You can’t put your employees in a bubble

The NHL and NBA restarted their 2019-2020 seasons last week. The key to their return in the midst of a pandemic: bubbles.

Illustration of an NHL game
NHL playoff games will be played without fans using a new presentation format. Source.

NHL qualifying and playoff games will take place in hub cities: Edmonton and Toronto. The NBA has taken over the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Players are tested regularly and must limit activity to their designated campus to avoid potential COVID-19 infections and subsequent shut downs. So far, the leagues’ extensive health and safety precautions appear effective. Bubbles work (fingers crossed).

Unfortunately, you can’t put your frontline in a bubble like the NHL and NBA. Some people have the option to create their own pseudo-bubbles by working from home. However, most frontline employees have to report to their job location every day. They then interact directly with customers and teammates. Some take public transportation to get to work. During their off time, they may visit stores or restaurants. The decisions your frontline employees make can impact your business.

Retail worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE)

You must trust your employees to make the right decisions. You can help guide their decision making by providing right-fit support. The NHL and NBA figured out what it would take to get their businesses up and running while keeping their people safe and productive. You must do the same.

Here are five insights you can borrow from professional sports leagues to improve your frontline workplace.

1 – Involve your teams

Players have been heavily involved in the return to play planning for both hockey and basketball. Without their buy in, sports would not be back.

Without buy-in from your frontline, your business will not be able to successfully navigate disruption. Your employees must be part of the process. We’re talking about their wellbeing after all. You must consistently and proactively communicate new information to your frontline workforce. Anticipate their questions by staying in close contact with their everyday reality. Provide easy-to-access resources so they can self-service questions as they come up. Leverage digital tools and personal mobile devices so employees can stay updated at all times, including during their days off.

2 – Practice

Players didn’t return to playing games right away. They held several weeks of training camp first. This practice was essential for getting them back into game shape and adjusting to their new situation.

You can’t expect frontline employees to suddenly change how they’ve done their jobs for years. One-and-done training isn’t enough. They need practice. If you want training to stick, you have to continuously reinforce critical behaviors. You don’t have to pull people out of the operation for extended practice sessions. Instead, use scenario-based questions to challenge their knowledge in just two or three minutes every shift. Give your frontline workers the opportunity to get things wrong and learn from their mistakes in a safe space so they’ll get it right on the job.

3 – Put people first

Players are staying in closed campus environments for the duration of their season play. This may mean months in a hotel room away from their families. To improve the overall quality of “bubble life,” the leagues introduced campus features such as barber shops, game rooms and dining options.

If you want to be frontline-focused, you must take care of your people (not just “employees”). Masks, signage, temperature checks and plexiglass dividers have proven to be a great start.

Take your safety commitment to another level by providing employees with the tools they need to protect themselves away from the workplace too. Reiterate the importance of wearing a mask in everyday life. Check in to make sure they have the supplies they need to keep their families safe. Include tips they can apply at home as part of your health and safety training. You can’t build them a bubble, but you can expand the reach of your health and safety effort.

4 – Empower frontline managers

Coaches are going to play critical roles in their teams’ success during this unique season conclusion. Players may get injured or sick. Teams have limited time between games and minimal reserves. Therefore, coaches will need to think differently and use their available players in new ways to benefit the whole team.

Frontline managers have had to relearn how to do their jobs in a very challenging environment. They have to find new ways to leverage the knowledge and skills of their teams to keep the business open and compliant. They’re also a lifeline for their employees now more than ever. They are role models for how to make good decisions in the face of adversity. You must provide managers with ongoing training, reinforcement and resources they can access when they need it. You must also make sure every learning touchpoint is relevant, timely and high-value. Managers need to stay focused on keeping employees and customers safe. They don’t have the time or energy for anything extra right now.

5 – Recognize small wins

The return of sports isn’t just about sports. It’s the return to some version of normalcy for those playing and those watching at home. It’s a small win during a time of great loss.

The past six months have been extremely difficult for your frontline employees. They have risked their health to support their families and keep your business running. Celebrate small wins, such as customer compliments. Say “thank you” sincerely and often. Listen to their concerns and provide direct answers. Make sure every frontline employee recognizes the role they play in supporting your business and community.

There are much bigger issues in the world than sports right now. The health of your employees—and your business—is not a game. Hopefully, the successful return of the NBA and NHL will act as a source of inspiration for millions of fans around the world. Management found a way to reopen their businesses, albeit in a unique and limited way. Ultimately, their success will depend on the frontline and how well they perform under the most challenging of circumstances. The same is true for your business.


Are you looking for ways to improve your frontline experience and prepare your people for what comes next? Grab your free ticket to AxoniCom LIVE—the only conference focused on the frontline workforce. This two-day, immersive online event will feature renowned speakers, networking opportunities and practical ideas to power your frontline performance. Join us Monday, September 28 and Tuesday, September 29 for a one-of-a-kind digital experience: AxoniCom LIVE!

Until then, be safe. Be well. And 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.

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