The real return on frontline investment - Part II

by Sean Oliver, on February 19, 2020

Last week, we dug into some of the staggering statistics around the state of employee engagement on the frontline and the very real business consequences of not anticipating and working to solve for these issues.

This week, we’re taking a deeper dive into the research around what it really looks like to connect with your team - not just to communicate with them, but to motivate and engage them to in turn create better business.

In 2015, a group of researchers at Harvard Business School conducted an extensive exploration into the drivers of motivation in the workplace. What they found was that, regardless of role, the following tends to hold true: “that why people work determines how well they work — that someone’s motive for doing a task determines their performance”. They also identified a set of “motives” for doing work, which tend to have a consistently positive or negative impact on motivation and performance.

Positive Motives:
  • Play (novelty, curiosity, experimentation)
  • Purpose (the work matters)
  • Potential (they are improved by the work)

    Negative Motives:
  • Emotional Pressure (shame, guilt, insecurity)
  • Economic Pressure (mercenary behavior)
  • Inertia (no motive)

    For a frontline worker, the motives one has for doing work are not driven from the top down through an organization. Rather, motives are driven by employees’ direct supervisors and immediate teams. But as observed in McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index, senior leaders are more positive than frontline workers about the ability of their organizations to perform over the long term - and their ability to adequately communicate what peak performance looks like:

    "The biggest discrepancies concern perceptions of whether organizations have the ability to motivate their employees—to engender the enthusiasm that propels extraordinary effort and delivers great results—and assessments of whether their leaders can inspire action by others. Not surprisingly, top managers also overestimate their visibility: for example, separate McKinsey research shows that during transformations, 86 percent of senior executives believe that they are actively demonstrating the change they want employees to make, but only 53 percent of employees do."

    On average, frontline workers make up about 80% of a company’s total workforce. It would startle many senior leaders to learn that the majority of their employees hold such different views regarding the company’s future success. But such a disconnect shouldn’t be surprising when you consider just how dysfunctional large, hierarchical organizations can become over time.

    An Edison Research study found that 79% of frontline workers say they receive company communications via in-person communication and 52% via written memo. However, the landscape of the workplace has indisputably changed and today 82% of workers under the age of 34 say that technology is an important factor in helping them determine whether they want to take a job.

    Over the past 20 years, technology has become ubiquitous in our lives, both personally and professionally. But for frontline workers, little has changed. The retailers and other large frontline employers investing in their workers are the ones with the highest customer satisfaction and the lowest employee turnover. These are the places people want to work, not because of the paycheck, but because of the purpose they feel as a valued member of a team.

    After investing in a digital workplace like Crew, SONIC franchisee K&S Restaurants improved their communication and ability to recognize the hard work of their employees - and saw a 23% uptick in retention.

    How does your team improve communications, motivation and engagement? Let us know on Twitter!

    Original version of this post can be found on
Topics:Employee Engagement