Ongoing Development, Trends

6 expert tips on preparing your people for anything

Posted on: January 22, 2024By: Maliyah Bernard

Every frontline leader wants a team that knows how to deal with the unexpected, stay safe and remain focused on customer needs, even on challenging days. So what can organizations do to prepare and develop employees so they thrive in any circumstance?  We recently spoke with a trio of experts who had some ideas.

AxoniCom 2023 panel with Harbor Freight Tools, MOHR Retail and Zebra Technologies

Trevor Garrick, Director of Retail Learning and Development at Harbor Freight Tools, Mary Beth Garcia, CEO of MOHR Retail, and Kevin Tapscott, Leader of Global Solutions Center at Zebra Technologies, took to the AxoniCom 2023 stage with moderator JD Dillon to reveal proven ways organizations can better prepare their people for future challenges. They had a lot to say about ensuring everybody—from employees to customers to HQ—has the opportunity to have a great experience, no matter the disruptors at play.

1. Make space for emotions and listen to your employees

Research shared by Forbes reveals that 65% of people have a bad day at work once a week or more. While we can look to work-related factors for half of these tough work days, another 42% of respondents said personal situations are what’s getting in the way.

As Garrick put it in our discussion, “Gone are the days, thank goodness, where we say ‘Check your emotions at the door.’”

The lesson: A tough day shouldn’t be taboo. Employees need to feel secure that their teams won’t punish, embarrass or reject them for going through a hard time, which is normal. This doesn’t mean leaders need to have a crafted response ready for every situation. But it does call for fostering a psychologically safe environment that promotes listening, creating safe spaces, opening the floor for conversation and building trust to inspire their best work.

2. Instill confidence with the right tools and tech

Did you know that 62% of frontline workers named adequate training and upskilling as top success drivers? Clearly, there’s an appetite for enablement. 

While Tapscott agrees that finding the right solution for employees across industries was a struggle, Zebra is fulfilling its mission of “put[ting] the capabilities that the employees need in their hands” by working with Axonify.

“Across our solutions, there are many different modalities to communicate and lots of differences between businesses, industries and sub-verticals. We pride ourselves in being able to provide specific solutions to specific businesses with their specific needs to give their frontline workers the confidence they need.”

The lesson: With right-fit technology and enablement, leaders can assign employees to personalized learning paths and then use the data to check in with them about what they know and what they don’t, so they’re always plugged into how confident their teams feel about applying what they’ve learned on the job.

3. Prepare for the unexpected and train for the rare occasions

When Plan A fails, and an employee freezes instead of pivoting their service recovery approach, the customer’s experience suffers to say nothing of the subsequent ripple effects. 

But Garrick acknowledges that when employees are faced with especially complex and dangerous incidents like active shooter or shoplifting cases, the consequences can be serious or even fatal, so a different approach is needed: 

“It’s really important for the associate to know what to do in the moment. Because if you think about it, you can train somebody all day long, and they can know all the right behaviors, but in that instance, everything goes out the window. So they have to know how to react, recognize what’s going on and take a step back at that moment.” 

“Obviously we want our associates to take pride in what they do and I feel like they do, but not take it so far as to feel like you have to protect a $19 drill with your safety,” he adds.

The lesson: Train teams to handle SOPs and reinforce everyday knowledge, but don’t forget about the unpredictable human interactions which can also impact their decision-making or safety at work.

4. Focus on consistency

Frontline organizations are often asked to do more with the same. Garcia says to keep existing employees committed to maintaining operations and supporting company initiatives during staffing shortages, start with foundational training and focus on consistency:

“There has to be that foundational training that reflects what the company’s initiatives are and what the next level is. And it has to be supported from the top down. If these are the company initiatives, [employees] have to understand how the company wants this to be handled in that situation. Some consistency will help. When something happens out of the ordinary, if you have a foundation, that foundation will keep them a little bit more levelheaded and they won’t have to pivot as much to create a new policy or situation that doesn’t align with how the company would handle it.”

Garcia also suggests an investment in proactive training that shows employees you care about their preparedness, even if you can’t predict the future:

“That’s a recruiting and training aspect, but once you get them onboarded, they have to feel like you care about them and you’ve got their back. And that’s an improving environment. Giving them a good foundation so that when there’s an emergency or an active shooter, a robbery or safety concern, they’re not pivoting so far, and the only way that they’ll get that is if it’s reinforced by their leaders.”

The lesson: Whether you work in retail, banking, hospitality, food service or another industry that supports the frontline, consistent performance is connected to an investment in training. Proactive training can show-not-tell employees that you’ve prioritized their wellbeing.

5. Get managers involved

What responsibility do managers have to their teams to model the right on-the-job behaviors and prioritize preparedness, while acknowledging that they’re juggling other priorities? 

Garcia says involving managers in enablement is key to leadership culture and can be hugely inspiring.

“District managers and regional managers, and especially retail and services operations, have the largest scope of influence in our organization. They are the closest to the customer and have to represent the corporate office.”

“Getting store leaders to be involved, to understand the why, is important. That has to do with empowerment. It also has to do with empathy. And empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is really, ‘You don’t have to agree with that, but you just have to understand where they are right now.’ That’s where the soft skills are really important. The softer communication skills of modeling those skills so that a store leader knows, ‘Well, my district manager treats me this way, so I know I need to treat my frontline this way, too. They have my back, I’m going to have their back.’ So it’s definitely a show-me versus a tell-me.”

The lesson: Managers need the time and space to prioritize soft/durable skills so they can show (and tell) their teams that they’re supported. But do your best to not overburden them.

6. Listen to your people

Making more informed decisions about what employees need to succeed is, according to Garcia, about spending time walking in their shoes:

“I’d say for retail and hospitality services, if you work for an organization, volunteer to work on a Saturday or Sunday during the holiday season. Work on a Saturday or Sunday in the store. Be humble, learn and don’t be judgmental. Listen and see what the field is going through.”

The lesson: If you’re prioritizing those all-important feedback loops, commit to active listening and spending time with your teams to gain a first-hand understanding of the hurdles they’re facing and identify barriers to success and what they need to thrive.

Watch the full session for more expert employee preparedness tips.

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.