Modern Training

How to overcome the 5 biggest challenges facing the frontline in 2021

Posted on: January 5, 2021Updated on: November 29, 2022By: JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

The frontline workforce has been dealing with unprecedented challenges since 2020. Frontline call center workers, retail associates, grocery store employees and others continue to feel the workplace effects of the COVID-19 pandemic even as the virus appears to be transitioning from “pandemic” to “endemic.” 

This means there’s still a lot of work to be done on the management front. This is unchartered territory, and it’s time for business leaders to shift their mindset from survival to transformation.

The problems faced by frontline workers 

To take advantage of emerging opportunities and find their next normal, companies must prioritize their frontline teams and make sure they’re ready for whatever comes next. This starts with helping frontline employees overcome their biggest obstacles and mental health challenges so they can focus on executing the business’ evolved strategy. Here are the five biggest challenges currently facing the frontline.

1. Finding economic security

Will I make enough money to pay the rent and feed my family? This is what many frontline employees think about when they go to work. It’s basic Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A person must be able to take care of themselves and their family members before they can take care of their customers, peers and organization. 

Employees know that businesses are dealing with unprecedented uncertainty. Many have lost significant revenue, forcing their hands when it comes to layoffs and furloughs. However, managers can still help alleviate basic economic concerns for frontline workers.

  • Be honest and transparent regarding business changes, including the potential need for future layoffs or downsizing, so people can make informed decisions.
  • Publish work schedules as far in advance as possible so employees can estimate their income.
  • Provide wage increases and bonuses when possible. 
  • Implement reskilling programs to provide new opportunities for existing employees.

2. Maintaining focus on health and safety

The last few years have been a stark reminder about the importance of employee safety. But safety isn’t just about personal protective equipment (PPE) and physical distancing. It also extends to things like workplace violence, which is on the rise

Management must go beyond the basics to protect people to the best of their ability and demonstrate their commitment to the frontline. A comprehensive health and safety program should include tactics such as:

  • Ongoing reinforcement training to make sure people don’t develop bad habits.
  • Behavior observations to ensure new knowledge is applied on the job.
  • Improved absence policies so sick employees can stay home from work, thereby promoting their own health as well as public health.
  • Additional frontline training on expanded safety topics, such as de-escalation and illness prevention. 

3. Sustaining resilience

The frontline has had to contend with unprecedented challenges over the past couple of years, including record rates of burnout due to ongoing hiring and retention difficulties. One systematic review reaffirmed that heavy workloads and long shifts are among the top challenges facing frontline workers in the current economy. 

But, qualitative research aside, companies need their frontline to keep going. This is why a resilience program must be part of every business strategy moving forward. A resilience program includes simple coping strategies that help employees become mindful, maintain energy and overcome motivational barriers. The goal is to prioritize both physical and mental health support. 

  • Provide training and resources on resilience skills, such as empathy, prioritization, time management and de-escalation. Make sure managers are present to provide timely support and check in with individual employees on a regular basis.
  • Prioritize break time within the operation and make quiet spaces available for reflection.
  • Recognize both individual employees and teams for their ongoing efforts by saying thank you and sharing stories.

4. Keeping up with business change

Capacity limits and mask requirements. Online ordering, delivery and curbside pickup. Reimagined products and services. Organizations will continue to change their operational strategies as consumer expectations evolve. 

Management must keep the frontline workforce updated for these strategies to have the intended impact. We’ve now seen just how ineffective traditional frontline messaging tactics, such as pre-shift huddles and paper postings, can be during times of great disruption. Companies must evolve their frontline communication plans so they can reach all of these team members quickly and consistently.

  • Implement a digital employee communication solution for the entire workforce, including dedicated channels where frontline workers can receive the critical messages they need to do their jobs. 
  • Urge frontline employees to use their personal devices for messaging and training to expand information access while limiting IT expense.
  • Reinforce key message points using scenario-based questions to ensure long-term knowledge retention. 
  • Build a knowledge base where employees can access on-demand, reliable information to answer customer questions and solve problems in the moment. 

5. Prioritizing skill development

Frontline employees have been forced to relearn how to do their jobs. This sometimes required basic adjustments, such as using contactless payment devices and PPE in grocery stores. Many employees took on new tasks, such as fulfillment for online retail orders. Others had to learn entirely new roles, such as bank tellers who transitioned into digital customer support positions. 

As operations continue to evolve and companies prepare for growth opportunities, skill development must be prioritized within every business strategy moving forward. 

The frontline of the future

The future remains unclear, and disruption will continue. But companies have learned a lot over the past two years. To build a foundation for future success, they must remember the biggest workplace lesson: business starts and ends on the frontline.

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

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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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