Why connecting frontline managers is good for business

by Matt Bochenski

Brand new research shows how organizations are neglecting essential frontline managers. We dig into the data and explore five reasons to start connecting them.

Frontline employees, also known as deskless or dispersed workers, make up roughly 80% of the world’s workforce. They account for a huge variety of roles, from shop assistants, kitchen staff and truck drivers to nurses, pilots, sales teams and factory workers.

Over the last few years, there’s been an increasing focus on how technology can connect and support these frontline workers. But there’s one role that’s often fallen through the cracks: The frontline manager.

The challenges of connecting frontline managers

Frontline managers are in the bottom tier of most organization’s leadership structure, which means they get precious little time and attention from the C-suite. When you look at the data, that’s clearly a mistake.

Frontline managers make up roughly 60% of a company’s management ranks, and oversee up to 80% of the entire workforce. That means they wield significant influence. But according to new research conducted by Coleman Parkes on behalf of Workplace, 59% of frontline managers don’t feel like head office is nurturing their careers. While only 43% say leaders regularly consult them on business decisions that affect customers - even though their teams work directly with those customers every day.

Download Deskless Not Voiceless 2020 to get the full picture from our in-depth frontline research report with over 9,000 people in eight countries worldwide.

In many organizations, the connection between HQ and frontline is paper-thin. Literally. Notice boards and posters are still a primary means of business communication. Perhaps a senior leader will visit a store or plant once a month, but what do they really achieve beyond creating a bunch of headaches for the people who work there?

While the research shows that business communication strategies have improved in response to COVID-19 (the number of frontline managers who think there’s a communication gap in their organization has dropped from 60% to 25% since the pandemic), frontline and HQ employees remain fundamentally disconnected.

This expresses itself in a couple of critical ways. First, they’re using different tools to talk to each other. While 90% of HQ managers relied on email to communicate during lockdown, barely a quarter of their frontline counterparts did the same. Instead, over half of frontline managers turned to messaging apps on their personal devices.

But perhaps more important is the perception that frontline and office-based managers belong to different cultures. Only 25% of HQ managers say their empathy for frontline colleagues has increased over the course of the pandemic. This will come as a surprise to the 59% of frontline managers who think their colleagues in HQ now better understand the issues they’re facing.

Perhaps frontline managers wouldn't feel these disconnects so severely if they could simply focus on their core responsibilities - running teams, solving problems and looking after customers. But even that isn’t the case. A McKinsey study found that frontline managers spend anything up to 60% of their time on administrative tasks. According to that report, managers can spend as little as 10% of their time actually managing.

That’s not just bad for individual morale. When you oversee 80% of the workforce, your personal frustrations can quickly become an issue that has a company-wide impact.

Empowering frontline managers to unlock their potential

Why are frontline managers being neglected? Especially when they’re so close to a company’s core business processes? And don’t forget: Frontline managers are often the face of an organization to customers. You want that face to be a happy one if customers are going to have the best experience possible with your business.

In part, the lack of urgency in connecting frontline managers is rooted in an old-fashioned view of their role. Traditionally, the perception of the frontline manager is little more than a link between management on one side and workers on the other. Their job is simply to pass on information from the top or enforce company policy.

But this overlooks the ability of frontline managers to play a much more central role in the business. As we’ve discussed, frontline managers oversee the teams that have day-to-day contact with customers. That gives them unique access to customer insights and feedback. They know what’s working and what isn’t (and they probably know why) - long before these things become apparent back at corporate headquarters.

The goal for organizations should be to tap into that potential and empower frontline managers to make decisions or act on opportunities that only they can see. So it’s disheartening to see that the number who felt empowered to make decisions dropped from 64% to 50% during the pandemic. In contrast, the number of HQ leaders who say they’re empowered to make decisions has grown from 71% to 78%. Far from encouraging autonomy among frontline managers, organizations are becoming more centralized than ever.

Looking for tips to connect and empower frontline managers? Download the guide to discover 7 essential strategies

How do we reverse that trend?

Businesses need a strategy to engage, nurture and listen to frontline managers consistently. And it starts by connecting them - to headquarters (including the C-suite), to their own workforce, and to their peers. Only by connecting frontline managers can companies give them the context, the tools and the training they need to reach their potential.

When that happens, you move from a world of trickle-down impact, where decisions are made at the top and pushed out through a rigid hierarchy, to a ripple-up effect, where insights and knowledge from the bottom lead to better-informed decisions further up the chain.

  1. Get information quickly and directly from senior leaders
  2. Ask questions and give feedback
  3. Understand company priorities
  4. Communicate with their peers
  5. Communicate with their team

This leads to both individual benefits for the frontline manager and broader benefits for the company itself.

Five benefits of being connected

#1: Motivated managers lead to happier customers

When frontline managers are connected to HQ, they have more access to information about business goals and strategy. That makes it easier to understand the contribution their team makes to those goals and their part in the overall strategy. That added context makes for more motivated managers.

From a company-wide perspective, frontline managers greatly influence employee morale and employee engagement (remember, they oversee up to 80% of the entire workforce). More motivated managers lead to more engaged teams, which drives both employee sentiment and better customer experiences.

#2: Autonomous managers lead to more agile companies

Connected managers don’t just pass on information. Because they understand their role in company strategy, they’re also empowered to make decisions and solve problems on their initiative, rather than simply passing them back up the ladder or, even worse, ignoring them altogether.

The business benefit of more autonomous frontline managers is that the entire company becomes more agile. Problems are identified earlier and solved quicker - before they can grow and spread to other parts of the business. Over the long term, this helps connected companies improve productivity.

#3: Influential managers drive better decisions

Most frontline managers have never been able to contact their company’s senior leaders. When they’re connected, they can provide unique and unfiltered feedback that can influence decisions that make the entire company better.

This is a game-changer for companies. Imagine a group of executives in a boardroom examining a chart that shows falling productivity at a factory. They can concoct any number of theories to explain the numbers. But actually hearing from the line supervisor gives them a ground-level view they’d never otherwise be able to hear. That leads to better, faster decision making.

#4: Engaged managers carry the culture

CEOs and CHROs spend a lot of their time designing strategies to improve culture. But those strategies are executed on the ground - and frontline managers are the critical audience. When they’re connected, they’re more likely to be true culture carriers, with the time and inclination to pass that culture on to their teams.

Why do companies care about this? Because there’s a growing understanding that people, not just profits, are essential to long-term business health. But CHROs can’t be everywhere. By leveraging frontline managers as committed culture carriers, they can dramatically scale the reach and success of their people programs.

#5: Better trained managers impact long-term performance

Companies have typically underinvested in training for frontline managers. When they’re connected to their peers, it’s easier for them to receive informal training through sharing best practices and asking questions, rather than waiting for infrequent (or nonexistent) classroom training.

The impact of a better-trained workforce is obvious. Increased productivity, better customer service, fewer fires. But over the longer term, investment in training, whether formal or informal, cements a more fundamental change in mindset when it comes to the role and expectations of frontline managers as the center of the modern workforce.

Summary

Frontline managers may be the most important - and most overlooked - employees in an organization. Traditionally, their role has been to enforce policies and pass on information that trickles down from above. But by using technology to connect frontline managers to the C-suite, their teams and their peers, companies can empower them to make decisions, solve problems and deliver impact that ripples up from the bottom to the top.

When frontline managers are connected, they’re more motivated, more autonomous, have greater influence, are better trained and can inspire cultural change. All of those benefits lead to a direct business impact.

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