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April 28, 2020
Learning & Development

Practical Ways to Champion L&D for Your Frontline Workforce

On-the-job training is emerging as one of the earliest and hardest-hit activities by COVID-19. 

In fact, millions of frontline employees are currently ill-equipped to perform their roles effectively (and that was pre-COVID). According to a recent Gartner report, 70% of frontline employees say they haven’t mastered the skills required to be successful in their current role. What’s more, only one in five employees believe they have the skills they need to be successful in future roles. 

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly hasn’t done anything to curb those concerns; in fact, it’s likely that those feelings have become even more real at a time where nearly everyone—regardless of profession—is likely feeling a bit ill-equipped to deal with the massive amount of change that’s been forced upon us in just a short period of time.

COVID has blown up a lot of 2020 plans, especially any planned learning and development initiatives that weren’t directly COVID-related. While it’s certainly understandable, there’s still a massive need for most organizations to take a breath, refocus, and figure out how they’re going to skill, upskill, or re-skill in a post-COVID world.” —Allison Hu, Sr. Designer at RevUnit

Yet, at a time when the immediate future is still largely uncertain (not to mention the future of work), it’s important to acknowledge that the ways in which we work are changing more rapidly than perhaps ever before. So, too, is the very nature of the work itself, the environment in which the work gets done, and perhaps the most talked-about lightning rod of late, who—human, bot, or both—is actually doing the work. While the future may be uncertain, it’s clear that organizations must adapt quickly in order to emerge from the crisis stronger and more resilient. 

How to Champion L&D During COVID-19

Simply put, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before. Yet, faced with growing uncertainty, there are several things you, as a more senior leader, can do (or continue to do) in order to champion and prioritize on-the-job training for your frontline workforce:

1. Give them what they need to do their jobs

Information, tools, equipment, whatever. If they need it, get it to them quickly. No questions asked. The seriousness and unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic requires an aggressive, two-pronged approach from home office.

First, actively pursuing means through which you can equip frontline employees with the information and tools they need in order to perform mission-critical functions safely and responsibly right this very second. Their ability to respond quickly in the field likely depends on your own ability (or inability) to respond to their unique needs.

Second, ensure that all existing training content is as easily accessible as possible (regardless of format). Your training delivery pipeline doesn’t need to be perfect right now; it simply needs to be hyper-efficient to ensure quick delivery of time-sensitive content to the right groups of people. Don’t worry about whether that content is delivered via video, some piece of software, or a three-ring binder (seriously). 

Simply make sure that you’re able to get mission-critical updates and training content to your frontline workforce in a format that allows them to take decisive, necessary action at a moment’s notice. Doing so also means reducing barriers to comprehension and providing alternative accessibility methods to ensure deliverability to different groups.

2. Limit all non-essential processes and tools

The number of workplace software tools deployed worldwide across all industries has increased by 68% over the last four years, according to an analysis by Okta, Inc. and recently published in The Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, Gartner has reported that global spending on enterprise software is expected to increase by 8.5% this year (up to $431 billion), driven largely by cloud-based software subscriptions. 

All that spending often has negative, unintended consequences for your frontline workforce. That is, your frontline employees often feel the brunt of what can often be a disjointed, frustrating experience when the tools you require them to use actually create more work on their end. In fact, even before the COVID outbreak, one in eight employees say that they have actually left a job because of ineffective or mismatched digital tools. Now is not that time you want to introduce additional complexities—whether in the form of process, tooling, or otherwise. 

In actuality, you want to do the exact opposite. Remove as much inefficiency and complexity as possible. In doing so, you’ll likely see significant increases in deliverability, comprehension, and decision-making abilities from those on the frontline. If you’re unsure which processes and tools are “non-essential,” ask your employees. They’ll tell you exactly what they can and cannot live without in order to perform their jobs right this very second. 

3. Identify critical skills and train on the fly

Your goal today is not to train all the things, but to reinforce the skills (whether hard skills, soft skills, or a hybrid of both) that are most critical to the job right this very moment. Your first move is to proactively work with operations leaders (those making key decisions regarding the business), field training directors (or similar), and frontline employees to quickly identify the processes, tool, or skills that most directly affect the business’ ability to respond to the extra strain created by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Once those priorities are identified, now is the time to push for small, yet significant training improvement — no matter how imperfect the solution. For instance, if your goal is to improve your organization’s ability to quickly deliver personalized content at scale, don’t overthink the solution. You don’t necessarily need a full-scale content delivery platform; you simply need to optimize your content delivery pipeline at a time when the deliverability and comprehension of training materials is critically important.

Ensuring the deliverability and accessibility of content is only half the battle: it’s equally important to implement short, natural feedback loops that will allow you and your team(s) to monitor feedback from the field. You’ll want to look for signals that will force you to make necessary adjustments on the fly. Any feeling of frustration, confusion, or avoidance should be strong signals that there’s room for rapid iteration and improvement. Be especially mindful of wide gaps that exist between the skills you’re training and the skills that your frontline workforce is telling you they feel are most critical right now.

4. Anticipate what’s coming next, develop a plan

Your role as a champion for your frontline employees is not just to equip them with what they need right now, but to anticipate what’s coming next so that you can be prepared for what they’ll need 4-6 months from now (and yes, it’s anyone’s best guess as to what that looks like). Nevertheless, it’s on you to understand where things might be headed, to listen to what your frontline workforce is asking for (even if they’re not saying it directly), and to do your homework to truly understand where there’s going to be serious needs as this situation unfolds. 

Listen, this isn’t an easy exercise, but it’s one that you and your organization should make time and space to consider. It’s important to remember that no one has definitive answers right now, so perfection isn’t the goal. Instead, your goal is to evaluate a range of plausible scenarios and then assess the likelihood of each. 

Seek outside help if and when you need it — whether from leaders inside your organization, public health officials, specialized partners, or, best case scenario, all of the above. Especially during times like these, multiple perspectives can help you and your team recognize areas of need and/or opportunity that you’re unable to see.

Wrapping Up

You’re in a prime position to arm your frontline employees with the skills to persevere through the COVID-19 crisis—making your workforce more resilient to change. Leaders must now take on more increased responsibilities in the face of a more training-centric (yet still largely uncertain) post-COVID future. Championing training for your frontline workforce is now a shared responsibility among all enterprise leaders—especially now that the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the future of learning and development, including how on-demand, contextual digital tools are changing how millions of frontline employees learn and acquire new skills critical to their professional development, refer to our blog post: The Future of Learning & Development: Creating On-Demand Tech for Frontline Employees.

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RevUnit is a technology studio that helps supply chain clients identify and implement data solutions that actually prove ROI. We help organizations across industries like transportation, freight, logistics, retail, and manufacturing achieve business results through innovative data solutions — powered by AI/ML and the cloud. We’ve done it for clients like ArcBest, J.B. Hunt, and Walmart.

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