Jordan Ekers is the co-founder and COO of Nudge, the digital communications platform for deskless and frontline employees.
As we return to some semblance of normalcy, we’ve now found ourselves in the midst of one of the most significant labor crises of our time. No industry has been left untouched by the impact of Covid-19, but organizations from food service, retail, hospitality, manufacturing and many other deskless industries are being hit particularly hard by labor shortages and turnover. For example, the turnover rate for the U.S. hospitality industry hit 130.7% last year, and retail turnover is 1.5 times the general rate.
But why is this labor crisis hitting deskless and frontline organizations so deeply? I’ve observed five major themes:
1. Safety Trepidation
Many frontline workers have been subject to higher contraction rates. Factories and warehouses in particular have been identified as the culprit for many large-scale outbreaks and super spreader events. There are many reasons for these outbreaks, but PPE shortages and a lack of safety protocols, especially at the start of the pandemic, were definitely issues. In fact, research conducted by Shift in March and April 2020 showed that a mere 16% of employees at big-box superstores had access to a mask, and that number goes down to 4% for fast-food workers.
Of course, regulations pushed organizations to standardize their safety protocols long-term, but I’ve noticed that the safety concerns among employees linger. The prioritization of basic health and safety for the most vulnerable and traditionally marginalized has instilled a sense of insecurity and fear among some frontline workforces.
2. Burnout, Burnout, Burnout
A widespread sense of burnout (paywall) has been prevalent among frontline workers. During the pandemic, organizations relied on skeleton crews to maintain the same level of productivity. And while some have adapted quickly, most are still struggling to adjust and balance expectations.
The same level of output pre-pandemic with a much smaller staff, who have to take into account rigorous health and safety precautions, has created situations where burnout is so rampant that it is no longer the exception but the rule. One study found that the pandemic has increased the strain on mental health in frontline workers due to “greater workloads, longer shifts and exhaustion, safety concerns stemming from inadequate equipment, high threat of exposure, and increased need to make ethically challenging decisions.”
By extension, employees are overwhelmed at work and becoming more anxious. This has left many workers who have no choice but to make an ultimatum: continue on this self-destructive path or choose to leave a job with no new employment on the horizon.
3. The (Sudden) Need For Meaningful Contribution
Since the outset of the pandemic, many deskless workers have been unable to find meaning and a sense of belonging in their day-to-day work. This has given many people a push to reassess their life, creating the “Great Resignation.” In April alone, 4 million people quit their jobs. And according to a Microsoft study, an additional 41% of workers worldwide are seeking to leave their jobs this year.
Employees across all industries have cited a shift in their perspective. People are reevaluating their career paths after an unprecedented year, which gave space to reflect on priorities and what people want from life. In my experience, what employees are seeking is more than just the assurance of being paid: They want to be valued and treated with respect. They want recognition for their efforts, a sense of belonging and to contribute to something greater than just a sales quota at an hourly wage. Unfortunately, organizations are struggling to align with these new worker needs.
4. Government Subsidies Competing With Minimum Wage
While workers across various industries have led the charge for increasing the federal minimum wage and higher wages in general, many companies are still slow to implement living wages. And that’s a problem right now because Covid-19-related government subsidies have created a situation whereby people are making more money by staying home than they would otherwise make by heading to work.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable: Why choose to work when unemployment insurance, with an additional $300/week, allows employees to make more by not putting their lives at risk? To match these government benefits and restore their talent pipeline, companies including Walmart and Chipotle have increased wages. This investment in employee support is a necessity that helps counter the feeling of being dispensable held by many frontline workers.
5. Workers Still Needed At Home
Plenty of frontline and deskless workers, especially working mothers, have had to leave the workforce to care for their children. Insufficient child care, low wages and government benefits led many to stay at home versus working, and broader implementation of parental support is moving at a glacial pace.
Many frontline workers have cited an inability to find child care solutions that meet their needs as the main reason for not returning to work. In fact, according to this study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 11% of parents declined a new job opportunity or career advancement to provide child care, and around 6% have left the workforce entirely.
Navigating The Post-Pandemic Rebuild
Our collective recovery will come with plenty of bumps in the road ahead as the shortage can inhibit growth and cause unnecessary work stoppages, business failures, long lines and, most importantly, rising prices. From talking to many different organizations over the past year, it’s clear that to begin recovery thoughtfully, organizations must engage and support their employees to make them feel inspired and valued.
Those who will rise to the top will be organizations who have found ways to connect their brand to their workforce by prioritizing and championing their workers, creating a positive business and an equitable form of societal recovery.