Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

The age of the frontline worker

January 12, 2022, 3:05 PM UTC
The pandemic has helped frontline workers get over their fear of automation and demand better tech.
John Moore - Getty Images

The pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone, but it has weighed especially heavily on the shoulders of the two billion frontline workers who never went home to work. From healthcare to hospitality, the manufacturing floor to the retail sales floor, these workers have weathered health risks, labor shortages, supply chain issues, and more.

Nearly 90% of all organizations rely on frontline workers, which means almost every organization across every industry has faced the same challenge: how to prioritize the needs of this critical workforce while still being able to keep the doors open.

Data from Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index shows we’re at an inflection point. Frontline workers feel culture and communication have not been prioritized, doubt stress will improve, and feel underserved by tech and training.

While the numbers reflect a tough reality, they also represent a significant opportunity for leaders to empower frontline employees with the tech they need, and to align business outcomes with their wellbeing and growth.

This reprioritization will take many shapes, but over the next five years, I anticipate we’ll see a marked change in three particular areas:

Tech will empower frontline workers

Tech is unlocking new ways for frontline work to be done. From the rise of telehealth and virtual doctor’s visits to using augmented reality headsets on the manufacturing floor, we’ve seen the monthly use of Microsoft tech on the frontline grow 400% since the spring of 2020.

Fear of automation is beginning to shift to optimism. In our study, 63% of frontline employees are excited about the job opportunities tech creates and tech ranks third on the list of factors workers say could help reduce workplace stress.

As industries that rely on frontline workers deliver increasingly complex products and services, frontline jobs are becoming more sophisticated–from the tools these workers use to their freedom to make decisions. Their actions and insights now have the power to drive real impact and business success.

Whether it’s an inefficient approval process or insufficient tools, a frontline worker’s hands are often tied when faced with a unique customer request. But when companies equip their frontline with the right tech to communicate, gather information, and adapt, they’re empowered with the flexibility and autonomy to provide exceptional, personalized customer service and patient care.

Most importantly, this calls for a mindset shift at the top that ensures frontline workers are equipped with the right tools and empowered to make real change for the clients, customers, and patients they serve.

Tech will open the doors to new career paths

At many companies today, there’s an unspoken barrier between workers on the ground and those in corporate offices, but lines between these two groups will blur as frontline workers reskill and their roles become increasingly infused with tech. Welcoming more frontline candidates into corporate roles will invite their valuable firsthand customer insight and empathy into business operations and decisions.

It will take more than just encouraging those on the frontline to apply for posted job openings. Our research shows 55% of frontline workers have had to learn new tech on the fly, with no formal training or practice. We’ve found that intentional support such as shadowing or mentoring programs and role-specific training can help build the bridge for candidates from the frontline to grow their careers and make an impact in a new way.

If done right, we could see a future where certifications and training spur career growth and help employees economically in the same way diplomas do today.

We’re experiencing this at Microsoft too. Amid the pandemic in 2020, we closed nearly all our physical Microsoft Store locations, accelerating our journey to become a digital-first retailer, and reskilling more than 2,000 of our store associates. Hundreds of these employees have since advanced their careers in new roles across Microsoft. Equipped with skills from our function-specific training, they’re able to bring their customer-facing perspective to new teams at the company.

Caring will be the new currency for leaders–and tech can help

Widespread burnout and the strain of turnover have made wellbeing an urgent business imperative. Our research found that 58% of the frontline workers believe work-related stress will not improve over the next year, and 51% of those in non-management positions don’t feel valued as employees.

I believe we are reaching a pivotal point in the history of work. Going forward, the wellbeing of the frontline will be embedded into the culture of the business and a metric for success.

This pressing need has already led to the category creation of employee experience platforms to support wellbeing and engagement. Individuals must be equipped with tools to take care of their needs, and managers must have listening systems that help them measure and support their team’s wellbeing, just as one might track sales goals.

Frontline workers are integral to the way companies operate, and the time to act and reprioritize this essential workforce is now. This moment is an opportunity to do the right thing for your frontline workers and your business–because caring for the frontline is core to the bottom line.

Jared Spataro is a corporate vice president in the Modern Work division at Microsoft, where he helps organizations of all sizes and industries digitally transform and adjust to remote and hybrid work. He partners closely with Microsoft researchers and engineers as they work together to share insights and build technology that will shape the next era of work.

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.