Frontline workers saw sharpest fall in engagement during Covid, study finds

While many office-based employees have enjoyed improved flexibility, pressures stemming from the pandemic have had ‘predictable impact’ on other staff

Employee engagement has decreased for workers on the frontline over the last year, according to the 2021 State of Employee Engagement report, and has slightly increased for office-based workers.

The report, conducted by WorkBuzz in association with HRZone, found that 49 per cent of organisations with mostly frontline or on-site workers have seen engagement decline over the past year.

In comparison, just 31 per cent of organisations that were mostly office-based or remote, and 36 per cent of firms that were a mix of office and frontline, saw engagement decline over the same period.

Firms that were mostly office-based or mixed were also more likely to have seen an improvement in employee engagement over the last year (35 and 37 per cent respectively) compared to firms that were mostly frontline (25 per cent).

A quarter of office-based firms (25 per cent), 19 per cent of mixed and 18 per cent of frontline firms said employee engagement stayed the same, while 9, 7 and 9 per cent respectively answered ‘don’t know’.

The survey polled more than 300 HR professionals and industry experts in July and August 2021, with the majority (65 per cent) working in private sector organisations.

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Steven Frost, CEO and founder of WorkBuzz, said the pressures of Covid and its impact on the health and wellbeing of frontline workers – as well as their inability to work remotely – had “predictably impacted engagement”.

“We’re now seeing the inevitable fallout,” he said, adding that these findings should be a “wake-up call” for employers. 

“Low engagement will lead to their talent walking out the door, and make it even more difficult to recruit,” he said. “With such a shortfall of talent, there’s never been a more important time to become an employer of choice and retain existing employees.”

Sean Nolan, founder of Blink, added that the pandemic had exacerbated long-term challenges for frontline workers, including the lack of opportunities to voice their concerns. “Being in direct contact with customers, frontline workers have valuable experiences and feedback to share, yet their views are rarely solicited or taken on board,” he said.

“People become engaged when they feel seen and heard – so give them a channel to offer feedback. Over time, their emerging insights can trigger innovation,” he said.

Nolan added that outdated technology poses efficiency challenges for workers, who have had to “make do with a labyrinth of clunky technology that is rarely mobile-first... unsurprisingly, this is a massive drain on efficiency – and engagement.”

In contrast, the report found that office-based employees who had the ability to work remotely saw benefits such as reduced travel costs and an improved ability to juggle childcare with work during the pandemic.

The report suggested employers offer comparable benefits to frontline staff, such as enhanced pay, a reduction in weekend work, enhanced holidays and breaks, and more favourable shift patterns.