As frontline workers eye the exit, digital tools can aid staff retention

For many retail, hospitality, and transportation companies, employee retention has become a priority — and new digital tools are increasingly seen as an important way to keep frontline workers from leaving.

A manager uses a tablet in a warehouse / industrial environment.
Hiraman / Getty Images

Despite recent concerns about a coming recession, many businesses still struggle to manage acute staffing shortages — particularly those supporting a substantial frontline workforce in the retail, hospitality, and transportation industries. So employee retention has become a top priority.

Though workers change jobs for a variety of reasons — higher pay, better career opportunities, more workplace flexibility — companies are finding they have a better shot at keeping valued frontline workers with digital tools.

“Technology can not only help to give frontline workers a voice, it can help them feel more valued, more part of the team, and more effective,” said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight. “This engagement can reduce staff turnover and grow community as well as a recognizable and attractive company culture.”

Over a third (37%) of deskless workers are considering leaving their jobs in the next six months, according to Boston Consulting Group’s July survey of 7,000 employees across seven countries and a range of sectors.

“People are worried about a recession, but there are a lot of open jobs to fill. And even if you start cutting some jobs, you still want [to retain] the best workers, so the 37% number is quite troubling,” said Debbie Lovich, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group.

The top reason for considering leaving was a lack of career advancement (41%), with pay concerns second (30%). Other reasons include flexibility over work hours and location (28%), work-life balance (22%), and lack of enjoyment in their current role (15%).

There are ways workplace technologies can help address most of those issues, said Lovich. The introduction of shift marketplaces could provide greater flexibility, for instance, or micro-leaning could be used to upskill workers and help advance their careers. Employee recognition tools could also be used to highlight and reward strong employee performance.

More tech options for frontline workers

The range of software products aimed at supporting frontline workers has grown in recent years. Microsoft Teams and Meta’s Workplace, both of which were primarily designed for use by office workers, have been adapted to the workflow of frontline workers, for instance. And numerous smaller vendors that cater to the communication needs of deskless staffers, including StaffBase, Beekeeper, Yoobic, and WorkJam, have emerged.

Capabilities range from straightforward instant messaging to task management, learning, and intranet features that improve information flow and create a stronger connection between the head office and frontline workers.

There are also a variety of HR and work management tools that seek improve management of frontline staff, including shift scheduling, onboarding, and payroll tools. “HR apps are also a great opportunity for frontline workers, whether for transactional activities like booking time off, or for getting access to job opportunities across the business, or even access to employee benefits such as discounts,” said Ashenden.

To access these applications, deskless workers will generally need a smartphone or other mobile device, and companies are more likely to offer such tools, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An IDC survey found that 42% of non-office-based workers in the US are fully dependent on mobile devices, meaning they cannot physically do their job without the aid of a mobile device.

“Frontline work is often manual in nature and/or customer facing, so early mobile use cases for frontline didn't seem like a high priority,” said Bryan Bassett, IDC research manager covering enterprise mobility. “That has certainly changed in the past two years, as businesses have learned that mobilizing frontline workers helps make them more effective and productive.”

Manual processes and unsuitable tools

Deskless workers make up the majority of the global workforce (analyst firm Gartner estimates there are 2.7 billion frontline workers — more than twice the number of desk-based workers), but they are often overlooked when it comes to IT investments compared to office-based staff.

That offers a stark contrast to the proliferation of productivity tools among office workers. “It's starting to change, but it's still way behind, and I think it's a symptom of deskless workers being overlooked in every area,” Lovich. “Technology is behind for this population because everything is behind for this population.”

Deskless workers are more likely to rely mostly on paper-based processes (15%) compared to desk-based workers (5%), according to a Skedulo survey of 500 deskless workers and 500 desk-based workers in the US. The opposite is also true: desk-based workers are more likely to rely heavily on digital processes (75%) to get their job done, compared to their deskless counterparts (54%).

“Employees want to be challenged in their work, not manually entering information that not only takes up a significant amount of time but takes away from the work they actually want to be doing,” said Matt Fairhurst, CEO of Skedulo, which sells scheduling and productivity software for coordinating mobile worker tasks. He said access to digital tools can aid employee retention as they are freed up to focus on “other needs and wants in the workplace.

“If these tools aren’t accessible, they’ll just go find another company that uses them,” said Fairhurst. “If there’s an easier way to do a job, why not do it? Making things more difficult by not modernizing will only make retention worse.” 

It’s important to meet the expectations of employees already accustomed to modern digital tools, said Fabrice Haiat, CEO of Yoobic, a digital workplace platform aimed at retail and restaurant staff. “Most of the workforce in retail are millennials. They don't want to read a document in the back of the store and to fill in paper; it's not how people want to experience their job, so you need to bring new tools if you want to retain them,” he said.

Meeting the needs of different frontline roles

For technology to have an effect, deploying the right tools for the job is crucial.

Many businesses rely on digital tools that aren’t the right fit for the purpose, said Haiat. “When we begin a project, 80% of the time they are starting from scratch or they are using WhatsApp, Excel, and SharePoint,” he said. “If you have 1,000 stores with 20,000 employees and you try to have them on WhatsApp, it's going to be a mess immediately, not even considering the risk to the business.”

Meeting the needs of all workers can be trickier than it sounds, however, because of the divergence in the workflow of different frontline jobs. “It’s a very diverse field: truck drivers, factory workers, restaurant workers, warehouse pickers, hospital workers,” said Lovich. “The trick with these technologies is how do you fit it into the flow of work?”

It's a problem Haiat acknowledges, and it has informed Yoobic’s approach to employee training, incorporating learning into its communication and task management app. “It has to be part of the journey of the employee,” he said. “You will never get frontline employees sitting behind a computer for two hours and going through long training, etc. They learn by doing, so you need snippets of content in the flow of work.”

There are some important commonalities across all job roles, whether frontline or in the office; any employee can benefit from a better sense of connection with the rest of their organization, for instance.

“The key is to start breaking down the barriers between office workers and frontline workers, enabling dialogue and community to span the whole business,” said Ashenden. “While frontline workers may have different needs for operational tools, there's a uniform need for communications regardless of the type of worker.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon