Frontline employee support: Where we are now and where we need to be

I’m convinced that “adapt” will be 2020’s Word of the Year.

This year has proven that life as we know it can turn on a dime, and agility is the must-have skill to survive.  

Nobody is living this lesson quite as vividly as frontline employees. Almost overnight they were deemed essential—which meant they were required to keep working to keep our communities running while many of us sheltered safely at home. 

I’m not simply referring to healthcare workers, who are fighting the virus head-on—though their contributions are undeniably vital. I’m talking about the grocery store employees keeping our pantries stocked, the retail associates helping us get in and out of stores safely, the delivery drivers dropping off our packages and the contact center agents resolving our questions over the phone. Frontline employees across all industries keep showing up for us every day—in spite of their own fears and dramatic changes to their work environment. 

We’re grateful for their support. But we’re also curious about how supported they feel at work. 

So, we went straight to the source. We partnered with Arlington Research to survey 2,000 frontline employees who work at businesses with over 1,000 employees in the US, the UK and Australia.  Here’s what we found. 

What kind of support is the frontline getting?

The last six months have been anything but ‘business as usual.’ But despite the challenges, it seems that companies did a fairly good job of staying in contact with frontline employees, even when they were furloughed.

  • 95% of frontline workers had some contact from their employer since the start of the pandemic
  • 98% of frontline workers who had been furloughed had some contact with their employer 

The emails, texts, and intranet posts were flowing—but were frontline employees getting the information they needed? Unfortunately, the communications missed the mark for over half of respondents: 

  • 46% said communications were relevant
  • 40% said they were reliable
  • 39% said they were timely 

Almost half of frontline employees (46%) had taken on new tasks as a result of the pandemic—and almost a quarter (23%) had filled a new position altogether. But only 48% said that training had been provided for their new role and/or task(s). This was even lower for frontline employees in retail (21%) and grocery (27%). 

Overall, only 64% of frontline employees said they received continued training and coaching to help them do their job safely and productively. Again, retail (56%) and grocery (59%) lagged behind. Naturally, this impacted how prepared people felt: 39% of frontline employees reported that they didn’t feel prepared to do their job properly in the current environment.  

It’s good to see that training is still happening on the frontlines—even amidst major workplace disruption. But all training is not created equal. When asked about the quality of training they received:

  • 34% said training was easy to understand and remember
  • 32% said training helped them to feel confident in their ability to do their job 
  • 28% said training was personalized and relevant to their role 
  • 29% said they could access more information on a topic whenever they wanted after training (sinking to 17% in retail and 26% in grocery) 
  • 21% said training was enjoyable and engaging (sinking to 14% in retail and 15% in grocery)

Across the board, roughly two-thirds of employees aren’t getting what they need. How do these subpar training experiences affect their confidence, their engagement, and their performance on the frontlines? How is that impacting the business as a whole?  These are important questions every business leader should be asking themselves.

What kind of support does the frontline want?

These findings show that it’s not necessarily about more training, but the right training—training that delivers on its promise to keep frontline workers safe, in the loop, and growing their skills.

When it comes to the types of training frontline employees prefer, on-the-job training is considered most helpful, followed by mixed training (which includes instructor-led training, online and on-the-job) and online/mobile training. 

While it’s not the top-rated learning format, frontline workers crave the freedom to train online: 

  • 45% said they’d like to receive more online training (including video, interactive modules and practice questions)
  • 84% also want to be able to access digital messages and training right from their personal devices

The message is loud and clear: Frontline workers want to learn ‘where they work’, in a way that fits with how they work. That means being able to access the training and information they need to do their jobs whenever they need it, on any device, including their personal devices. That means having the opportunity for some on-the-job training with a peer trainer or manager. And it means receiving timely and relevant communications so they’re prepared for whatever comes next. 

REPORT

State of Frontline Employee Training 2020

To dig into the data—with industry-specific breakdowns for contact centers, retail stores, grocery stores and professional sales—read the full report.

What’s next?

It’s now crystal clear that business runs through the frontlines. The things frontline employees do, and don’t do, absolutely impact how your business performs. Organizations are seeing frontline workers not as cogs in the wheel—but as their competitive advantage. 

Forward-thinking organizations have stepped up their support for the frontline during this time of mass disruption and reaped the benefits. We need to keep the momentum going. If frontline workers are our heroes now, they don’t suddenly shed their capes when the pandemic threat eases. 

We’ve set up a special destination to keep the ideas and inspiration flowing around frontline support. Free training content, smart strategies and tools you can use to assess your frontline support and make your action plan: it’s all at axonify.com/frontlineforward. I hope you’ll join us there. 

I can’t wait to see all the amazing things you’re going to do to move the #FrontlineForward.

Carol isn’t your typical leader. She’s driving a revolutionary approach to employee knowledge, but she’s also a doors-open, come-see-me-anytime kind of executive. Carol doesn’t just talk the talk—she definitely walks the walk. You can read more from her on Training Industry Magazine, ATD, CLO and as a regular contributor for Fortune.

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