In a 2019 study, University of Waterloo research led by David Drewery revealed a framework and hierarchy to indicate best methods of retaining frontline seasonal staff. Positioning frontline workers as essential to the success of business, Drewery embarks on his study on the premise that retention is good, voluntary turnover is bad.  Staff choosing not to return isn’t a good indicator of engagement, and has the negative effect on cost and quality for the business. Rather, staff should be seen as co-creators, key to the manner in which seasonal work is fulfilled.

Contingent leisure service staff are the focus of Drewery’s research. Of 124 participants who took tests after their seasonal placement, 75% were female and 54% were mail. Respondents were operating in small teams of up to five people during their work placement. A 12-questions checklist was given to participants to get a sense for how they understood their roles, knew about how the organisation was run and where opportunities for skill development and personal achievement were available. The penultimate question looked at agency, asking whether the respondent felt like they had the freedom to deliver their job according to how they thought it would be best done.

Three pathways emerge for employee retention, each  useful for frontline HR directors across all roles and sectors. First, strive to fulfil job enrichment for the candidate. Knowledge is one key pillar, considering that “Jobs are motivating when staff understand what to do and how to do it,” referencing research from the 1970s by academic JR Hackman. Meaning is to do with worthwhileness - is the work important and valuable, essential to the org and sufficiently complex, not monotonous and menial. A third strand relates to responsibility - is the employee personally accountable for the decisions they make at work? This sense of autonomy looks like ownership, removing the need to consult a manager to complete a task.

Alongside job enrichment is work engagement. Absorption is one component of engagement - does the job instil or encourage deep concentration and focus? Dedication serves as another aspect, looking at whether the job provided a sense of purpose and significance to the employee. A final component of engagement identifies vigour as an essential ingredient - the energy and vitality that a job producers.

A third pathway that Drewery suggested was the more nebulous organisational commitment - staff wanting to be part of the member organisation. This sentiment docks with duty, an amplified sense of task where succeeding in a task contributes to the overall success of the group.

Drewery’s results place these principles in a helpful hierarchy, useful to any HR director trying to design or troubleshoot retention among a seasonal workforce. Organisational commitment is central. Peer support is an important component. Enrichment comes through inserting the individual into larger organisational. A variety of tasks also helps, “Not only should tasks be challenging, they should also be identifiably complete” e.g. swim instructor onboarding clients as well as delivering the service itself,  rather than containing them within a snapshot of their role. Staff could also be explained the significance of their work, “For instance, hospitality staff should be made to think less bout plating food, cleaning dishes, and seating guests, and more about how they create conditions for memorable experiences to unfold.” Finally responsibility, self-guiding solutions where the purpose is known, “provide a boundary in which staff can manage themselves.”

Download the full paper,  “Retaining contingent frontline staff through job enrichment: the case of seasonal student workers