The global pandemic has empowered employees to reevaluate what they want from work. This movement has led to the "Great Resignation," leaving the U.S. with a significant labor shortage. In February 2022 alone, 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs, and the U.S. Labor Department reported there were 11.3 million job openings to fill — slightly more than economists had predicted. The industries most impacted by the mass exodus included retail, hospitality, manufacturing and state and local government education jobs.
Job happiness and satisfaction are also at a 20-year low, according to the most recent MetLife U.S. Employee Benefits Trends Study. Overall, 66% of employees surveyed say they are satisfied with their current job. This figure is down from 72% in 2021 and 74% in 2019. Among workers whose job descriptions include some form of manual labor, job happiness was nearly 20 points lower.
It’s easy to assume that workers are increasingly unhappy because they’ve worked at home for two years and are now being called back to offices. However, the data on who is quitting at the highest rates tells a different story. We’re seeing teachers, hotel and restaurant workers, delivery drivers, manufacturing line workers and truck drivers leaving in high numbers. It’s not an accident that most workers handing in their resignations are in industries where work never really stopped.
As internal communicators, what is our role in reversing this trend? How can corporate communicators be part of the solution in attracting and retaining great talent?
How We Got Here: The Pandemic and Beyond
The pandemic exacerbated this situation, but frontline employee happiness was already headed for a downslide. Many companies are just now waking up to the fact that the work life of a frontline employee might not be all that great. There are a lot of bad jobs out there.
Let’s look at the truck driver shortage, impacting supply chains worldwide. Being a trucker is a difficult lifestyle. It has serious health repercussions; the pay and health benefits are insufficient to cover them. It’s dangerous. It’s lonely. Trucking companies are not doing enough — or can’t do enough — to make that job more compelling.
On top of that, truckers are often left out of corporate communications because they’re constantly on the road, don’t use email as frequently and can’t easily hop on Zoom with their office counterparts to catch up on company news.
During the pandemic, the overwhelming focus on deskbound workers has contributed to already simmering resentments with frontline workers. This was a mistake on the part of employers. Frontline employees vastly outnumber deskbound workers.
The U.S. alone reports that there are 31.67 million frontline workers. Yet, leadership is hyper-focused on how to build a hybrid work environment for office workers, leaving frontline teams out of the conversation entirely.
The Role of Internal Comms: All Are Welcome Here
The issue at hand comes back to not feeling valued by employers and, in many cases, left out of internal communications. Having spent time as a frontline manager in restaurants and retail, I know the challenges that poor corporate communication creates, and I bring that experience to my job every day.
Internal communicators can be a powerful force in improving employee happiness. We can speak truth to power and provide a direct line between leadership and workers, expressing what they need to stay with the company. We can provide tangible evidence to leadership that their people are their biggest asset. If we want to retain talent, we need to go above and beyond to acknowledge how essential frontline workers are to the business's success.
But this has to be authentic. Employees can see through feigned appreciation. The shift toward a recognition culture has to be genuine.
Internal comms can practice active employee listening and present data to leadership that proves the importance of improving the employee experience. Internal communicators must think more about a holistic, consistent employee experience for everyone, whether they work at a desk or drive thousands of miles away from the office.
If leaders want to learn what needs improvement, the best way is to go directly to your employees and ask them. Here are three ways employers and communications teams can be more inclusive and supportive of their frontline employees:
- Show transparency and authenticity. Part of showing employees you value them is being able to tell them the truth. Some employees will leave when you give them bad news, but the people you want to stay will appreciate knowing the whole truth.
- Get out there. Work the front line. Show up at the plant, front desk or restaurant and work alongside your employees. Don’t just scream out propaganda from the corner office without understanding the employee experience at your company for people across departments, locations and roles.
- Stop forcing positivity. People see through that so quickly, especially if it feels untrue. If there are challenges at your company, you have to acknowledge them. Ignoring them or constantly trying to spin them sends the message that you don’t understand what’s going on — or worse, you don’t care.
Everyone must feel included and believe their voice matters. They want to work for a company that treats them with respect. They also want to know about their health benefits, policy changes and opportunities for training and development. This includes every part of the employee journey, from onboarding to the exit interview, and it goes beyond having fun at work. It includes your employees’ well-being and whether or not they feel valued.
Amy Jenkins is the director of client success and strategy at theEMPLOYEEapp, where she helps clients develop communication strategies that will achieve business outcomes. Prior to that, Jenkins led internal communications at Chipotle for 10 years. She is passionate about internal and employee communications and believes that being able to deliver the right information to the right people in the right way at the right time is essential to building a better employee experience. Jenkins attributes her success in communications to having worked jobs as a frontline/deskless employee and manager and learning how to advocate for the needs of this employee group in the organization.