April 28, 2021 5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
When the pandemic spread, many businesses sent their employees home to work, but frontline employees who worked in healthcare, maintenance, protective services, food processing and grocery didn’t have that luxury. Their jobs required that they show up in person. And they did, even knowing that because their jobs were public-facing or required close proximity to others, they faced a greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Not only did frontline employees show up to work, but in many cases, they relearned how to do their jobs or took on new responsibilities as businesses altered their models to stay open.
Now, as we hopefully look forward to a recovery, we must make sure these employees who were so essential to business survival are not left behind.
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Recognize the contributions of frontline employees
The first step in making sure frontline employees don’t get lost in the post-Covid shuffle is to look at them through new eyes. Historically, frontline employees have been thought of as subject to high turnover, but that’s not always true. For example, one study found that retail employees aged 25-54 average at least 35 months in the same job, and older frontline retail workers have a medium tenure of 77 months.
Yet, the high-turnover belief persists, and because of that, many businesses don’t invest in developing their frontline employees. Instead of managers providing a retail employee with structured training, for example, the employee is expected to learn from co-workers on the go. And then it’s this very lack of training that can lead to frustration and high turnover.
Businesses forget that their frontline employees are the face of the company, the ones who interact most with customers and represent the brand. And those frontline workers who have a good employee experience help deliver great customer experiences. That is especially crucial now, as businesses — especially retail stores and restaurants — want to entice customers to return. Frontline employees will be invaluable in creating the human touch in-store that an ecommerce interaction cannot replicate.
Address economic security
When the pandemic first began, some frontline employees came to work for altruistic reasons, wanting to help their communities. But for most, it boiled down to simple economics. As of 2018, 47% of all frontline essential employees did not make enough of a living wage to support a family. During the pandemic, many workers faced an impossible decision: Work in a low-paying job and risk greater exposure to Covid or not have a job and be unable to pay rent or feed the family. Even though some companies initially offered some relief in the form of hazard pay or bonuses, those programs didn’t last the length of the pandemic.
As we move forward, companies must address issues of economic security for frontline employees. I recognize that it’s a hard time for businesses, too. They’ve lost revenue, and in many cases, decisions about layoff and furloughs are not within their control. However, managers can recognize and help alleviate some basic economic concerns for frontline workers.
Be transparent regarding business changes, such as staffing cuts or shortened business hours, so employees can make informed decisions about their future. Publish work schedules in advance so employees can estimate their income, allowing them to plan for expenses.
To recognize the value of frontline employees, companies should provide wage increases and bonuses when possible. This investment can be key to employee engagement, retention and, ultimately, customer engagement.
Prioritize skill development
The pandemic forced frontline employees to relearn how to do their jobs. In some cases, these were straightforward adjustments, such as using contactless payment devices or following hygiene protocols. But some employees took on significantly different responsibilities for their companies. Store sales associates worked in contact centers. Restaurant staff became delivery drivers. Bank tellers took on digital customer support positions.
Even though customers will return to the in-store or in-restaurant experience in full force one day, customers will still expect the heightened online services they used during the pandemic, so the need for digital-savvy employees will not end.
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As companies look forward to growth opportunities, they must look at skill development in their strategies. This requires identifying essential skills needed in new operational plans and determining how your frontline employees will contribute.
Use cross-training, reskilling and upskilling programs to help employees gain the expertise they need for new and existing opportunities. Tailor frontline focused training content to ensure employees receive an education designed to meet their needs.
As we’ve learned over this past year-plus, frontline employees provide the backbone of any organization. We shouldn’t forget this lesson as we recover from the pandemic. By prioritizing our frontline employees, recognizing their value and need and investing in their development, we treat them as the heroes they are.