What a future-of-work strategist wants you to know about frontline support

If you type ‘future of work’ into a Google image search, one image comes up more than any other: robots. There are friendly robots, sinister robots, robots shaking hands and robots working on computers.

But when we sat down to talk with future-of-work strategist Heather E. McGowan, robots hardly came up. She was focused on humans. In particular, how frontline leaders can foster human skills and ignite the human potential of their workforce.

From that conversation, here are three future-focused insights to improve your frontline leadership and performance.

1. Learning is the new pension plan.

Just like comedians are constantly being asked to say something funny, future-of-work strategists are always being asked this question: “What’s the number one skill of the future?”

Here’s McGowan’s response: “There’s no one thing you can codify and transfer into a human to make them ‘robot-proof’ or best suited for this environment—besides having the will to acquire multiple skills. In order to survive, you’re going to have to reskill, cross-skill and upskill continuously.”

The pandemic has certainly brought frontline cross-skilling and reskilling to the forefront, as companies scrambled to adapt to new procedures and changes in demand. Branch employees have been reassigned to work-from-home contact center roles. Pharmaceutical reps are taking on additional product lines to manage increased demand. Grocery associates are being retrained for click-and-collect fulfilment. In fact, according to the 2020 State of Frontline Employee Training, almost half of frontline employees (46%) took on new tasks as a result of the pandemic and almost a quarter (23%) filled a new position altogether.

The world in which you learn how to do your job once and then do it for the rest of your career is long gone. Now, continuous learning is ingrained in work.
“Your handrail to the future is a connection to internal curiosity, passion and purpose,” says McGowan. “That’s where leadership needs to focus, and that’s where you need to empower your frontline.”

2. Your frontline’s human skills are the differentiator.

According to McGowan, the role of the frontline employee is more than the sum of its parts. “They are the ones who make your brand real. They are the ones who humanize your value. They’re the ones who make your experiences truly delightful.”

Delighting customers, putting a human face to a brand and living out company values are skills that can’t be easily summed up in an hour-long eLearning module. But their importance shouldn’t be neglected.

“I think about it like an iceberg,” McGowan says. “Above the water are the ‘skills to do.’ It’s the stuff we’ve codified and transferred into people so they could go out there and be a deployable workforce. It’s what we can see, but it’s not the most important.”

The high-value skills on the frontline are those below the waterline. “Those are the uniquely human skills and traits. Stuff that makes you better at your job, makes you better in all your relationships and makes you a better human.”

So what exactly are those skills? “In particular, empathy, communication and collaboration,” says McGowan. “Below that, their mindset: their self awareness, market awareness, their ability to be entrepreneurial.”

McGowan argues that, given the complexity of today’s challenges, we can’t possibly fit everything the frontline needs to know in a guidebook. Instead, we need to equip them with the human skills to be able to handle circumstances as they arise to the best of their ability.

“This is a shift from what we do, to why and how we do it—and it’s a profound shift we’ve got to make.”

Watch Heather E. McGowan’s full AxoniCom session on demand.


3. When it comes to leadership, shared humanity trumps hierarchy.

In the typical top-down business structure, managers are focused on driving productivity from a detached, impersonal and externally motivated position.

McGowan doesn’t buy it. “We’re much better off with an internally motivated, bottom up, personalized coaching model,” she says. “The goal is helping people connect to their passion, their purpose and their curiosity.”

She cites internal research conducted at Google to determine what makes a great team. They found that the characteristics of individual team members matter less than how team members interact and view their contributions. The key dynamic that set successful teams apart was a strong sense of psychological safety.

“Psychological safety is setting the conditions on the team so people feel comfortable saying, ‘hey, I don’t get it’ or ‘hey, I respectfully disagree’ or ‘hey I have a question,’” explains McGowan. “It has to be complemented by dependability and accountability, clarity of meaning and purpose. That’s the magic formula we need to create when establishing teams.”

How do you build psychological safety among your frontline teams?

McGowan offers a simple starting point: “Particularly for your frontline, you have to acknowledge what they’ve been through, what they’ve done, appreciate how much work they’ve done and communicate that to them. This is not the time to skimp on gratitude. We have a lot further to go. We need to lead with encouragement.”

Future-proof your frontline. See how ongoing frontline training helps your associates do their job well today and prepares them for whatever comes next.

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