Engagement
29:51

Our 10 BIGGEST Frontline Insights from 2020

Or listen on these platforms:

Episode overview:

JD revisits our 2020 episodes to identify the 10 BIGGEST frontline insights:

  1. The frontline is still getting left behind. (02:14)
  2. Businesses must become people-first. (05:40)
  3. Train and communicate with your frontline to demonstrate your respect. (09:40)
  4. The frontline needs new skills to successfully overcome disruption. (12:11)
  5. Companies must adopt a continuous, focused approach to frontline training. (13:33)
  6. You must understand the frontline reality to provide the right support. (16:31)
  7. Right-fit technology and content are critical. (19:35)
  8. Managers are the primary frontline support system. (21:16)
  9. Forward-thinking companies will seize the opportunity to retain and grow new talent. (22:30)
  10. Your next big innovation may come from the frontline. (24:12)

Here’s our guest list in order of appearance with links to their original episodes:

The 80 Percent is brought to you by Axonify. To learn how you can provide communication and training to your frontline workforce that actually works, visit axonify.com. If you have a frontline story you’d like us to explore on a future episode, let us know at podcast@axonify.com

Hear how leaders at O’Reilly Auto Parts and rue21 are preparing their frontline teams for what comes next in retail during Axonify’s Big Ideas Session at the NRF Big Show on January 21, 2021.

Join the #FrontlineForward effort by visiting axonify.com/frontlineforward to access free training content, download the 2020 State of Frontline Employee Training Report and subscribe for the updates.

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

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.

Episode Transcript

JD Dillon:

On this episode, we look back at all of our 2020 conversations to highlight the 10 biggest insights our guests have shared about supporting frontline employees during accelerated business change. That’s coming up next on the 80%,

Voice 1:

I’m doing the right thing.

Voice 2:

I am your competitive advantage.

Voice 3:

I am making my workplace safe.

Voice 4:

When you give the people on your frontline, the tools they need to succeed, your business succeeds to. Axonify is sharing free training content and ongoing inspiration to help you move your frontline forward. Head over to axonify.com/frontline forward to learn more. I am on the front line. I am on the frontline. I am on the frontline together. We will move the frontline forward.

JD Dillon:

What word would you pick to describe your experience in 2020. Difficult? Tragic? Disruption? Unprecedented? The official word of the year may be pandemic, but that’s not how I choose to remember my 2020. Instead, I’m going with essential more than anything. 2020 challenged us all to decide what is really essential in our lives in our workplaces and in our communities. We started the 80% podcast just as the pandemic began and have explored stories from around the world that demonstrate just how essential the frontline workforce has been this year and will continue to be. So to cap off this difficult, tragic, disruptive, and unprecedented year, let’s listen back to our conversation so far and make sure we walk away from 2020 with meaningful insights and practical ideas that we can use to better support the frontline in 2021. We’re joined by our entire slate of guests, including industry thought leaders, analysts, and practitioners. We’ll list everyone with links to their individual episodes in the show notes. But now let’s explore our 10 biggest insights from the year that was 2020.

JD Dillon:

Our first big insight is actually the reason we started this podcast in the first place. The frontline has been consistently left behind when it comes to the workplace experience. If you’re not lucky enough to have a great manager or to work for a truly mission-driven company, chances are you won’t stay in a frontline role for very long. And who can possibly blame people for leaving. As Danny Johnson, Carol Leaman, Harold Lloyd, and Heather McGowan point out the pandemic has really shined a spotlight on this often ignored group that makes up 80% of the worldwide workforce. But in many cases, there still isn’t enough conversation about prioritizing and taking care of the frontline.

Heather McGowan:

No, I haven’t. I mean, a lot of frontline workers have been furloughed in several of the industries. And so I haven’t really seen a lot come out about frontline workers in particularly in this context, I think it’s shortsighted for sure. We’re relying on frontline workers to keep the economy moving right now. Just tell them to do their job without the help that additional learning could provide, I think is really short-sighted.

Carol Leaman:

You know, as we’ve been evangelizing the need and the benefit of enabling the frontline workforce, we’ve often encountered objections around, well, you know, they only stay with us for three months or six months. We train them, but then we need to train the next person. And it’s just this constant revolving door. So there’s been this kind of belief system that’s developed over many decades that frontline folks just aren’t worth the investment. And that becomes the biggest objection.

