The Great Resignation: a new reality for frontline workers?

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

In April 2021, in the US alone, over 4 million workers threw in the proverbial towel. Those working in key sectors like hospitality and retail, in particular, have left their jobs in droves, in the hope of a better alternative. 

In the UK, the situation is no different. The number of vacancies across frontline sectors like hospitality, health and social care tells us workers have had enough – just like their US counterparts.

And the same thing is happening 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 be a warning signal for many 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 – embarrassingly so. 

Worse, technological advances have been focused on letting managers keep a never-ending watch on workers’ productivity. In other words, it’s been about the bottom line – profitability – and not much more. 

The Great Resignation we are now witnessing is no more than a natural consequence of this. While Covid may have been a trigger, the issues that caused it to go back much further in time.

Frontline workers are struggling due to the Great Resignation.

The Great Resignation – or The Great Divide?

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

However, technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams made that process somewhat easier. It also inadvertently proved that workplace transformation 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.’

The pandemic highlighted the deep division between those who could continue to work from home, and those on temporary or zero-hour contracts, often in low-paid jobs.

The UK’s Office of National Statistics confirmed that split: most of the 46.6% of workers who did some work at home were based in metropolitan areas like London. Those in lower-paid, temporary roles were unable to work from home; they ploughed on as before, or were furloughed or laid off.

The Great Resignation is the response of those vast swathes of employees whose low-paid working lives were often characterised by malaise or, as Gallup prefers to call it, the ‘Great Discontent’  

So yes, it was a bit tough for office workers, being glued to endless Zoom calls, suffering from so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’. But many workers in non-office, frontline roles arguably present managers with a much bigger issue. 

First, how do you reach them? And second, how do you engage them?

These are urgent questions. 

And while there are no easy answers, two issues are key.

First, technology. Unlike office workers, frontline workers have little access to technology developed specifically to inform, engage and connect them. Most have, for decades, relied on ‘old school’ communication channels like bits of paper and notice boards.

That is changing, with a recent upsurge in technology designed to support and empower frontline workers.

But secondly, this technology needs to be complemented by a culture shift; not to monitor workers’ productivity or efficiency (often without their knowledge). This will only lead to disengagement and a lack of trust.

This technology will only work if supports managers in listening to their workers.  

As some recent Gallup 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’.

Any conversations on productivity, or making the working environment more efficient, need to be embarked on as a two-way dialogue.

Frontline workers have valuable stories and customer insights to share; they just need a channel to do so. If they are given the opportunity to contribute – in other words, if their voices are heard, many things will follow: increased engagement, increased autonomy, and increased productivity. 

The alternative? The Great Resignation will turn from a passing trend into our new reality.