As the world recovers after the disruption of the pandemic, the future of the workplace looks very different. Phrases like ‘hybrid working’ have entered everyday work language, and employees and business leaders alike are rethinking what they need, what they want and what success looks like. Throughout the crisis, businesses and workers have been classified and reclassified as ‘essential’, ‘key’, or ‘frontline’. But what do these terms really mean? And crucially, how can business leaders and managers make sure that all members of the workforce are included and involved in plans for change and success?

What is considered to be a frontline worker?

What is considered to be a frontline worker?

The term ‘frontline worker’ has become increasingly familiar since the onset of the COVID crisis, to the point where it’s rarely, if ever, explained. ‘Frontline worker’ is often used interchangeably with ‘key worker’ and ‘essential worker’ – someone who works in a business that’s so essential it has to keep operating regardless of crisis or challenge. But there’s a real difference, in that someone who works on the ‘front line’ of their business needs to be physically present to deliver their work.

However, according to research by Brookings, there’s little or no clarity on how many of the people who work in essential industries, like healthcare, hospitality, utilities and transport management, are also frontline workers, and there’s no legal definition of a frontline worker. Meanwhile, Econofact defines frontline workers as ‘a subcategory of essential workers’ in occupation groups where over 70% of workers can’t feasibly work from home. And it estimates that they make up 52% of all workers – a large group, and an under-appreciated one with average wages lower than all workers.

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Is a frontline worker the same as a key worker?

Is a frontline worker the same as a key worker?

During the pandemic, the UK’s Department for Education published an official list of key workers, support and specialist staff who were working in industries which were crucial to keeping essential services going during the COVID response.

These included people working in:

  • health and social care, such as doctors, nurses, midwives, paramedics, social workers and teachers

  • public services, including journalists, people providing religious services, the staff of the legal system and charity teams

  • local government

  • food production and distribution

  • public safety and national security

  • utilities, communications and financial services

But although all these are evidently key workers in essential industries, it’s clear that many of them could, and did, do their jobs remotely. This served the purposes of the pandemic response. But the return to the workplace has highlighted the differences between those who traditionally operate from a desk, and those who are always needed on the shopfloor, in factories, on the roads, in public places or in the field.

Other relevant terms for non-office-based workers

Other relevant terms for non-office-based workers

Although all these terms are often used interchangeably, there are clear differences:

  • A frontline worker is someone who must be physically present in order to deliver their work

  • An essential worker is someone who works to deliver an essential product or service, whether on the frontline or remotely

  • A key worker, similar to an essential worker, is someone who works in one of the Government’s designated ‘key industries’

  • A deskless worker is one of the majority of people globally who work without an office or a desk. They may not be frontline or essential workers – think salespeople and people working on the factory floor. In total these workers are estimated to make up 80% of the world's workforce

  • A distributed team is one where members are spread over geographical locations and may also have different working patterns, shifts or be in different time zones. Some distributed teams meet either virtually or occasionally face-to-face, but others may work almost wholly separately. This means businesses can benefit from round-the-clock working or having specialist in-house teams without the expenses of large offices. But it also means members of a distributed team may miss out on the benefits of a positive company culture, unless organizations take steps to actively include them

Key factors which characterize frontline working

Key factors which characterize frontline working

Turnover rates

Many frontline and deskless jobs, in particular in industries like hospitality and retail, are characterized by very high turnover rates. Sometimes, as in the case of the fast food restaurant business, this is as high as 100% (or even more) year on year.


Frontline workers earn lower wages on average and are more likely to be members of minority groups.


It’s estimated that more than 80% of frontline workers aren’t provided with a corporate email address, and more than 40% don’t have access to the company intranet while at work.

Deskless workers may spend the best part of the working day on the road, where they’re not connected to wi-fi or communication tools. As a result, they can miss out on activities, important messages or information about goals, targets and incentives. And they may not be able to access any crucial tools, like teleconferencing, cloud-based storage and file sharing.

Engaging the frontline workforce

Engaging the frontline workforce

A great deal of research has been carried out and a lot has been written about the future of the workplace. But most of the attention has centered around creating a hybrid workforce where centrally-based staff can have more autonomy over where and when they work.

Organizations have been looking at restructuring working practices, including office configuration, working patterns, recruitment and training, to incorporate the flexibility office-based teams now expect, and which will drive the future of their businesses. Issues like diversity and inclusion, and fostering a sense of belonging, feature heavily in the drive for success in the post-pandemic world.

But there has been less focus on the post-covid future of those whose work is designated as key, who continue to work either at the frontline, or in the essential industries, but whose return to work means little more than ‘business as usual’ in the field, or face-to-face with consumers and service users.

"4 in 10 frontline workers said that communications they received from their managers were ‘out of touch’ and 42% said they were irrelevant."

What’s becoming apparent is that frontline and deskless workers not only represent the majority of workers, but are significantly under-represented in the new restructured workplace, leaving them disconnected and disillusioned.

According to Workplace’s Deskless not Voiceless survey 2021, 45% of respondents are considering quitting frontline work altogether. Almost half (43%) of deskless workers say that they don’t have enough autonomy to share new ideas, three quarters say they don’t trust their employer to be transparent in communication, and 70% say they’re at risk of burnout or have already reached it. The Great Frontline Resignation is as much of a threat as the Great Resignation as a whole.

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7 strategies to manage frontline employees

7 strategies to manage frontline employees

In response to a recent survey in Personnel Today, four in ten frontline workers said that communications they received from their managers were ‘out of touch’ and 42% said they were irrelevant. Almost half of frontline workers in the UK said they wouldn’t recognize any of their head office team members.

It’s clear that the employee experience of frontline and deskless workers needs to be addressed just as urgently as that of hybrid and office-based teams.

Managers leading frontline teams need to look at several key areas:

  • Building trust

    Trust building across distance can be a challenge. A message may be transparent to employees who meet and speak to their managers on a regular basis, but may not chime when delivered virtually to employees by managers they rarely, if ever, meet. Ask frontline workers for feedback on your communications and use it to make improvements

  • Establishing a culture of openness

    Leaders need to make sure that every employee has an equal opportunity to contribute ideas and feedback, no matter where they work. This might mean holding meetings outside standard hours or using small groups of workers as focus groups

  • Investing in technology

    It’s vital to make sure every frontline worker has the tools to access company communications, as well as calendars and schedules. Choosing the right mobile communication tools will help you bridge the deskless divide

  • Incorporating learning

    Frontline workers need career progression and access to opportunities. Look at incentive programs and build in the flexibility to address frontline worker needs when considering promotion, overtime and upskilling

  • Wellbeing and safety

    Feeling disconnected can lead to illness, absences due to mental health issues, and a high turnover. Make sure that any wellness initiatives include frontline workers, and create initiatives specifically for them, using outside experts if necessary

  • Showing awareness

    Leaders should show knowledge and understanding of the specific situations their frontline workers face, which may not affect their desk-based colleagues. These may include having to make decisions on their own, unexpected overtime, unplanned change, situations arising which may be outside the specific remit of the job, and additional pressure on their families or personal lives. Benefits to make up for this, like terms of flexible working hours, time off and incentives will show that managers understand the difference between frontline and office working

  • Welcoming open and honest feedback

    Successful frontline managers will make sure every employee has the chance to give their honest input and show that all contributions are valued equally.

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