Harold Lloyd:

And that brings up the brightest spots in his whole pandemic was for the world to classify my people, the 80% essential workers. That made my heart swell. I was so proud. Every commercial, every show, everything you see, they make fun of us, our grocery workers. Now they call us essential putting us in a class with the doctors and the nurses and firemen and police. I mean, that is special. When your orientation program with your employees, you are using that term over and over again. We’re not grocery clerks, we’re essential workers,

Heather McGowan:

We’re in the middle of a crisis. So we have to realize that, you know, while people are saying, we’re all in this together, no, we’re not. We’re all in the same storm. We’re in different boats. So the reality of how things are going to change is different depending on what kind of boat you’re in. If you’re a frontline or a central or worker, and you’re interacting with other humans, you need personal protective equipment that you may not have needed it six or seven months ago. If you were working from home, suddenly all your interactions are mitigated through a screen. Either case what’s become abundantly clear is we have not paid attention enough to wellness. We’ve got zoom fatigue and parents who are working two jobs, trying to raise their kids and teach their kids while they’re doing full-time jobs and sharing devices, depending on what their financial resources are. The people on the frontlines with levels of stress they’ve never had before because their life wasn’t in danger doing their job. So I think it shined a spotlight on something we’ve been ignoring for decades. We’ve been trying to squeeze more productivity out of people without paying attention to how do you really nurture the human to get maximum human performance and maximum human wellness, as opposed to just seeing the human as a deep personal, as you know, the productivity

JD Dillon:

To fix this problem and provide the type of support the frontline needs organizations have to get rid of a long held and highly problematic mindset. Our second big insight is that the customer is not actually number one and neither are your shareholders. As Harold, Michael C. Bush, and Heather point out, if you want to deliver value to your customers and shareholders, you have to prioritize your employees first, especially your frontline. And as Peter Cameron and Michael explained, this starts with thinking about your employees as people first and employees second.

Harold Lloyd:

It’s not the customer who’s number one, which everyone said all their life “customers most important, customer’s number one.” That’s such crap. The customer is not number one. The employee is number one. The customer is to close second. We’re over 168 hours, some of us a week, you can only be there 50, 60 hours. You better hope those employees are feeling like they’re number one and not treated like they’re number two. So to speak, that’s maybe the heart of our problem as an industry, mistreating our employees, Oh, not yelling and screaming at them, but just basically taking them for granted

Michael C. Bush:

Leaders feel like they have to say publicly that the customer is number one, they feel like they have to say it. And that same leader inside the company says the employees number one. But they know sometimes customers just have to believe that they’re number one. But there is a movement now where leaders are studying to be comfortable saying it’s the employees, it’s the employees. And our belief is it’s absolutely the employees because they’re the ones who create that experience for the customer. You can talk about the customer being number one, all you want, if your employees aren’t feeling respected and cared for, and that you care about them as a person, in addition to it as an employee, the customer is going to feel that difference.

Heather McGowan:

I think the companies that get it understand that the frontline is not your afterthought. It’s where you should begin. The frontline is they make the value for you. They make the experience for you. They realize your brand promise. They’re all your customers can see. When you have a bad experience at the frontline that’s what you think about the entire company, no matter who’s behind that frontline. So the folks who understand that and say these are the most important people in our company, because they’re the people who really kind of create the value for the customer. They’re the ones who get it.

Harold Lloyd:

Some of the things I think deeply about as a learning consultant is not just understanding the end user, but really developing the training around the fact that they’re humans first. So understanding their needs, it’s not just about making sure that they hit a certain score or a certain assessment level. It’s really about understanding what are the skills that they need to get to point B and then building and developing and helping the team develop a training around that users. Not so much around the content, which is one of those kinds of change management pieces. Let’s figure out what they need to do to make them, you know, a great employee, a great person working in whichever department or what have you that they are. And then we’ll work backwards and figure out how to get there.

