Getting Real About the Frontline Workforce

500 employees and 50 leaders share an in-depth account of what frontline teams need to succeed.

What the frontline needs to thrive

Frontline workers—those who must be physically present to do their jobs—are crucial to organizational success. They make up a huge chunk of the workforce. And as the ones interacting with customers, making and handling products, delivering goods and more every day, they heavily influence how well organizations can execute their strategies. But what do they need to thrive?

For this report, RedThread Research asked over 500 employees and 50 leaders from a wide range of industries and job functions about what’s working—and what’s not—when it comes to enabling the success of their teams.

Cover of the RedThread report, Getting Real About the Frontline Workforce

A shift in the narrative

Leaders, customers and employees have acknowledged how critical frontline employees are to company-wide success. After all, they’re the “tip of the spear,” interacting with customers, driving merchandise production and delivering goods.

There’s also recognition that the dynamic has shifted (at least somewhat, for now) in favor of employees from employers in many industries and organizations. Many frontline workers are exercising the power of choice about where to work and are willing to walk away if they don’t feel supported.

“Many frontline workers are exercising the power of choice about where to work and are willing to walk away if they don’t feel supported.”

A male retail associate standing in a clothing store

In the last three years, a narrative has emerged that frontline workers are seriously underserved, undersupported and unable to thrive. This point of view suggests that’s why frontline workers are quitting in droves, forcing their organizations to deal with high turnover costs. A senior leader from a venture capital firm that supports frontline development summarized it like this:

“Frontline workers are caught in a vicious cycle of churn and neglect.”

That rhetoric makes for great headlines—and there’s a lot of truth in it—but the reality is much more nuanced. Across many organizations, certain things are done uniquely well on the frontline—often better than elsewhere. And, as the prevailing narrative has highlighted, there are challenges that many frontline workers face more distinctly or severely than other workers.

The complexity of frontlines

A grocery manager speaking to a group of associates

Adding complexity, these variations don’t affect frontline workers uniformly—mostly because frontline work isn’t one-size-fits-all. It’s convenient to refer to “the frontline workforce” as one group—indeed, we’re doing it for this report. In reality, this workforce is composed of a wide range of employees doing very different jobs, from restaurant and retail workers to manufacturing line operators and warehouse associates.

“Frontline work isn’t one-size-fits-all”

Because frontline work varies so much, what’s done well and what isn’t for frontline workers can also vary dramatically, even within organizations. Some of what we present in this report may apply more to certain frontline workers than others—and there are exceptions to just about every trend.

Still, we did find some general trends and themes that we think are worth considering. Read the full report to get the full story.

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