Frontline Employee Experience: The Why, What, and How

Written by Dieter Veldsman
10 minutes read

Recent social movements such as the anti-work movement, bai lan, and lying flat have expressed how dissatisfied deskless workers are with work. Employees within this category often form part of the frontline workforce in jobs in industries like retail, service, hospitality, manufacturing, health, and mining.

Frontline employees are instrumental in delivering client experience, given their proximity to customers. They also represent a significant part of the overall workforce. As global labor shortages lead to challenges in attracting and retaining talent, organizations must re-evaluate the effectiveness of their current frontline employee experience to remain competitive.

Let’s explore how businesses can design an impactful frontline employee experience.

Who are frontline workers?
The current reality of the frontline employee experience
A new frontline employee experience model
How HR can start improving the frontline employee experience

Who are frontline workers?

A frontline employee refers to an individual who works directly with customers or customers. This definition stretches across education levels and industries and includes employees from various skill backgrounds. Frontline workers are also referred to as deskless workers, as opposed to office or “deskbound” workers.

The frontline workforce represents over 2 billion workers worldwide and accounts for 80% of the workforce.

Frontline employee examples

NurseShop AssistantDelivery DriverAir Host
Thabo is a nurse working in the local community clinic. He works long shifts and sees patients for primary medical care and routine procedures such as vaccinations and check-ups.Diana is a shop assistant working in an electronics store, part of a global franchise. She helps clients with sales queries and questions about their latest products.Lakshmi is a delivery driver for a local courier business. She spends most of her day on the road delivering packages within her region of responsibility.Peter works for an airline as a host on their international flights. He is away from home for extended periods of time and is often called upon to fill in for resource shortages.

The current reality of the frontline employee experience

Even though the frontline workforce is the majority of working individuals, the employee experience of these workers is often neglected.

Microsoft reports that 58% of these workers believe their jobs will become more stressful in the coming years. Burnout amongst this workforce segment is at an all-time high. Post the pandemic, 74% of frontline workers displayed signs of burnout.

Conversations regarding remote working and hybrid models have excluded the needs of frontline workers given the location-bound requirements of the work. Furthermore, three out of four frontline employees state they want to be promoted, but less than one in four achieves this goal.

Organizations have struggled to reimagine the frontline employee experience for several reasons:

Perception of being “hard to reach”There is an existing perception that frontline workers are difficult to reach due to the large-scale and distributed nature of the employees. Often, initiatives and technologies implemented at head office are never cascaded to these employees or are not designed so frontline employees can effectively participate.
Being time-poorAs the roles of these employees are customer-facing, any initiatives that are not directly related to customer engagements are seen as “taking away time from selling or service.” While for knowledge workers, learning is seen as an investment, it is often seen as an “expense” for the frontline.

This is a limiting belief and often results in frontline workers using tea or lunchtime for activities that deskbound employees can access as part of their typical working day.
Limited access to technologyIn the past, the frontline workers did not all have access to technology. Organizations could not or would not enable them in the same manner as their deskbound counterparts. In some industries, there has also been an overarching belief that frontline workers do not want, need, or have the ability to engage with technologies.

For example, online training is often inaccessible to frontline employees due to bandwidth or device constraints, a lack of computer skills, or they are not developed in an online format.
Work arrangementsOften, frontline workers are tied to specific organizational shifts and operating hours. As such, various initiatives need to be repeated for all employees to be able to participate, or employees need to participate outside of their regular shifts.

A practical example is a hospitality business that made their employees attend compulsory training after working the night shift. Half of the class fell asleep within the first 30 minutes of the program aimed at their development.

Even though some of the reasons might have been valid in the past, many of these barriers to creating engaging frontline employee experiences no longer apply. Technological advances, new work arrangements, and flexible practices are all contributing factors that pose new opportunities for the frontline employee experience.

A new frontline employee experience model

The model below complements our previous work on employee experience design. At its core, is the belief that employees should be treated as consumers of the organizational experience. As such, businesses should design experiences according to the same principles that apply to a customer market segment design.

We propose three principles and four practices that should be the foundations of all frontline employee experiences.

The frontline employee experience model highlighting the key elements of EX.

Let’s break down the frontline employee experience model.

3 frontline employee experience principles

The three principles at the core of the model – autonomy, flexibility, and belonging – are essentially the intended outcomes of a well-designed frontline employee experience.