Michael C. Bush:

Companies that are people first, if you look at their stock performance over the last 20 years compared to companies that are not companies that are people first outperformed the Russell 2000, the Russell 3000 and the S and P 500, 3 to 1, we have the data to show what happens when you put your people first. So for the person who’s doing it just for how to make the most money possible, put your people first, okay? Forgetting about, you know, being good for people and better for the world. Not everybody believes in those things. So you can grab just the capitalist notion and this absolutely pays off. If somebody is doing it through positioning, they’re going to lose because through marketing positioning, you’re not going to deliver on the promise. You’re not going to have that communication where people feel like this person really cares about me, sincerely. And I feel like I am first. It’s as simple as that.

JD Dillon:

Becoming a people. First organization is all about respect. As Dan Cockrell, Michael and Dane Jensen point out as part of our third, big insight, one of the best ways to demonstrate respect to your employees and help them overcome high pressure situations is to invest in their development.

Dan Cockerell:

There’s two areas I think companies don’t invest in. They look at it as either extra work or extra costs. So that’s training and communication. And those are probably two of the most important things you can do. But somehow they see those as secondary. I hired you now, I’m just going to get you so you can now do the minimum. And I don’t invest in people. People look at training as a cost, not an investment. And I think it’s the same with communication. I think it’s an investment because when people are informed, not only can they do the job, but it’s a sign of respect from my point of view, when you go out of your way to inform people, what’s happening, you’re telling them they’re important and they deserve to know what’s going on.

Michael C. Bush:

This is how you show that you respect employees. This is how you show you care. And you believe in them because you’re investing in them. People know this psychologically that this training is happening. Not so I’ll fail. This is so I’ll be successful yeah. For the business. But me too, because I’m going to get trained. It’s something that’ll help me at company XYZ and beyond that. So it’s super, super important. So when a company takes the time to do this and do it well, all of a sudden you’re getting cared for you’re feeling respected. And one of the questions we ask, do you get the resources that you need to be successful? The answer is yes, as a result of these things. And when it’s done in a very professional way that clearly the employee can feel the thought and the time and the care that was put into it. So I can get this training on my mobile device. All the signaling is, wow, this place really cares about me.

Hazel:

The impact of pressure on people is directly correlated to the degree with which they can control and influence it. And so, because of that, people that are on the front lines that maybe have a lower span of control in terms of the decisions that are being made around job design compensation, organizational structure, all that kind of stuff, they are much more at risk of the negative impacts of pressure because their span of control tends to be a little bit lower. Growth gives meaning to pressure, because if I’m getting better in a way that matters to me, like if I can see how this period of growth is giving me a new skill or more capacity or something that might serve me well later on in life, then at least the pressure has meaning. I see what I’m developing as opposed to, it’s just sitting on top of me.

JD Dillon:

Our fourth big insight comes from Dane and Harold and continues the conversation on frontline training. They remind us of the types of timely, practical skills frontline employees need to develop in order to overcome disruption. And these are the kinds of skills that probably aren’t covered in your traditional onboarding.

Hazel:

As an organization, we are going to make sure that we are not wasting this opportunity to help strengthen you, to help build your stabilizer muscles, to build the resilience capabilities that are going to serve you for the next 20 years, the next 30 years, because this is the perfect lab for us to focus on building resilience, to give people new and different skills for connecting with their self efficacy, the stuff that is the connective tissue that is going to underpin our ability to be adaptable and change for the next 20 to 25 years.

Harold Lloyd:

I had four retailers last week called me to ask, do I know anyone who specialize in conflict resolution? I said, for what? He said, the fights that are in the parking lot and the first aisle, the second one aisle, the third aisle for customers who get into the store and without a mask on, and then are asked to wear one. This is such pressure to put on an 19 year old grocery clerk. This shouldn’t have to happen. And our poor people that what our industry pays, shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of behavior. But these are really weird times and some weird things happen and weird times. That pressure on the frontline is real, real tough

JD Dillon:

To help the frontline develop these kinds of skills. Companies will have to rethink their approach to frontline training as Danny Hazel, Jackson, Harold, and Heather point out in our fifth big insight organizations have to move from one and done training to a continuous approach that helps people keep up with changing skill requirements.

Heather McGowan:

It would be very short-sighted of organizations to go back and put in place. What was already in place before this, without rethinking exactly what’s going on here. And I think one of the biggest things is understanding the skills that individuals have and the skills that the organization has and the skills that the organization needs. And being able to use that data, to move people around, to help adapt to externals challenges and opportunities, I think is going to be crucial

Hazel:

When you suddenly all hands in, it’s no longer where you’re the receptionist and what receptionist should do is X. And you can’t answer the phone. Now it’s off that’s Lonnie, what’s Lonnie good at doing, and what are all the capabilities that we need right now? And how do we juggle that all around and role titles and job descriptions that are pretty much gone out the window.

Harold Lloyd:

I discovered five years ago that not one company in the United States and Canada, not one has crossed training as a program in writing in their store, offered as a benefit to their associates. Not one. I think it’s one of the most powerful motivational tools you have available. It’s one of the most powerful team building tools we have available. And it was one of the greatest ways for an employee to self-develop and make more money that we have available.

Heather McGowan:

How do I answer that question? Who am I has been, at least in the U S has been this isn’t my job title. Here’s my company title. It’s a social signal. That’s how we greet each other. Studies have shown the job loss can take twice as long to recover from the loss of a primary relationship. It’s a loss of everything that you are it we’re still reinforcing that greeting. And I can’t remember how many tens of millions of people in the U S are out of work right now. Don’t want to answer that question. That question has prohibited us from adapting to whatever our next role might be or to take on multiple roles at once as we’re navigating and evolving. So that’s a huge one. Stop asking young kids what they want to be when they grow up. Too many jobs are changing too many jobs aren’t here yet. And you’re asking them to pick a future self based upon what they’re told they’re good at. And what’s in their immediate social circle, which is huge social mobility implications. You know, if we’re all limited to what we were told, we were good at in high school, what our parents or parents, friends do, we’re really cutting off a tremendous amount of human potential. We need to get people much more internally driven and curious. So they’re constantly discovering because chances are good. If you believe the research from the foundation of young Australians, which I think is the best research I’ve seen out there for the developed world, young people, graduating can have 16, 17 different jobs across five different industries. There’s nothing we can do to better prepare them other than to connect them with their internal purpose and help them learn and adapt.

JD Dillon:

Our sixth big insight highlights the importance of context. After all, the only way you can provide right fit support to any audience is by getting to know what it’s like to do their jobs every day and what really motivates them to do their best work. We heard this over and over again from both frontline employees like Ellie, as well as practitioners and influencers from around the world, including Aston Moss, Michelle Ockers, Donald Taylor, Hazel, and Dan

Voice 1:

Well prepared to do it because I was well aware of the kinds of issues that people have staff that people are frustrated with or that they don’t understand or becomes confusing. What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional toll. And I was not prepared for how hard it would be to have to be in a position where I can’t fix it.

Voice 2:

The biggest challenge overall was giving them peace of mind and keeping connected. Now we’re very mindful that out of roughly 2000, 2,200 people, a lot of those people are more vulnerable from an income perspective. And so their confidence around their ability to pay their bills, pay for groceries, pay the rent, whatever expenses by head was critically important

Voice 3:

In some environments, literacy and education levels are an issue in some frontline environments. I’m from the English speaking world. So we’re English is a second language.

Voice 4:

And there’s a great British tradition of amateurism that you pick it up on the job when you sink or swim. It’s obviously a pretty appalling way to get people, to learn things which are important. You go through all that business of recruiting somebody, and then you just see if I can sell shoes on not by watching them sell shoes.

Voice 5:

So what’s made training hard is these poor frontline team members are struggling with not only must I remember maybe the company policy and the product and the information, but I must also apply it to a multiple different range of customers and their own preferences. And that just makes it so much harder. And there’s a growing realization that you cannot support people sitting at your desk in a corporate office.

Voice 1:

You have to get out and understand their world, their workplace, and what’s going to work for them, given their constraints and the demands on, on them and what sort of people they are and how they work. So the going to gemba is a really big theme for me that I’m hearing a lot of lately.

Dan Cockerell:

We did a lot of studies at Disney and we surveyed guests and our guests told us there’s four things I really want when I come to Walt Disney world. Make me feel special. I want you to treat me as an individual. I want you to respect me, and I want you to be knowledgeable about your job. I want you to know what you’re talking about, cause it’s a big, complicated place. And sure enough, when we talked to our employees about what they wanted, they said the same thing we want you to make us feel special. Treat us as individuals, respect us employees and train us and give us the tools and the training we need to successfully perform in this very high expectation environment,

JD Dillon:

Both technology and content play huge roles in frontline training. Our seventh big insight from Evan parks, Hazel and Michelle demonstrates how organizations are adapting, how they approach their technology and content to meet changing expectations.

Voice 6:

One of the concerns that I’ve heard from some of the grocers is that, you know, people don’t want to share devices. So logging onto a computer that somebody else was using or a store handheld tool to do any online learning was not something that people want to do. People want are okay using their own personal device before they touch anything else.

Voice 3:

I also think there’s been pressure coming from all the free content that’s out there. You know, these libraries of availability, where it’s overloading and it’s confusing. So to differentiate, when you’re speaking to the frontline, you’ve got to cut through all of the stuff you could go and learn and try and make sure that you’re delivering exactly what they do need to learn for this day, this week, this new update. So I think there’s been a lot of clearing away the clutter and getting a lot more focused. And I think that’s not going to change because it was long overdue.

Voice 1:

I think we’ll see a leap forward in terms of learning in the flow of work, in better use of technology and learning and more discrimination discernment about when to take people off the job and put them in classrooms and maybe a Jewell path offering because for some people, yeah, some people have really enjoyed, not traveling as much. Some people have really enjoyed, reduced commute at the businesses. There are benefits to people not having to spend so much time traveling. I think there could be these parallel paths being offered, where people get the option of doing some stuff by suffice and some stuff virtually

JD Dillon:

Our eighth big insight is all about managers who are a critical part of the frontline support system. This is a point Evan repeatedly stressed in our conversations about frontline resilience in grocery.

Evan Parkes:

The manager is really their whole support system. For a new person that’s coming on board, The manager is their lifeline, right? So that’s their support. That’s the person that’s going to get them going. They have a big job and people look to them to solve all of the problems that are going on out there right now.

Voice 6:

The level of empathy that managers have to have is different today. If somebody says they’re sick, you have to take their word for it. You can’t, you can’t argue that. That level of worker who’s making, you know, somewhere between nine and $10 an hour, they need to make $250 a week or $300 a week. You know, whatever it may be. And that’s that’s top of mind for them. They’re looking for their managers to support them and protect them from the customers who don’t want to wear the mask and putting them in positions where they’re having to be too close to customers. So I think they’re just looking for very basic safety measures. But the primary focus they have is, is, uh, supporting themselves their families, whatever their needs are.

JD Dillon:

For our ninth, big insight, Carol, Harold and Evan all pointed out a potentially overlooked opportunity that is emerging from all of this frontline disruption. As people change companies and industries to find new jobs, organizations must look to retain and grow their new talent base so they’re ready to push forward and differentiate their businesses as the global economy recovers.

Carol Leaman:

Investing in the people that you want to keep so that they create a customer experience that allows you to recoup the revenue and potentially grow that revenue beyond what it ever was with fewer people means you need to keep those people longer and train them appropriately and keep them abreast of everything that changes daily.

Harold Lloyd:

An infusion of wonderful help that they got from other industries that maybe previous to this pandemic thought we were beneath them. And maybe when they see the essential nature of our industry, they’ll say, you know what? I love the stability of the grocery store. I love the comradery and the grocery store. I like the variety of things that go on in a grocery store. There’s never a dull moment. It’s ever changing. I get to learn a whole lot of different things, different industries.

Evan Parkes:

The opportunity to be able to get good employees that came to just try to find a job in release. That is something that I think that good managers should’ve focused on is keeping them, making sure that they understand that you can make a career in the industry and you can become a manager. Anybody wants to work hard in grocery and put the effort out there’s opportunities there.

JD Dillon:

Our 10th and final big insight requires a shift in perspective rather than just think about how we can train the frontline. Dan and Sean Kanungo challenged us to think differently about what the frontline can teach us.

