The Great Resignation: a new reality for frontline workers?

Originally published on Blink App.

The Covid pandemic highlighted many things – including how unhappy workers are in their jobs. The experience of having to work through the pandemic seems to have been the last straw for many. 

It was reported that in April, in the US alone, over 4 million have thrown in the proverbial towel. Those working in the hospitality and retail sector have left their jobs in droves – often for lower pay – in the hope they’ll be better treated elsewhere. 

In the UK, as the economy begins to recover, those in temporary roles — or those who’ve been furloughed or laid off — want more security from permanent employment, just like their US counterparts.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

All over the world, workers continue to resign, looking for more flexibilitybetter benefits and greater recognition

The moment has even earned its own nickname: the ‘Great Resignation’.

This should signal a warning for most organizations. But it’s especially worrying for those management consultants and HR directors who have, for so many years, talked about embracing the ‘employee experience’.  

Claims to understand the needs of their workers appear to have fallen short.

Indeed, one repercussion of the tumult of Covid (and before it too) has been that technology — much heralded as being able to connect workers together — has equally been used by managers to keep a never-ending watch on workers’ productivity. In other words, it’s been about the bottom line and not much more.

The upheaval of the workplace felt by many was revealing in other ways, too. 

The Great Resignation is causing frontline workers to leave in droves.

The great divide that caused the Great Discontent

The much-talked-about experience of predominately office-based workers who had quickly moved from the office to the home created a great deal of uncertainty to many. Having to juggle work and private lives, including caring for others or homeschooling kids, had proved difficult. 

However, thankfully technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams made that process somewhat easier. It also inadvertently proved that workplace change can take place in weeks, not years, as some ‘change managers’ would like us to believe!

Yet what was noticeable by their absence amidst all of that disruption were those workers who had rarely, if at all, stopped working during the pandemic. 

Once employers had begun to make sense of how to respond to the pandemic, and how to protect the safety of their employees, many ‘essential’ or ‘frontline workers’ returned. 

As well as many who could return back to their offices, factories, distribution centres, warehouses, shops, supermarkets, in agriculture, in social services, and countless other roles, were back keeping our economies moving. 

Yet, all the while, there was a huge debate about whether or not offices will ever open again (still clouded in uncertainty), those not in offices seldom featured in these discussions. 

As was saliently observed on Twitter at the time: There was never any lockdown. There was just middle-class people hiding while working-class people brought them things.’

What the pandemic highlighted was a deep division of social status among those who were able to work during the pandemic, those who could work from home (or partially in an office), and those that are in predominately manual labour roles, or on lower incomes.  

The UK’s Office of National Statistics confirmed that split: of that 46.6% of workers who did some work at home, they were predominately based in metropolitan areas like London, and were made up of those with higher education qualifications. The rest were either laid off, on furlough or made up of manual-based workers.

But, as the Great Resignation reminds us, vast swathes of employees (especially those in lower-paid, temporary roles) are deeply unengaged by what they do. Or as pollsters Gallup prefers to call it: the ‘Great Discontent’  

Notwithstanding those many workers who were glued to endless Zoom calls (and suffer from what academics even think is a real condition called ‘Zoom fatigue’), those others who remain in frontline roles arguably present managers with an even bigger issue. 

Firstly, how do you reach them? And secondly, how can you engage them when they’re not at a desk? There is no easy answer. 

The nature of these kinds of jobs, such as those in shops, factories and caring for patients, seldom have a dedicated computer, email account – let alone time to read the company’s internal news. 

Instead, they are reliant on their immediate teams and line managers. They will give them notice of the stuff that needs their attention. Or, maybe something pinned to a notice board. 

The bottom line? It’s about listening better

As Gallup’s research illustrates, the importance of having a good manager is key. It’s their job to listen, mentor and engage with their team. As the research puts it, ‘it takes more than a 20% pay raise to lure most employees away from a manager who engages them; and nothing to poach a disengaged worker.

The related point is about trust. That can quickly evaporate if managers prefer to spend their time on technology that is predominately used to monitor their team’s productivity or efficiency – often without their knowledge.

If there is no joint conversation about how to raise productivity, or how to make the working environment more efficient (or more pleasant), any relationship among a team will soon break down.

Instead, when employees are equipped with access to tech — such as a shared kiosk or secured apps on their phones — it needs to be done where there is a clear intent of what is for, with adequate training, and with room for team members to add their own ideas

It’s no good trying to motivate employees to raise their productivity if that means little opportunity to contribute how to improve things. Managers need to provide tools that at the same time, can give their teams a greater sense of autonomy. If businesses are serious about the ‘voice of the employee’, they had better learn to listen more – and better – before it’s too late. Frontline workers have valuable stories and customer insights to share – they just need a channel to do so.

If things don’t change, the Great Resignation will turn from a passing trend into our new reality.

Photo by Ron Lach from Pexels