1. Autonomy

For the frontline employee, autonomy refers to the authority, responsibility, and opportunity to plan, execute, and manage their tasks and projects within the boundaries set by their organization’s objectives and guidelines.

Autonomy allows individuals to exercise their creativity, problem-solving skills, and judgment. That fosters a sense of ownership and empowerment in their roles. Autonomy does not imply a “free for all” system but rather more opportunities for frontline workers to participate in decisions that impact their work.


The Ritz-Carlton has a policy called the “$2,000 Rule,” which allows each employee, including service agents, to spend up to $2,000 per guest per day to resolve customer issues without seeking approval from higher-ups. This policy empowers employees to take immediate action to address guest concerns.

2. Flexibility 

Flexibility for frontline employees refers to the ability of employees to adapt their work arrangements, schedules, and tasks to accommodate their individual needs and circumstances while still meeting their job responsibilities and contributing effectively to their organization.

Given the nature of frontline employee responsibilities, many of this workforce segment are location-bound. Even when this is the case, innovative approaches could allow for more flexibility in scheduling, access to learning opportunities, and how shift workers can align their shifts to accommodate life preferences and responsibilities.


Starbucks is known for its flexible scheduling practices. They use an online scheduling system that allows employees to input their availability and preferences, making it easier for baristas and cashiers to balance work with other responsibilities.

3. Belonging

Frontline employees often feel disconnected or alienated from the organization. Even though they form part of a larger organization, they seldom interact with employees beyond their location or shift, leading to a sense of isolation.

Yet, Workday states that 79% of frontline workers who feel a sense of belonging at work have no plans to leave their employer. Creating a sense of belonging goes beyond social networking, but rather to help employees feel respected, supported, and recognized as valued members of the organization.


“H&M used to have the traditional employee experience of an intranet that no one used, a newsletter, and WhatsApp groups locally. And the employees said, well, we know we work for a larger organization. We have a hundred stores in the Netherlands where we don’t feel connected at all.

So then they started using Oneteam, where you can communicate with the entire company. It’s very interactive. You see a timeline with messages from other locations, and it’s a lot of fun. And they say, well, now we feel connected as one team.”

Ruben Wieman, Co-Founder of Oneteam

4 practices that underpin the frontline employee experience

Organizations need to put four specific practices in place to realize the three principles of the frontline employee experience. The model depicts these in its outer ring.

1. Designing meaningful work

Frontline work can be repetitive, monotonous, and strenuous. Organizations need to intentionally consider these factors when designing job activities and how they are executed on the front line beyond considerations such as safety and boredom. 

For example, rotating individual responsibilities within a retail store or providing employees the opportunity to work with new products in a different department are all ways of work that businesses can utilize to break the monotony of repetitive tasks. 

Apart from the actual activities, it is also important to show frontline employees how valued they are in the organization and how they contribute to business success. Too often, these employees are referred to by using “general” or “blanket” terms, which underplays their importance. Employers need to go beyond the numbers and ensure that leaders, especially at the executive level, build meaningful relationships with frontline employees.

For example, the CHRO of a well-known manufacturing business spends one day a month in different plants on the front line. They get to understand the working conditions of the employees, which enables them to make better decisions. Moreover, they also get the respect of the individuals as they are willing to get to know them.

Lastly, organizations have to acknowledge that for some employees, work is a way to earn a living and not necessarily a vocation. Frontline workers are sometimes “forced” to develop and move to other positions. If this is not in line with the ambitions and goals of the individual, organizations should not mandate employees to take part in these programs.

That said, it does not mean that businesses shouldn’t make development opportunities available. Rather, the frontline employee should have more say in their own career development.

2. Creating connections in the frontline

Organizations need to enable frontline employees to feel connected to other colleagues even though they might not be on the same shift or location. Technology can play a key role in helping employees connect with others. While their own team might be small, they still feel a sense of connectedness to the broader organization.

Similarly, this could entail including employees in broadcasts and messages and connecting locations together. A well-known global bank has a branch television show that all branch employees watch on Thursday mornings from 8:30 to 9:00 am before the bank opens to the public. All branches can interact, raise questions, and share information about what is happening within the broader business and in the regions.

Ruben Wieman, Co-Founder of deskless employee communication app Oneteam, gives another practical example of employee communication. “Before your first day, you have access to the platform, which will ask you to introduce yourself a little bit. Colleagues will see that notification, will give you a high five, and can comment.

