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Overcoming frontline performance hurdles with RedThread Research

Posted on: May 31, 2023Updated on: April 17, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

Organizations have many responsibilities to their employees, including removing or reducing any barriers to success. But understanding exactly how to help frontline workers thrive is easier said than done.

We recently partnered with RedThread Research to launch “Getting Real About the Frontline Workforce” and report authors Heather Gilmartin Adams and Dani Johnson joined Axonify’s Josh Felix to break down the findings on a recent episode of ITK.

Here’s what their conversation revealed about how organizations can enable their teams to perform well while they learn, grow and prepare for new roles in an environment that’s motivating, engaging and makes them feel like they belong.

Axonify Grocery Associate Overcoming Frontline Performance Hurdles RedThread Research

“A collective awakening”

Josh Felix: Can you tell us about the motivation behind the “Getting Real About the Frontline Workforce” report and what led you to start looking into some of the prevailing narratives around the frontline experience?

Heather Gilmartin Adams: There has been a kind of collective awakening to the importance of frontline workers over the last three years. They’re the ‘tip of the spear’ and the ones interacting with customers and handling products—all the things that affect a business’s ability to do its job. That was our motivation. We started hearing that conversation more and getting more questions about how to support frontline workers better.

When we start our research, we always look into what the conversation is, and we follow that closely. We look for where RedThread’s perspective might bring something unique. What we realized is that while there’s a lot of truth in the prevailing narrative that frontline workers are underserved and under-supported or there’s lots of churn and neglect, we found there’s more to the story. In particular, there are more similarities between frontline workers and other workers than you might expect. We wanted to highlight all these things.

Josh Felix: How do you focus your budget and bandwidth on investing in the frontline experience and enablement? Have you seen a shift in thinking about frontline enablement from a ‘value add’ to a ‘must-have’ for organizations looking to maximize labor productivity?

Dani Johnson: The pandemic did a lot to draw attention to these workers and we finally started addressing them as ‘essential’ versus ‘blue collar’. We’ve started talking about them differently.

There are two reasons that frontline enablement may be more essential now than ever:

One; for the first time in history, more workers are leaving the workforce than entering it. In a few years, we won’t have enough people to do the jobs that currently exist. As we figure out how to rearrange work and use technology to balance that out, it’s essential to pay attention to [the continued workforce reduction] because organizations are literally competing for employees in ways they haven’t before.

Two; The whole idea of HR, workers and employees has become a lot more human. With this particular audience, that sentiment may have been missing in the past but during the pandemic when we changed the way that we talked about them and started paying attention to their needs a little bit more, we recognized them—and all employees, actually—as more than cogs in the machine.

Josh Felix: When you talk about enabling frontline workers to thrive, what are enabled frontline workers doing and feeling on a regular basis?

Heather Gilmartin Adams: For this research, we thought about ‘thriving’ in three parts. And they apply to all employees, not just frontline workers.

They need to be enabled to perform well, learn, grow and prepare for new roles and work in an environment that’s motivating, engaging and makes them feel like they belong.

In the “Getting Real About the Frontline Workforce” report, we looked at what’s unique about the frontline experience in these three areas and what organizations are doing within them to enable workers.

Dani Johnson: To your question, paying attention to how frontline workers are feeling is very important and it goes back to that idea of the subject becoming more human, but I think it’s much bigger than that. We’ve realized throughout the pandemic there’s a tremendous amount of value in our frontline workers and we may have been underutilizing them in the past.

It’s not so much just about how they’re feeling, it’s about how we take advantage of the value they bring to make our organizations stronger and better to move forward together.

Enable the frontline to perform well

Josh Felix: What are the most notable findings around the hurdles facing organizations when it comes to employee performance?

Dani Johnson: I think that the hurdles were well established by the research we read during our lit review: low pay, individuals and companies looking for stability, flexibility. Organizations are really struggling to meet these needs that’ll get frontline workers to perform better.

Heather Gilmartin Adams: There’s a tandem between stability and flexibility that’s really challenging for organizations to address effectively. A lot of frontline workers are looking for more stability in their personal lives so they can plan their lives, and the challenge is that the needs of this line of work and the demands on them to be flexible to appear at work at certain times has an impact on the stability of their out-of-work lives. How stable things like childcare, transportation and housing are affects how flexible they can be with work.  

Josh Felix: What are some ways organizations can address these hurdles to allow their teams to truly perform well?

Dani Johnson: In our conversations with leaders and employees, providing opportunities for learning and growth, creating a clear career path and helping them understand where they fit in the organization and where they can go can all help build stability.

For something like flexibility, we can actually leverage technology and maybe use a little bit of creative thinking to solve problems.

Heather Gilmartin Adams: Changes don’t always have to be super-expensive to make and we’re seeing more organizations go that route which I think is really neat.

Keep frontline workers learning, growing and preparing for new roles

Josh Felix: Some of us call it upskilling, some cross-skilling. What are the barriers you uncovered in the report related to the second pillar you mentioned, “Learn, grow and prepare for new roles”?

Dani Johnson: There were several. Mindset, the ways we’ve structured roles, how we’ve viewed these groups in the past and a lack of understanding of what development actually is are problems organizations haven’t fixed as much as they should.

Providing an engaging and inclusive environment

Josh Felix: It’s one thing to engage people, but how can organizations include them in a way that creates a sense of belonging?

Heather Gilmartin Adams: Two of the big points are around recognition. First, frontline workers simply want to be acknowledged for the work they’re doing. Second, they want communications—both from and to HQ—that give them the information they need to do their jobs well, helping them feel like they’re plugged into the community and their feedback and ideas are being heard. These two-way communications are still a struggle for a lot of the organizations we talked to.

Dani Johnson: We also study the idea of ‘purpose’ at RedThread. Tying what they’re doing every day to the overall vision and mission of the organization and connecting everybody with one purpose is another way to make sure that inclusion and belonging piece is happening.

Failing to address the fundamental things employees need to thrive—stability, flexibility, skill development and belonging, to name a few—will keep true frontline satisfaction and success out of reach. Dig into 50+ actionable recommendations outlined in RedThread Research’s report to start overcoming common employee experience and performance hurdles and help shift the narrative about frontlines. 

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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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