4 ways frontline training has changed (and 1 way it hasn’t) during COVID-19

Posted on: July 23, 2020Updated on: June 12, 2023By: JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

It’s never been harder to be a frontline employee. They’ve always had a difficult job. Long hours. Changing priorities. Challenging customers. But now, on top of all of that, they’re dealing with personal health and safety worries on a daily basis. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every region, industry, company and employee in different ways. Some retailers, such as grocery and hardware stores, have seen record sales. Others, such as apparel and luxury brands, are trying to return to business after being closed for weeks. Half of America is currently working from home. Select frontline workers, such as contact center agents, have also made this transition. However, the majority, including grocery associates, retail employees, delivery drivers and healthcare workers, simply don’t have that option. They clock in for their shifts every day to keep your company—and community—moving forward.

The pandemic has also rekindled important conversations about the fundamental nature of frontline work. This includes compensation, scheduling, sick leave and healthcare coverage. Many companies still have a long way to go to improve their frontline work experience. But one part of the frontline experience that’s already begun to rapidly transform is training. To overcome unprecedented disruption, organizations have been forced to reinvent how they operate. This means frontline employees have needed to upskill and reskill to keep the business running. And they didn’t have weeks or months to complete traditional training.

Here are four ways the pandemic has changed training for the frontline.

1. Health and safety take priority


Your safety training happened during your onboarding. It focused on the basics, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and slips, trips and falls. You’ve completed a few annual compliance courses, but they’re mostly to check regulatory boxes. Otherwise, you only received new safety training after something bad happened.


Health and safety training is now part of your daily work experience. You were initially reskilled on how to do your jobs safely at the beginning of the disruption or immediately upon returning to work. But it didn’t stop there. Your company instituted ongoing reinforcement training on critical safety topics, including hand washing, physical distancing and PPE usage, to make sure you’re consistently doing the right things on the job. This training also extends beyond the workplace and includes topics such as illness prevention and self-diagnosis to keep you safe and healthy at home too.

2. Communication and training go digital


You got updates from paper postings by the time clock or during pre-shift huddles. This meant you only received the information you needed if you were at work on the right day. Managers would also decide if and when a message would be delivered. Sometimes, important items would be deprioritized or forgotten entirely. Staying up-to-date was extremely difficult and frustrating. This was also true for online training. You had to be scheduled to complete eLearning courses, which required you to step away from your job location for several hours to use a computer in the manager’s office or a back room.


Your company has been talking about “digital transformation” for years. They executed it almost overnight. For the corporate team, this meant adopting Microsoft Teams and Zoom so they could work from home. For you, it meant using new digital communication and training tools. Now, you receive consistent, timely messages and digital training via mobile devices, including your own smartphone. You can stay up-to-date as processes change on an almost daily basis, regardless of when you’re scheduled for your next shift. 

3. Basic skills get rebuilt


You were shown how to do your job right after you got hired. While everyone received the same online courses, the quality of your on-the-job training was based on your assigned trainer or manager. After the first few days, you learned by doing the job and asking your peers for help. You were only scheduled for more training when something big changed. 


You had to  to relearn the job you’ve been doing the same way for years in just a few days. Of course, you needed more than just one course to break old habits and build new ones. Instead of long, comprehensive courses, you receive shorter training modules focused on specific job behaviors. For example, rather than learning about everything you need to do as a store employee at once, your training focused on how to interact with customers in new ways during your first microlearning session. You continue to complete practice exercises and receive coaching on these new behaviors as part of your day-to-day work. 

4. Hybrid roles emerge


You only worked in the retail store. You handled a variety of store tasks, but you were specifically an in-store associate. The contact center handled online orders from somewhere else. If a customer had a question about something online, you tried to resolve the issue in the store or provided them with a contact number.


You work in a dual role. You spend part of your shift on the sales floor helping in-store customers. Then, you shift into a contact center and fulfillment role in the back of the store to support online orders. This means you have to keep up with new information from both sides of the business. You had to shift into this role in just a few days to keep up with online orders. So you didn’t have time to complete the typical three-week contact center training. Instead, you leverage your existing knowledge of company products and processes and fill role-specific gaps with targeted cross-training

The pandemic has changed the way frontline employees are trained and supported—for the better—in a growing number of organizations. There are still plenty of improvements needed to improve the frontline work experience. That said, prioritizing ongoing communication and training is an encouraging first step. 

In spite of all this disruption, one thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of managers. They work alongside your frontline employees every day. They see what your people are going through, at work and at home. And they’re a source of consistent support for employees as they relearn how to do their jobs under the most challenging of circumstances. But they also need help so they can manage through uncertainty and support your frontline day in and day out. To build a resilient frontline team, you must also enable resilient managers.

Be safe. Be well. And be kind to the frontline.

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect's Headshot

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

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