Blog Series

Commentary: We Owe It to Frontline Workers to Support Them in Our Next Normal

About two weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, I was at the grocery store making small talk with the cashier through a plexiglass shield. She was exhausted. Stressed. 

As she finished with my groceries, she saw that none of the products she’d scanned had actually been registered by the system. She had to start all over again, fighting back tears. 

In that moment, I felt even more grateful for her and the millions of frontline workers who continue showing up to work through this pandemic – holding it together and prioritizing others’ needs over their own. From pharmacy cashiers to delivery drivers to customer service reps, frontline workers are a critical link in the chain that has kept our world turning through the coronavirus pandemic. They make up 80% of the global workforce and, without a doubt, they are the heroes of COVID-19. 

But it’s not just during crisis that frontline workers keep our families, communities and businesses running smoothly. It’s every single day. And they deserve to be celebrated and supported every single day. Because they’ve always been heroes. And they will continue to don their capes long after this pandemic ends.

How to deliver the support your frontline needs
It’s now abundantly clear that championing the success of frontline workers is the quickest, smartest route to navigating change, wowing customers and driving sales. The reality that none of us like to admit is that, despite their importance, we haven’t always given them the appreciation they deserve. 

With retail companies facing an unprecedented high turnover rate of 81%, surprisingly they haven’t invested in their learning and development because they incorrectly see frontline employees as disposable. The current global crisis shows this couldn’t be further from the truth.

As North America begins to return to business, it’s now up to retail leaders to keep the frontline top of mind. Here are four concrete ways you can deliver ongoing support to frontline workers as they navigate an uncertain world in COVID-19 and beyond.

1. Quick reboarding, onboarding and compliance: In recent weeks, grocery and retail companies across North America, including Walmart, CVS, Instacart, Lowe’s and Kroger, have hired hundreds of thousands of workers. Other stores are preparing to reopen and reboard furloughed staff.

In all cases, they need competent frontline workers ASAP, and there’s no time to waste on a lengthy training process. What if they could get employees back on the floor after just one hour of training, saving labor hours without sacrificing service or safety? It’s possible with smart onboarding that gives them the essentials they need to be safe, compliant, and effective. By honing in on what your frontline really needs to know, you support them in building trust with customers and following safety protocols that make everyone feel comfortable shopping in-store again.

2. Keep lines of communication open: Over the coming months, public health guidelines will continue to evolve. But even beyond the pandemic, employees need to stay informed in real-time in order to do their jobs well. Communication speed and consistency are crucial to helping them adapt on the fly and have the most up-to-date information.

If your store is running low on particular goods, customer-facing staff need to be able to explain the situation and offer a remedy or you’ll quickly lose business to the next closest competitor. An online platform that pushes information in real-time is faster and more reliable than a staff bulletin board or team huddle. And, when employees can access it on their own devices, an online platform can even facilitate ongoing communication in the event of future lockdowns or store closures.

3. Continuous reinforcement of new information: Navigating the next normal for frontline employees requires breaking a lot of old habits and reinforcing new ones, while ensuring they retain safety and compliance training. Employees need to get used to new procedures, such as disinfecting payment terminals and reminding customers to physically distance. For all that new information to stick, it needs to be reinforced often in a way that doesn’t distract them from customers or their jobs. 

Ongoing micro-learning feeds employees bite-sized training that’s simple, nondisruptive and personalized. Reinforcement helps frontline workers build new habits fast so they can give customers a consistent experience, avoid costly mistakes and feel certain they’re doing the right thing, even during an uncertain time.

4. Cross-training for role fluidity: As business processes evolve to meet new and novel ways of serving customers, frontline workers are being thrown into new roles with little to no training. Retailers are seeing increased demand for delivery and curbside pickup, meaning staff hired as sales associates may be pivoting to help fulfill click-and-collect orders. Mini onboarding for multiple roles upskills frontline staff quickly and effectively.

As frontline positions become more fluid to meet day-to-day business needs, stores are able to maximize their labor resources while ensuring they can adapt to the changing needs of customers during and after the pandemic. Most importantly for frontline workers, they can rapidly upgrade their skills while feeling confident and capable in different roles.

There’s no single formula for championing your frontline, but addressing the four pillars of onboarding, communication, reinforcement and cross-training will go a long way to showing you support and value employees. While the pandemic will eventually end, more disruption is inevitable. And, as we’ve learned from COVID-19, our frontline workforce will be the ones to save the day, again and again. Smart companies around the world will take this unique moment as a needed reminder that their success ultimately depends on celebrating and supporting their frontline. 

Carol Leaman is president and CEO of Axonify.

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