Businesses need to take responsibility for retaining staff who cannot work remotely

Employers need to do more to ensure the safety and wellbeing of frontline workers who cannot do their jobs from home, argue Ian MacRae and Roberta Sawatzky

There are now more than one million job vacancies in the UK and a looming retention crisis. While many people stayed in jobs to ride out the initial instability of the Covid pandemic, many people are looking to change roles.

Two trends have become incredibly clear in the labour market over the course of 2020-21:

  • There is a labour shortage and corresponding retention crisis.

  • People can be highly effective working remotely, but not everyone can work remotely.

While there has been excellent research and discussion generated over the past two years, building on previous research about remote working, the workers who must be in a physical space have received less consideration.

Labour shortages are becoming an international challenge; with limited international labour mobility, a larger proportion of older workers taking retirement or temporarily exiting the labour force, and population distributions in most developed economies that mean there are not enough young workers entering the workforce to fill all job vacancies, labour shortages will be an ongoing challenge for employers for the coming years, not just months. Focusing on employee retention will be absolutely essential.

Yet there still tends to be significant gulfs between head offices, HR departments and the public-facing locations that require people to be onsite. Remote work is not, and has never been, an option for many of these employees. And the combined challenges from ever-shifting pandemic rules and restrictions, chronic understaffing, stock shortages, logistical challenges, and rising prices all fuel stress for frontline staff.

The questions that every people manager and every member of the HR department should ask themselves are:

  • Would you work a full shift in one of your frontline locations?

  • What would it take for you to feel both physically and psychologically safe in these locations?

  • Do you currently have these safeguards in place?

For some organisations, the answer to all three of these questions would be positive and proactive, but for many more it would not be.

There are examples of people from head offices spending time or working in different locations, but those examples are rare. Would your supermarket CEO spend a full shift in one of the retail locations? Would a government minister spend a week at the coalface in person? Or would the senior leadership team spend a week in a manufacturing plant, following all the safety precautions as they are practiced (not just as they are written). If so, why not?

Here are two examples that are representative of millions of people working across the company. These types of situations happen every day, and help to explain why so many people are looking to change jobs, working environments, careers, or simply choose not to participate in the labour force right now.

Example 1: Manuel

Manuel, 17 and studying, works as a barista in a neighbourhood coffee shop. While most of the patrons are locals, they frequently have visitors from out of town come to enjoy their quality service, home baking, and great coffee. A people person, this is a great first job for Manuel. He fully supports public health advice for wearing masks and social distancing, as do the bulk of the customers. The owners of the café even installed plexiglass barriers to further protect their employees.

All was going well, until one day he experienced his first confrontation with a non-compliant customer. Even with clear signs posted on the exterior of the café clearly stating masks be worn, and only two customers allowed in at a time, this individual decided the rules didn’t apply to him. Manuel, always upbeat and friendly, outlined the requirement for masks and limited capacity to the customer, only to be met with an onslaught of anger and verbal abuse. Manuel stood his ground and refused to serve the customer. Eventually the individual left, but not before leaving the barista badly shaken. Manuel did not feel in physical danger, but emotionally he still bears the scars of dealing with the abuse. Manuel needs this job; he doesn’t have an option to quit and find other employment that is more psychologically safe.   

Example 2: Sabrina

Sabrina worked at the front desk for a community policing service. As the key point of contact for multiple stakeholders, she was responsible for providing both internal and external customer service in an extremely charged and stress-filled environment. In her role, Sabrina was responsible for working with highly confidential information. While many of her co-workers were able to work remotely    , her position required that she be physically present. Sabrina had always enjoyed her job and felt like she made a valuable contribution to the department and community, but before long she found herself feeling not only isolated, but incredibly vulnerable.

However, things escalated when a horrific ‘death by cop’ incident happened right outside her door in the car park. Adding to her already fragile emotional state came the reality of physical danger; if the event had not happened during a shift change, nothing would have prevented the perpetrator coming into the building and being face-to-face with Sabrina. In recalling the incident, she shuddered at what could have happened. Shortly after, Sabrina quit: understandable. The policing service lost a competent and valuable employee that day.  

What can businesses do?

While both these situations present different challenges, the fact remains that neither Sabrina nor Manuel had a choice about whether to work remotely. Furthermore, they were both working alone and had no social or psychological support. These are difficult situations to deal with for anyone, but much harder to face alone. Sabrina made the decision to leave her job and change her career path, while Manuel remained and deals with the apprehension of potential confrontations. The common theme in both these situations is that the employee was not part of the conversation determining what they needed to feel both physically and psychologically safe. Neither had supervisors who fully comprehended the reality of their daily challenges. Frontline workers, individuals in the service and hospitality industry, and many other professions are feeling left out of the picture and the conversation.  

Talking about this is not intended to minimise the very real and difficult challenges that people are facing in every workplace, whether it is in offices, retail shops, storefronts, or even working remotely. But staff shortages and retention crises should make everyone who manages people ask themselves what measures would make them feel physically and psychologically safe working in a customer-facing job right now and over the coming months.

Ian MacRae is a work psychologist and author of Dark Social. Roberta Sawatzky is a professor at Okanagan School of Business in Canada, and a remote work consultant