How Managers Can Help Frontline Employees Connect to Purpose

 Young woman working the cash register

Belonging Inspiring Leadership & Management Purpose

When employees are connected to purpose, they give more effort and are less likely to leave the company.

When employees are connected to purpose, the business receives all kinds of benefits.

When employees say their work is meaningful, they are less likely to quit and more likely to give extra effort on the job. When employees feel valued and celebrated, they are more likely to participate in innovation and adapt quickly to new ideas.

And when employees connect with purpose, companies reap financial rewards.

What having purpose looks like

Purpose can be a difficult term to wrap arms around. Is it the company’s mission? Or an individual’s sense of having an impact?

“At a very high level, a sense of purpose is really tied into pride,” says Julian Lute, senior strategic advisor with Great Place To Work®. Do people feel their contribution is meaningful to the organization or the wider world?

Purpose is also about alignment.

“When people feel like they’re not aligned with the purpose, the mission, and that excitement, they feel excluded from innovation,” Lute says.

He gives the example of a hospital system, which might do a great job of celebrating doctors and nurses with appreciation days and storytelling campaigns, but neglects the administrative staff and medical billing professionals. What kind of message does it send to an employee when they work in the basement and are never celebrated for their contributions?

“You can have people who are central to an organization, whose work is on display and whose work executives are talking about, but they just aren’t getting that shine,” Lute says.

When an employee says their job isn’t meaningful, that doesn’t necessarily mean the work they do isn’t incredibly important. Without medical billing staff, hospitals can’t bring in money from insurers, but these workers often don’t feel their work is respected.

Making connections

Purpose starts with leaders, but employees can also be influenced by their fellow employees. If colleagues from other departments don’t connect your work with the overall mission of the organization, some workers can feel undervalued or overlooked.

Imagine a manufacturing plant where the corporate staff is always at odds with the production floor workers, Lute says. How can you help these two groups connect the dots between their work and the work of their colleagues?

When an employee says their job isn’t meaningful, that doesn’t necessarily mean the work they do isn’t incredibly important.

At DHL, getting employees to connect with one another has become an obsession, with the global logistics company launching a “passport” — a tool where employees can log interactions with other DHL employees on their journey.

“As you go through your journey, you’re collecting stamps of completion, you’re collecting awards of recognition within it,” explains Rick Jackson, executive vice president of engagement and enablement at Deutsche Post DHL Group on the “Better” podcast.

“You’ve got managers of our groups and countries signing it and leaving nice messages once they’ve finished a program to show how much they’ve achieved,” he says.

The passport then becomes a prompt for employees to share their stories with each other about their service at the company and how they share in the global mission.

Bringing purpose to frontline employees

Who are the employees most likely to struggle to connect with purpose?

“It’s the likely suspects,” Lute says, identifying three groups:

1. Frontline workers, including frontline managers

The reason? These employees are generally focused on execution of a specific business task. They’re customer-facing, dealing with issues in the moment. They don’t have the space to step back and see the big picture.

It’s crucial for frontline employees to be empowered to think on their feet and adapt to meet the needs of the customer. Lute gives the example of Wegmans, where frontline employees are given the authority to “serve the customer as they need to be served in that moment.”

If a customer needs help finding a product in another department, employees have the authority to leave their station and serve the customer. The magic comes from how leaders manage employees who take the initiative, which Lute describes as “not being in bean-counting  mode.”

“What you really hear is, ‘I know what corporate says I’m supposed to do, but in this moment, I have to do it like this,’” Lute says. Leaders should recognize when these deviations from protocol are attempts to live up to a higher mission, such as providing excellent customer service.

2. Contract and temporary workers

These employees are often treated differently than other employees and feel less ownership over their contributions They might not attend company meeting or receive important company messages, even when they are doing something really important for your brand.

3. Hourly workers

At the typical U.S. organization, less than half (49%) of hourly workers report having meaningful work.

“When you’re hourly, you’re focused on the schedule,” Lute says. “You’re focused on just getting hours, earning money, and everything counts.”

What managers can do

In a new report from UKG, Sharlyn Lauby, author of HR Bartender, identified the challenges facing frontline managers and the support they need to succeed. 

At the top of the list? Managers must become more effective communicators. Here's how Lute suggests managers can help communicate with their frontline workforce  andx help them connect to the purpose of the organization:

1. Make time for sharing stories

“You have to become an expert storyteller,” Lute says. Leaders have to explain how the work of the individual employee contributes to the overall business.

Here’s how Jackson tells that story about frontline employees at DHL:

“If you’re in a warehouse and it may be in the middle of the night, and it’s cold and wet and you’re sorting the parcels around the network, you understand that if you don’t do your particular role, you’re part of a much bigger cog in the organization that, at the end of the day, is improving the lives of the customer.

You’re not just a picker or a packer. You’re not just a warehouse site worker, but you’re crucial in the supply chain.”

2. Create safe space for feedback

Lute acknowledges how hard this task can be for middle managers who face enormous pressure to meet their numbers. But it’s crucial that employees feel safe to ask questions and share what’s really happening in their daily routines.

His advice: “Acknowledge the failure.”

Employees can feel disconnected when goals and priorities change and a new initiative make their previous work less relevant.

“Most people work really hard every single day, and they want recognition for their hard work,” Lute says. Make sure that when you pivot, you continue to acknowledge the team’s work and sacrifice.

3. Be an advocate

Middle managers must understand their responsibility as someone who can remove barriers and solve problems for their frontline workers, Lute says.

He gives an example of a company where factory floor workers are asking for new shoes because the long hours on their feet are painful. When the frontline managers response is, “There’s nothing I can do about that,” workers don’t feel cared for by their organization.

“That’s when people start questioning whether or not your mission and your values actually make sense,” Lute says.

Workers are asking for support, not because they want free stuff, but because they care about their job. It’s a manager’s job to empower them to do their best work.

Become a purpose leader

Download our report about the power of purpose in the workplace, with essential tips for building trust and inspiring employees.

Ted Kitterman