Faster, better, safer: Adapting frontline onboarding for today’s challenges

Frontline hiring in the last several months has been feast or famine, with massive hiring surges in grocery and delivery, and hiring freezes in many other industries. 

Frontline roles continue to top the list of open job postings, albeit with more modest growth. Labour market analytics firm Emsi reported a 6% increase in job postings in August compared to the previous month—and delivery drivers, retail sales supervisors, retail associates, clerks and order fillers were among the top eight in-demand occupations. Scroll through NRF’s list of job opportunities for frontline workers, and you’ll see a similar story. 

Hiring is happening. And after hiring comes onboarding. 

Like everything else, frontline onboarding has been put through the pressure cooker of the pandemic. There’s more urgency to get workers up to speed and capable. (Walmart reportedly expedited onboarding for some roles to a single day during its push to bring on 150,000 workers in March). Yet, with rigorous health and safety practices in place, there’s more information for associates to remember than ever before—and the stakes are higher. 

On top of all that, you still need to give new employees a positive experience, to safeguard against turnover down the line (after all, over half of employees say they’d leave a job based on a poor onboarding experience). 

Onboarding’s new mandate is a steep one: Equip workers with the essential information they need to do their jobs safely, so they can start working sooner—without feeling like they’ve been thrown in the deep end without a lifejacket. 

Here are three ways to adjust your onboarding approach for greater speed and effectiveness: 

From one-time session to ongoing training

The traditional onboarding process attempts to provide all the information up front, in classroom sessions or eLearning modules. In today’s market conditions, this approach simply takes too long—you can’t afford to spend days or weeks onboarding when managers needed new hires on the floor yesterday. 

Not only that, it’s likely to be forgotten. We were never built to remember a firehose of information, but especially during this time of evolving safety protocols, 24 hour news cycles and big changes in the way we work, the information overload is real. If your associates can’t take in all the information they need to know in the short timeframe they’re supposed to learn it, they won’t be able to apply it on the job—and just like that, they’ve become a source of risk for the business. 

Plus, research shows that the stress of not being able to process information as fast as it arrives can deplete and demoralize workers. We can all agree that the last thing frontline workers need right now is more stress on the job. 

It’s time to reframe onboarding from a one-time training event to an ongoing process—from a firehose to a continuous trickle of information that is delivered at the speed that employees can learn it. 

This requires you to put yourself in the learner’s shoes. What do they need to know right now? (It’s not always the same as what stakeholders want to tell them.) What information is critical to starting their job? Boil it down to the most digestible set of information you possibly can. Then, provide learners with a structured learning path to keep them focused on this essential content as they get up to speed.

This doesn’t mean that you have to leave the rest of the onboarding content on the cutting room floor. That nice-to-know information goes into the ongoing training that’s delivered in smaller bursts over time, along with reinforcement of the essential information. This approach ensures that onboarding information sticks well past the whirlwind first days and becomes ingrained in your people’s day-to-day work habits. 

From one-size-fits-all to personalized training

Old-school training programs treat everyone like blank slates. But your new employees aren’t actually blank slates: Some have years of experience, while others are brand new to the workforce. Some are quick to catch on, while others need more time to take in new information. Today, technology enables us to personalize training at scale, cutting out redundancy and inefficiency in the training process. Here’s how it works: 

  • Step 1: Measure. To make learning truly personalized (not just tailored by role or demographic), you need a good understanding of what your employees know and don’t know. By continuously measuring knowledge levels throughout the onboarding process, you create a baseline that can be used to personalize training after onboarding is over.  
  • Step 2: Accelerate. Armed with this data, you can now provide truly personalized training that makes efficient use of your frontline’s limited training time. If a new employee hasn’t grasped a certain topic yet, they won’t be overloaded with new stuff until they’ve built up their knowledge. But if someone has a good handle on a subject, they can move through it quickly—no more time wasted on training they don’t need. With personalized learning, you can make those precious few minutes of daily training time count, and continue to build employee knowledge and performance over time. 

From à la carte to all-you-can-eat

Let’s say you need a question answered in your day-to-day life (like, how to unclog a sink, or how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon). You’d probably Google it, right? 

Now let’s say a frontline employee has a question about their job while at work. They could try to remember what they learned in their onboarding, but that memory is probably long gone. If they wait for a training session, they could be waiting weeks. They need the information now—so they might interrupt a colleague to ask them. They might look for the information in a binder or posted somewhere in the workplace. Or they might just take a guess, and risk doing the wrong thing. 

What if, instead, it was as easy to find job-specific information as it is to Google, well, pretty much anything? Providing on-demand, digital access to job aids and other important job-specific information enables your frontline workforce to find the information they need in the flow of work—saving time and making it easier to take the right actions on the job. If they can access that information on the device they’re already carrying in their pocket, it’s even more efficient—and safer too, minimizing the need for shared devices. 

You won’t need to provide all this knowledge up front in their onboarding process—because when they need it, they’ll have access to the information and know exactly where to find it.

There’s no question that onboarding is being pushed to the limits by the demands of the market. Trying to compress your traditional onboarding into a shorter and shorter time frame just isn’t feasible. But making the shift to ongoing, personalized training and on-demand access to information can help you make onboarding faster and more effective, without sacrificing safety or employee experience. 


Hear how leaders at Disney, Kroger, and Verizon are supporting and engaging their frontlines amidst business disruption. Grab your free ticket to AxoniCom LIVE—the only conference focused on the frontline workforce.

Christine is a Senior Product Marketing Manager at Axonify. When she’s not dreaming up go-to-market strategies for B2B products, she’s working a Michael Scott quote into a conversation or hanging out with her dog Linux.

Let’s work together to drive frontline performance in all the right ways.