand so they don’t become just another roadblock? These are the new stability-related questions Harper says Giant Eagle is exploring in 2024.
“Stability is different now to what we used to experience in the past,” reveals Harper. “It was the stability of employment, benefits and compensation; they were truly the foundation. We’ve shifted now to try and make that stability focused on the experience.”
“A lot of transformation happens to our frontline team members, and that’s a big risk as you can lose someone from a disengagement standpoint. Focusing stability now around giving equitable experience and making sure that it’s familiar every day that they come in really has made a difference to our engagement.”
A report released by RedThread Research earlier this year supports this fact, naming a lack of stability in associates’ personal lives or finances as one of the top three barriers to frontline performance. While the research acknowledges there’s some debate around how responsible employers are for enabling employees to stabilize their personal lives, they shared 4 tactics for employers who do want to help their employees gain stability and make the employee experience feel less one-size-fits-all:
- Experiment with different scheduling approaches
- Provide resource-navigation services
- Tailor benefits to your employees’ needs
- Raise pay, if possible
While employees want to do their best job when they show up for work, they won’t be as productive or capable of delivering on your brand promises if they can’t see a purposeful career with your company. Beyond livelihood, more predictable shifts, a supportive and enabled community and appropriate benefit offerings can help.
5. Seeing and hearing your people will be a must-have, not a nice-to-have
One goal frontline organizations have for 2024 and beyond is to make their big workforces feel small. Axonify research revealed an alarming gap on the frontline: just 39% of workers feel heard by their organization (down from 59% in the previous report). So how do you get people feeling listened to on the frontline again to make sure no one feels like a cog in the machine, no matter how big your business is? Harper shares a glimpse into Giant Eagle’s journey into staying in touch with their people, which involves pairing annual surveys with smaller, one-off pulse questions to maintain an ongoing connection and conversation
“That journey has been trying to figure out how we get in front of them when they don’t have an email address. When they don’t have time to talk to you when you go in and ask them questions. They didn’t have training. They didn’t have a vehicle to give us feedback,” she explains. “It was about finding the right technology to say, no matter where you are, if you have two minutes, give me a yes or a no: ‘How are you doing today? How are you feeling? Do you enjoy your work?’”
“The survey is an annual opportunity, but pulsing in between gives us the ability to check and see, we heard you on an annual basis, now we’re going to say we’re going to commit to making these changes—and we’re actually making the changes. But that’s just one element of being heard. I think there’s another element of, ‘I had a really rough day today, and I need five minutes with my store leader to decompress and say how rough a day.’ It’s equipping our leaders with the capability and the skills also to say, ‘Okay, this isn’t for me to solve. This is for me to be there and to hear and support my team members.”
The results of more regular check-ins? A shift in Giant Eagle’s employee survey boasted a 60% likelihood to recommend score vs. the -14% score they held just two years ago, steady growth she directly attributes to helping employees feel more seen and heard over time.
“Trying to change and transform is a lot of where we’ve invested. We’re seeing change. Have we solved it? Not completely. Is it going to change in six months? Yes, and we’ll have to find new solutions, but I think we’ve gone a long way to finding a solution for that.”
Another way Lee says Marriott makes their big workforce feel smaller and more connected is by harnessing the power of micro-moments.
“We can launch new technologies and have these big initiatives that we’re all excited to roll out, but I think at the end of the day, it’s really those micro-moments for our workforce that make a difference.”
She gives an example of how they use a micro-moment to engage new hires that are receiving their uniform: “Classically, probably what most folks do is either they’re folded nicely or they’re on a wire hanger, which is kind of what you would expect. But how do you take those little moments and turn them into something really magical and memorable? I saw one of our hotels do this so beautifully, which is why I keep talking about it. They decided to take that moment of the uniform and turn it into what they might do if a guest asked them to help with their dry cleaning. They package it nicely and they bring it to the room and it’s a presentation. So imagine if you did that to your frontline worker to say, I value you and respect you just as much as I respect that customer who’s paying however much they’re paying to stay with us and really taking those unexpected little moments to turn it into something really wonderful, which doesn’t cost money. It’s not an initiative you have to do. It’s just being very thoughtful about the smallest of things that people don’t expect.”
6. Taking care of managers will be more tactical, less nebulose
This year, unburdening managers so they can be free to focus on their own skill development and leading their teams became a top priority for many organizations. According to The Deskless Report 2023, 49% of managers say they feel burned out on a daily basis, an especially troubling statistic when you consider the snowball effect this can have on a team’s performance.
“During the pandemic, we put so many new responsibilities on managers, so many new responsibilities. They were now counselors and we were trying to figure out all kinds of logistical problems that we had never figured out before. And everybody got burned out really super fast. What organizations started to realize is that the managers don’t suck. The organizations that are supporting the managers actually kind of suck. We aren’t doing what we can to support the managers so that they can do all these things, especially the extra things that we’ve been asking them to do from the pandemic,” recalls Johnson.
In other words: we’ve acknowledged the plight of the frontline manager. In 2024, we need to do something about it.
“I absolutely agree that we, as a supporting function, have probably made that harder for managers,” says Harper.
“We ask a lot of our store leaders in terms of reporting and updates. They are a communication channel. They’re our performance channel. So there is a lot that we funnel through them. Our focus right now is, how do we take away the noise? How do we make sure that the reporting is automated? How do we leverage technology to make sure that things are delivered into their hands so they don’t have to go get it? And then how do you simplify that conversation? They’re leaders because they want to lead people, not sit in front of spreadsheets and a desk. We’ve complicated that. I think we make it harder for them to get out there.”
Lee agrees and says the overreliance and undersupport of managers is an industry-agnostic concern for 2024.
“We hear from our managers all the time, there are all these initiatives coming from corporate, and I have to be on these webinars. I have to fill out this checklist of things to verify that I’ve done it. I agree. We’ve made their jobs quite hard.”
As a result, Marriott is exploring ways to better support their managers, including flexibility in roles, incentives and a concerted effort to build up the next wave of managers.
“It was a little bit of a light bulb for us, which I’m almost embarrassed to say because we’ve been around for 90 plus years, that we have organically built people’s careers up and given them tons of opportunity, but are we really preparing them in earnest to be able to tackle what it means to be a manager? Some people might not actually want the role once they have a great sense of what it is and what it entails. And so some of it is readiness awareness and then making sure they’ve got the right skills. But we’re just starting that journey to really put a focus on that next year.”
7. AI will get less scary…
Don’t fear AI—embrace it (and proceed with appropriate caution). Right now, frontline manager sentiment around AI is primarily positive: 64% say they aren’t afraid of the tech, and 72% say they’re comfortable introducing it to staff to improve the customer and employee experience. But there are barriers they feel will need to be addressed as AI becomes more integrated into the frontline worker experience:
- It could speed up or slow down operations (62%)
- It could create confusion around job roles and responsibilities (60%)
- It could take away jobs (56%)
- It could be biased (54%)
- It could decrease job satisfaction (46%)
According to Lee, AI is already a hot topic of conversation internally at Marriott. They’re bringing that conversation to the frontline so they can feel comfortable about its use, too.
“It has the potential to be so intimidating for our frontline or even for any of us. The reality is, we’ve actually all been doing AI for quite a long time, and that’s a piece to the conversation we’re trying to dial up,” she says. “There are all these examples of things we’ve been doing, whether it’s related to translations or before I was in this role, I did a lot in the talent acquisition space and we’re doing things with AI there. And so I just think it’s so important when we think about that for the frontline and the confidence we want to breed in them, how to make them feel more comfortable with it. There are things that are going to help make your job easier, which I think sometimes is getting lost in the conversation.”
