To overcome business disruption, take a front-line-first approach

Eighty percent of the global workforce is on the front line. Disruption may have changed the way they do their jobs, but they remain the ultimate driver of business success, and we should invest in their development.

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To overcome business disruption, take a front-line-first approach

Eighty percent of the global workforce is on the front line. Disruption may have changed the way they do their jobs, but they remain the ultimate driver of business success, and we should invest in their development.

You cannot run your business without your front-line workforce.

Everyone already knows this, right? If your employees don’t do their jobs well, your organization can’t succeed. This is true at all levels, from the C-suite to the store floor. While the big decisions may be made in the corporate office, your strategy comes to life on the front line where employees interact directly with your customers and products every day.

Out of balance

Great performance is needed at all levels. However, the way many companies invest in their people is far from equal. There are the obvious compensation disparities. Last year, the CEO-to-typical worker compensation ratio was 278-to-1, according to the Economic Policy Institute. This imbalance extends to professional development. Front-line employees receive minimal training. According to the 2019 “State of Frontline Workplace Training in Retail” report from Ipsos and Axonify, front-line training is limited to a few times per year and usually focused on onboarding and compliance. Despite a stated desire to learn and improve their performance, these employees receive little ongoing development opportunity. It’s no wonder that turnover in front-line-heavy industries remained high even in a tight labor market. For example, retail and wholesale turnover was 60.5 percent in 2018, according to Mercer. Lack of career development was the No. 1 reason why people left their jobs in 2018, according to Work Institute.

The COVID-19 pandemic altered the recognition of the front-line workforce overnight. They didn’t just get noticed. Grocery clerks, retail employees, contact center agents and health care workers were declared heroes. Some employers temporarily increased front-line pay to recognize and motivate workers. Sick leave, which was previously considered an unrealistic luxury, became a necessity. Front-line employees emerged as the faces of brand campaigns. They were a familiar way to let customers know businesses were open and ready to provide safe, efficient service.

Front-line employees became heroes in March 2020. But will they still be heroes in March 2021?

Unnoticed heroes

From delivery drivers to warehouse workers, front-line employees have kept businesses and communities running since the start of the pandemic. However, their sweeping business impact didn’t just begin this year. The front line is regularly cited as a driving factor in customer decision-making. One-third of shoppers rate salespeople as the most impressive part of the retail experience, according to GetApp. And the No. 1 reason people dislike calling companies is the inability to speak with a person right away, according to NewVoiceMedia.

But it’s not just the perception of paying customers that makes the front line so important. They are also key drivers of internal transformation. Their performance determines the ultimate effectiveness of your business strategies. For example, according to McKinsey, 70 percent of customer experience transformations fail. But it’s not due to poor planning or lack of resources. Instead, it’s due to employee resistance.

We may not have called them heroes before the pandemic. But the front line was already supporting the weight of your business on their shoulders.

Out of reach

Why are so many organizations failing to provide their front-line workforces with the right level of support? Why do they treat these employees as replaceable? In many cases, management does recognize the impact the front line has on business outcomes. They respect and value these employees as part of their workplace culture. It often comes down to practicality: The front line is just too hard to reach.

Consider the logistics. Corporate team members are usually hired into specialist roles. They work in a limited number of locations. They’re easy to reach via email or chat. They have control over their schedules and can allocate time to professional development. Even with more people working from home now and into the future, the corporate workforce is easier to reach using traditional methods, such as instructor-led training and e-learning.

Front-line employees are the near opposite of their corporate counterparts. They work in generalist roles with large peer groups. They may or may not have experience in their industry’s work before joining the company. They work in disparate locations. They usually do not have corporate email or direct messaging. They are strictly scheduled with minimal time away from the operation. They’re often prohibited from doing any work-related tasks when off the clock. While some can work from home, most have to go to a job location to complete their shifts. Traditional training methods don’t align with the way they work. It’s too disruptive to the operation and prohibitively expensive at scale.

It’s not that most companies don’t want to provide better support to their front-line workforce — they just don’t know how to make it work.

A better approach

We’re all learning a lot this year. We’re learning what’s most important, both personally and professionally. We’re learning how to better support one another. We’re learning how much organizations really value their employees. And we’re learning that some companies were more prepared to handle this disruption than others.

That’s not to say some companies had a preemptive pandemic plan. No one was prepared to navigate the business landscape during a global health crisis. Nevertheless, some organizations have adapted more quickly. They have maintained (or even strengthened) their company cultures while also shifting how they do business. They have instilled trust and confidence in their front-line workers despite the added risks associated with doing their jobs.

Examples of these companies are popping up all over the world and in every industry. While their front lines do different jobs, these organizations approach front-line support in similar ways. Before the disruption began, they had all taken proactive steps to put their front lines first, starting with the following.