Dan Cockerell:

We started to go look at who are the housekeepers who seem to just effortlessly clean 18 rooms a day. They have clean rooms on a regular basis. They get the highest scores. They seem to be working the least. And so we’d go look at them. The ones that were really good at it, we found out had great systems. People like Blanca, Mondays was mirrors. Tuesdays was base boards. Wednesdays were fans. They had a rotation. We didn’t train them to do that, but they knew based on the experience they had is if you do a little bit every day, you never have to do a deep cleaning because you’re taking care of the whole room. And we started to roll that out to the housekeepers who weren’t as organized and said, Hey, do you want your job to be easier? Let’s take these best practices from the housekeepers who figured it out, go talk to people, watch them, speak with them, study your best people and how they do their jobs and let that become your operating guideline. Because people are very organized and they’re like I said, very resourceful and they have tons of answers for you. If you’re willing to go pay attention.

Shawn Kanungo:

Part of your job should also be around innovation, which is how do I do things differently? How do I come up with small, slight experiments that might fundamentally increase efficiency or create a new way for us to do things? That idea has to be able to come through the ranks and come to the top. See JD, I think one of the problems that has happened traditionally with an organizations, especially in large organizations, is that the ideas, the frontline can’t get to the top. Somebody has an idea. It has to go to a manager, they have to pitch their idea to somebody, and then they have to pitch that idea to somebody else. Then that person has to pitch that idea to somebody else like the risk just mounts and the initial root of the idea is actually lost. If we can equip our frontline staff and empower them with the idea that they are part of the innovation initiative. And we actually create a clear line for their innovative ideas to come to the top. Not only are they going to be empowered more, but you’re going to see the result in greater organizational performance, greater results, greater revenue, happier people. And I know this sounds controversial, but I think this is flipping the entire concept of where innovation strategy should lie within an organization.

JD Dillon:

That was a quick summary of our 10 biggest frontline insights from 2020. We’ve broken everything down in the show notes. So you can take a deeper dive into the insights that might be of most value to you and your frontline team. That’s a wrap for the 80% for this year. I’ve really enjoyed sharing our stories with you despite so much of our focus being placed on just how hard a year this has been for the frontline. I hope you’ve been able to pick up some meaningful insight and practical ideas that you can apply to support and empower your frontline teams. We’ll be back in January with more stories, as we explore the frontline experience with friends from Zappos, vitality and Southwest airlines, we’ll also check back in on the grocery space to see how companies are maintaining resilience after almost a year of non-stop disruption.

JD Dillon:

And we’re going to kick off 2021 with Bob Phibbs, the retail doctor. And explore the role frontline employees will play in a not so distant future of retail. If you haven’t already done it, subscribe to the 80% on your favorite podcast app. You can also find all of our episodes online at axonify.com/podcast. Be sure to share our podcast with anyone who is passionate about providing the frontline workforce with the tools and support they so desperately need and deserve. I’d like to leave you now with one of my favorite clips from the show this year, a message of hope and inspiration from Heather McGowan. And remember that together we can move the frontline forward.

Heather McGowan:

I think there’s a tremendous opportunity right now to shift from me to the we. So me is my job, my health insurance, my finances, my piece of land reality is we live in a world together, even going through this pandemic, the only way we’re going to go through it is achieving some sort of herd immunity. And I do not mean at all that we let everybody get sick and die until everybody has it. I mean, once we have a vaccine, that’s how the virus can’t penetrate the herd anymore because enough of us are protected because I may get a vaccine, even though I don’t need it because you can’t for either religious reasons or allergy reasons or whatever it is, but more of us are protected. More of us wear mask, more of a socially distance. The climate change is the biggest me to we shift. Education, we used to, you know, not care about the kid down the street, whether or not they get educated. Cause it wasn’t my kid. Well, what if GDP goes up and your 401k goes up because that kid invented something or that kid is a contributor to society. We’ve been very, short-term me thinking, this is a moment to be much longer. Long-term we thinking, of course, we’re going to slide back in some areas, but now that we know what we can do, we know we can trust people to work from home. We know certain amounts of certain types of learning can take place online. We have those as reliable tools, so I’m optimistic. We’ll move forward on those fronts.

Read more

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