As AI tools are fine-tuned and leaders continue to cut through the noise in 2024, they should also build a better understanding of what AI is and what it can do, its value to the business and how to educate employees about it by grounding the conversation around it being another step in the evolution of technology as opposed to a complicated and scary new thing.
The rise of generative AI also has a meaningful impact on accessibility, according to Johnson.
“[Gen AI] is accessible to everyone in the room, and it’s being integrated into our technology whether we know it or not. People are experimenting like crazy with gen AI. I experiment every day with gen AI because I want to see what it can do. And as that happens, organizations do get a little bit more comfortable with it and people on the frontline even get a little bit more comfortable with it, and I think it’s going to accelerate maybe a little faster than some of these other technologies that we’ve seen because of that, because it is very, very accessible.”
“The one word I would use to describe [the current state of frontline work] right now is frenetic. There’s so much energy surrounding it and so many technologies that are surfacing in so many organizations that are worried about the experience of their frontline. I find it really promising and hopeful on top of being very, very frenetic.”Dani Johnson, Co-founder and Principal Analyst at RedThread Research
8. …and could close the skills gap
Scheduling the right people with the right skills for the right shifts—in the middle of a labor shortage!—is no small feat. AI can be an equalizing technology and a promising option for frontline organizations wanting to incrementally alleviate the impact of skills gaps.
“We are all challenged to fill our shifts. I don’t think there’s anybody in this room that can say, ‘You know what? I’m fully staffed, our shifts run smoothly and I get all the work done that I need to get done in a day.’ It doesn’t happen,” says Harper. “We’re being asked to do more with less and cross-training is the solution for an organization.”
68% of frontline managers believe AI will help them improve the customer and guest experience. So, in 2024, organizations should hone in on identifying gaps at scale and training to fill those gaps because AI can help stretch talent further to enhance the agility of your workforce. Johnson also says that AI will give employers a clearer picture of the skills in their organizations to combat this issue.
“Gen AI allows us to understand the skills in our organization better than we currently understand the skills,” she explains. “Most organizations, especially for the frontline, base whether or not somebody has a skill on the type of job they’re currently doing.”
“But we’re seeing technology hook into the work tech manufacturing system, for example, and they can tell safety issues associated with that operator on that system or how quickly they get it done. A healthcare organization in Utah is using medical coding information to understand the skills that nurses have. So if they do [a task] very frequently, they say that that person has that skill.”
She says that once you have access to that information about skills, you’ll be able to do great things with it, like:
- Train individuals and help them understand where they can fit in the organization
- Schedule only the employees who have reached skill proficiency for specific shifts, and cross-train others so there are more options in the talent pool later
- Drive employee learning by showing them the value of growing and developing their skills, and pointing them to the right opportunities
At Giant Eagle, Harper says AI is also streamlining training programs to accelerate results.
“For us, it’s about trying to understand correlation. Looking at our training suite and understanding that we have 50 different learning programs that are specific to different roles. Which ones can we remove, or which ones can we highlight and say you’re actually going to do one instead of five different courses? AI is helping us understand some of that crossover or building the learning plans around that. I think the value to the organization is immense.”
AI has the potential to transform task management, optimize efficiency and enhance the employee experience next year by enabling teams to delegate unwanted or time-consuming tasks, giving everyone more time in their day to focus on the essentials. But don’t forget to preserve the human touch!
So what can we expect in the year to come? It’s still anyone’s guess, but overall, we predict 2024 will be about simplifying and working with what you have. A fresh calendar year can feel overwhelming with so many new opportunities to support your frontline—stay positive and make the most out of your blank slate! You can only address so many trends at once, so when it comes time for new processes, ideas or technologies, take the time to understand their value and be realistic by setting achievable and measurable goals.
Additionally, take a look at what’s already available to you in your organization—including your existing team members—and get creative with how you leverage what you already have. Remove as much noise as possible for your employees, keep them in the loop of changes and allow them to do their jobs as you take them along for the ride in the New Year.