Don’t ignore frontline employee engagement — embrace it

When there’s lots to do, employee engagement doesn’t demand an awful lot of creativity. Keep an updated task list, provide the right tools, and eliminate distractions—but what about when there’s not much going on at work? For frontline employees, the ones who handle storefronts, phone calls, and field duties, there’s often a lot more downtime, making it harder for them to stay engaged.

When a person’s job depends on in-person customer and service demands, what’s the secret to keeping them happy and satisfied at work? If it’s not something you’ve given much thought to, you’re not alone.

Broadly speaking, frontline employees don’t receive much attention from their employers. Less than a sixth of HR departments report prioritizing deskless workers in their internal communications. These employees see so little of upper management that a visit alone is enough to make them nervous. Could this explain how while 80 percent of the US workforce comprises frontline workers, only half of them understand their company’s strategy?

If you’ve ever worked one of these jobs, the plight probably sounds familiar. And with turnover rates on the rise among the frontline workforce, it’s time for a change.

Provide an open door & listen with open ears

Think about when you’ve done your best work. Not only was the task at hand clearly defined, but you probably felt comfortable at work. Maybe it was thanks to a friend at work or a particularly good huddle, but positive human interaction can sometimes be the difference between a productive day and a wasted one.

MGR Handbook D

When you need someone to listen, few things are more satisfying than being heard. Whether it’s to report a problem or just talk about the job, providing a friendly environment for frontline workers to talk is crucial. According to, employees who feel heard are almost 5x more likely to do their best work. Why? Because they feel like part of the team rather than unseen cogs in a machine.

However, this can pose a logistical challenge. Most frontline workers don’t work down the hall from the HR head office, so if there’s a problem they need to air, it usually means scheduling an appointment, something which could raise eyebrows and create unwanted tension. As a result of these unspoken grievances, there’s an overwhelming feeling among frontline workers that they simply aren’t listened to.

Managers can help out here. Train them to make themselves available to their employees. If they still aren’t having those conversations, urge them to make opportunities in one-on-one settings. Meetings like these not only help frontline staff fit in better with their team, but they can yield important tips about where breakdowns occur and how staff gets along together. You may even consider a suggestion box if you want to make things easy on yourself.

If you want your frontline employees to get engaged, make sure they feel heard.

Keep communications close with frontline workers

Regular contact is important for all employees, including those on the front lines. Unfortunately, since strategy meetings and team lead huddles are limited to those who need to be there, some workers feel left out and in the dark. No problem! Thanks to the internet, we have all kinds of opportunities to provide real-time communication and updates to everyone who needs to hear them.

With mobile apps more affordable than ever, staying in touch with employees is easier than it has been in previous years. Depending on the size of your company, a digital presence can be a convenient, affordable tool for everyone on your team to provide them with the relevant information they need to stay up to date.

An app can also keep frontline employees engaged through instant access to videos, a company podcast, and other content that helps them do their job (think paystubs, hiring documents, and training materials within the company intranet). Urgent bulletin? Send it over the app. Recognizing a top performer? Use the app. Invitations for an event? You got it. App time.

Using apps for incentives

Tracking goals and performance for frontline staff isn’t as easy as it is for your desk workers. Outside of surveys and satisfactory job completion, seeing who really pours their heart and soul into work is mostly left to intuition. That is, unless you provide some way to make job performance fun.

Recognizing good performance is crucial for employee engagement, and mobile apps make that more doable than ever. Close your eyes and imagine the perfect workplace, being as specific as possible. Is it important to you that employees arrive early? How can they optimize customer experience? Do they need to keep a clean workspace? How about basic maintenance of their tools beyond what’s expected?

Using some of those ideas, try using them in a reward system that works on a mobile device. If workers can check a box showing that they not only did their job, but that they took extra time to do exactly what you asked. A bonus can improve their engagement habits without hurting your bottom line too much. Seriously, it’s true.

When it comes to tasks that are more repetitive in nature—tasks the frontline workers do on a regular basis—throwing in a reward increases performance and drives engagement (though some studies show the opposite for higher-paying desk jobs).

Incentive structures are a powerful tool to help your team find greater job satisfaction on a daily basis, but it’s important that they do not become mandatory job duties. Forcing staff to go above and beyond turns exceptional performance into acceptable performance.

Anyway, if you don’t already, consider using an app to help your frontline staff see how they’re doing at their job. Use push notifications with care.

Always recognize performance

Unlike desk staff, your front line doesn’t get much employee recognition for the hard work they do day-in and day-out. One reason why is that their work is easily taken for granted. Unless there’s a problem, odds are their managers don’t check in very often, turning a problem-free workday into less of an accomplishment and more of an expectation. Another reason is that frontline staff either have a lot to do or not enough, leaving them either too busy to talk or running the risk of a busywork assignment.

Find ways to recognize them. Consider naming an employee of the week, setting interdepartmental goals, or even passing around a weekly award from one winner to the next. Whatever you do, remind people of their importance in the operations of your company.

Make feedback part of the job

With recognition for good performance comes an opportunity to improve, and that means offering feedback on a regular basis. While it can seem intimidating, teaching frontline employees how to do their job better is vital for greater engagement. It provides tangible, immediate steps for how to make managers happier. When employees know they’re doing the job right, they will keep reaching higher.

How to offer feedback is disputed. Remain objective at all times—this isn’t about what they’re doing wrong so much as it’s about how to do better. Any disciplinary action needs to be saved for disciplinary meetings. However, don’t forget to offer positive feedback as well. After all, you want to not only correct problems, but reinforce positives.

Some strategies suggest that you check in with employees on a regular basis, but little data suggests that revisiting someone’s shortcomings provides a benefit. Mostly it just reminds them of an uncomfortable time they want to move on from.

The magic of mentorships

If feedback only comes from managers, something is missing from your company—mentorship programs. Just like your desk employees, frontline workers need guidance from company veterans if they are to perform their best. However, while desk employees have the luxury of space for someone to sit next to them and offer insights, engaged frontline employees don’t.

A mentorship, then, becomes on-the-job training—a chance for new hires to hear ideas about how to perform better and put them into practice right away. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Have a manager take time during the onboarding process and at the beginning of a shift to check-in and ask questions. Give new hires a picture of what good performance looks like. Tell a story about a time things went well. Above all, express appreciation for their efforts wherever possible.

Provide great career opportunities

Mentorships do more than provide training—they make real the prospect of a fruitful career, enhancing the employee experience. Why do you think top performers stick around? Because they believe they have a future with their company. It’s a lot easier to find the motivation to work hard when there’s hope of obtaining a solid career in the end.

Keeping turnover rates low, offering regular raises, and reimbursing school tuition—all of these are helpful solutions to show that your company invests in employees as much as they do in return. They show respect to the people who spend their 9-to-5s with you.

Some people are driven by career advancement. Others care more about company culture, so it’s up to you to plan a unique path that matches the ambitions of your employees and gives them what they need to do their best. You may consider periodic raises, training across different departments, or investment in better tools that improve the working environment.

Above all, making employee respect one of your company values will increase retention and must be considered among the most important employee engagement strategies.