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

2020 was an exhausting year for the frontline workforce.

While corporate teams had to adjust to working from home, most frontline employees didn’t have that choice. Almost 50% were furloughed at some point. Many lost their jobs permanently. Those who are still employed have reported to work every day and risked their health to keep businesses and communities moving forward. 

Subscribe to the only newsletter 100% focused on supporting the frontline smarter and get ideas and inspiration delivered to your inbox every other week. 

2021 begins as a year of hope and promise. Many countries have begun to roll out COVID-19 vaccines. Some have found a sense of normalcy due to successful virus mitigation efforts. We can almost see the proverbial light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. However, as continued lockdowns and case surges prove, there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s time for business leaders to shift mindset from survival to transformation. 

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 so they can focus on executing the business’ evolved strategy. Here are the five biggest challenges the frontline faces as we start the year.

#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 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 furloughs, 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

Safety is always a top priority, but this sentiment took on an entirely new meaning in 2020. Companies must maintain their renewed focus on frontline safety in 2021 and beyond. This starts with keeping personal protective equipment (PPE), physical distancing, plexiglass and other mitigating measures in place. Management must then 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.
  • Additional training on expanded safety topics, such as symptom identification, vaccine awareness and at-home infection prevention.

#3 | Sustaining resilience

The frontline has been dealing with the pandemic head-on for almost a year. That’s a year of face masks. A year of dealing with angry customers. A year of job and health uncertainty.  People have every right to be tired. But, if companies want to move forward, they need their frontline to keep going. This is why a resilience program must be part of every 2021 business strategy. A resilience program includes simple tactics that help employees become mindful, maintain energy and overcome motivational barriers.

  • 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 in 2021 as consumer expectations evolve. Management must keep the frontline workforce updated for these strategies to have the intended impact. The past 12 months have shown 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 communication plans so they can reach all of these team members quickly and consistently.

  • Implement digital messaging for the entire workforce, including dedicated channels where frontline workers can receive the critical message 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 2021 business strategy. 

2020 was a fire drill. Most companies did their best just to keep the doors open. 2021 presents an opportunity for organizations to retake some measure of control. The future remains unclear and disruption will continue. But companies learned a lot over the past ten months. 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. 

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

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