A lot of times in these industries, people work part-time, so it might take a while before you actually see that new colleague. But then, with the app, everyone knows that this is a new colleague.”

Watch the full interview about the employee experience of deskless workers with Ruben Wieman:

3. Appropriate opportunities for growth

For many, frontline work is a way to enter the workforce. Often, these employees have growth ambitions related to aspirations, the opportunity to earn more or expand their skills. Frontline employees should have the opportunity to participate in career planning that is appropriate for them and aligned with their ambitions and what the organization can provide. This goes beyond access to mandatory training but also the opportunity to access digital learning opportunities, job rotations, and learning new skills.

As a good example, a media broadcaster intentionally facilitated that their “riggers” got to spend time with their camera crew to learn skills and enter into apprenticeships over time.

In some countries, the frontline employee is responsible for the livelihood of an extended family or community. Many organizations have utilized this opportunity to help with the development of the direct family of the employee to provide them with better future earning potential to also relieve some of the pressure on their own employees.

4. Investing in the holistic wellbeing of frontline employees

Frontline employee wellbeing is a critical factor not only in the experience but also in the sustained employment of the front line. Organizations need to prioritize the financial, mental, and physical wellbeing of frontline employees.

Due to the nature of the work, physical wellbeing is an important consideration concerning ergonomic work practice design, safety, regular health checks, and working conditions. Beyond safety regulations and hygiene factors, physical wellbeing should include proactive education on wellbeing and access to solutions. For example, mining companies use wearable technologies to monitor miners’ key health measures to ensure that they remain fit for work.

Financial wellbeing is an essential consideration for the front line. Organizations should provide appropriate financial planning services, help with basics such as budgeting, and the opportunity for employees to build wealth while still tending to current financial responsibilities.  

An organization employing frontline workers implemented a savings scheme where their employees reaped significant rewards and substantial payouts after a number of years. However, the lack of financial planning and education can lead to employees spending all that money immediately on cars and other material expenses, negating the intended purpose of helping these employees accumulate wealth.

In terms of the mental wellbeing of the frontline workers, employers should look at traditional employee assistance programs (EAP) and their applicability to the frontline. Often, the services provided by EAPs do not extend to rural areas outside of metropolitan areas. Unfortunately, this inhibits access to these services for frontline workers.

In some more traditional industries, mental wellbeing of frontline workforce is still stigmatized, and it’s seen as a sign of weakness in these communities. Organizations should actively work to address these perceptions and find practical solutions that proactively educate and enable frontline employees to remain in good mental health.

How HR can start improving the frontline employee experience

To address the frontline employee experience, HR can prioritize the following three actions:

Action 1: Get to know who the frontline employee is

The first action is to better understand who the human being is that forms part of the frontline workforce for the organization. Frontline employee groups are not homogenous, so their needs and preferences will differ.

HR should use talent segmentation techniques to create persona profiles of their frontline employees to better identify their needs.

Action 2: Start with one frontline employee-focused experience

Prioritization will be important for HR to gain traction in revisiting the frontline employee experience. Instead of long plans and big, unachievable dreams, the HR department should focus on optimizing one aspect of the frontline experience as a short-term win. Based on the actions taken in understanding who the frontline employee is, HR should prioritize and move to action.

An example of this could be a retail business deciding to improve their cashier and retail assistant onboarding process. Instead of overhauling the entire employee training, they start with a targeted, actionable initiative.

Action 3: Implement a listening strategy

HR should implement an employee listening strategy that allows frontline employee voices to be heard and considered in business decision-making. This can be through surveys, focus groups, town halls and engagements, and other ways to drive dialogue.

The purpose is to make frontline voices part of the organizational dialogue and gather input and feedback from those who know best how the experience can be improved – the frontline workers themselves.

Final words

The frontline employee experience significantly contributes not only to organizational success but also to building sustainable economies. By taking action, HR can play a key role in reinventing the frontline employee experience to benefit the individual, organization, and society as a whole.

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Dieter Veldsman

Chief HR Scientist
Dr. Dieter Veldsman is an Organizational Psychologist with 15+ years of experience across the HR value chain and lifecycle, having worked for and consulted with various organizations in EMEA, APAC, and LATAM. He has held the positions of Group Chief People Officer, Organizational Effectiveness Executive, Director of Consulting Solutions, and Chief Research Scientist. He is a regular speaker on the topics of Strategic HR, Future of Work, Employee Experience, and Organizational Development.

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