Mindset. “For us, the front line represents the bottom line.” Briscoe Group Limited, which operates 85 homeware and sporting goods stores across New Zealand, was forced to send their 1,900 employees home during a nationwide lockdown in March. Thankfully, the company had already adopted a “front-line-forward” mindset. They understood the value their employees deliver to the business and adopted a uniquely human approach to dealing with disruption. As Aston Moss, general manager of human resources, explained, the priority was helping people first and employees second: “How do we keep connected to our team and what do we need to do to give them peace of mind?” Once the government began to lift restrictions in April, they were able to transition their teams seamlessly back into the workplace and support them through ongoing operational adjustments.

A front-line-forward mindset stresses the connection between your employees and the everyday value your company delivers to customers. Jonathan Andrews is senior vice president of human resources and training at O’Reilly Auto Parts, which operates 5,512 stores in the U.S. and 21 in Mexico. He expressed this sentiment perfectly: “A customer that comes into a store is not coming there because they want to be there. They have a problem they need to solve. And that front-line employee is critical to our business.” This connection must be well-articulated throughout the business, from the C-suite to regional management.

Communication. Awareness is an essential part of a front-line-forward strategy. Too often, employees struggle and disengage simply because the organization does not have a consistent, expeditious way of getting them information. Bulletin boards and team meetings are insufficient, especially during times of major disruption. Moss nailed it when he said, “In pandemic planning — and most things HR — the three most important things are communication, communication, communication.”

Front-line-forward companies are adopting modern communication methods so they can stay in contact with their entire workforce, regardless of the situation. They’re introducing digital apps that allow stakeholders throughout the business, including executives, to send media-rich messages to every employee, not just the ones with a company email. They’re also overcoming long-standing obstacles to bring-your-own-device, or BYOD, policies so workers can access digital content on their favorite devices rather than be limited to shared workstations.

Continuous reskilling and upskilling. A front-line-forward organization understands that learning is not a scheduled event. It’s part of an employee’s job, even if they are busy most of the time supporting customers. By promoting continuous learning, these companies provide employees with the resources they need to do their best work every day while also developing the knowledge and skills they will apply in the future. They bring opportunities to the employees rather than forcing them to find time on their own. According to Gianna Venturi, chief people officer at Eyemart Express, “The world’s moving too fast. We need to be a lot quicker. We need something that meets people where they are, and literally, that could be on the retail floor.”

Reaching employees where they are requires more than BYOD. These companies are restructuring the way they provide skill development training. For example, rather than provide a 45-minute course on new workplace health and safety standards, HR works with subject matter experts to build microlearning focused on specific skills, such as workplace sanitization and serving customers while wearing a mask. These topics, which include video, interactive modules and scenario-based assessments, can be completed in less than five minutes. The content is used to rapidly reskill and upskill employees based on both personal needs and business priorities. This behavior-based approach makes skill development an integral part of an employee’s everyday workload.

Front-line-forward organizations also recognize the importance of managers as part of employee development. Managers heavily influence job performance. They control factors such as scheduling, prioritization and resourcing. While stakeholders and HR teams support the front line from afar, managers are in the operation with them during every shift. This is why front-line-forward organizations prioritize manager development. They provide managers with the ongoing training, resources and data-driven insights needed to improve their coaching and feedback skills.

Value realization. Becoming front-line-forward begins with mindset, but this mindset must be validated by measurable outcomes. Of course, providing professional development to your front-line workforce is the right thing to do. It must also drive the kinds of results that will help the business survive disruption and succeed into the future.

The value of front-line training can be measured in a variety of ways. It starts with engagement. Are people choosing to dedicate their limited time to skill development activities because they understand the value? From there, a continuous approach to learning allows organizations to measure changes in knowledge and job behaviours. Is the training actually helping employees solve problems and improve their performance? Then, there are key performance indicators. Front-line-forward organizations are applying modern data and machine learning techniques to connect front-line development with improvements in sales, customer satisfaction, safety and a variety of other KPIs. Front-line training is not about checking boxes. These companies are making sure compliance requirements are met while providing ongoing, personalized skill development to their entire front-line workforces.

Becoming front-line-forward

Most people have been operating for months in “survival mode.” This is now just giving way to long-term strategy conversations. What will your business look like in six, 18 or 36 months? What role will you need your front-line workforce to play so you can keep your business moving forward? What can you learn from companies that have been able to navigate unprecedented disruption more effectively because they became front-line-forward?

Eighty percent of the global workforce is on the front line. Disruption may have changed the way they do their jobs, but they remain the ultimate driver of business success. As Rebecca Sinclair, chief people officer at American Tire Distributors put it “No matter the company or industry, you need to invest in your front-line people. They’re your connection to the customer experience.”

Heroes aren’t just the ones who swoop in to catch you at the last moment before you hit the ground. They’re also the people who are always there, whether you notice them or not, to prevent you from falling in the first place. The front line became our heroes in March 2020. They should still be our heroes in March 2021.

About the author:

JD Dillon is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in the global L&D community. For 20 years, he worked in operations and learning roles within highly regarded organisations, including Disney, Kaplan, Brambles and AMC Theatres. JD is now chief learning architect with Axonify and founder of LearnGeek.

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