Most Frontline Workers Getting Enough Training — but It’s the Wrong Kind 

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Dec 8, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

Frontline employees have always been the backbone of businesses, and that is especially clear during the Covid-19 pandemic. But despite the crucial roles customer-facing employees have played during the crisis, many felt they did not get the training needed to do their jobs well. More specifically, it wasn’t so much that employees didn’t have enough training — it was that they didn’t have the right training to meet their needs. 

In fact, 39% of frontline employees said they didn’t feel prepared to do their job during the crisis, according to Axonify’s Global State of Frontline Employee Training Study, which asked 2,000 frontline employees from the U.S., the U.K., and Australia about their workplace training experiences before and after the onset of the pandemic. Respondents consisted of grocery-store associates, retail associates, contact-center agents, and professional salespeople. Their responses provide a blueprint for how companies must better support these essential workers. 

All Hands on Deck

When so many companies shut down or transitioned to remote environments, frontline employees continued to come to work to keep grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential businesses open. But for these employees, work was not the same as employers quickly changed their processes, while they figured out how to obey evolving health regulations, retain workers, and reassure unsettled customers. 

As businesses changed how they operated, they likewise needed their frontline employees to pivot. Nearly half of the workers surveyed said they took on new tasks due to the pandemic, with 23% moving to completely new positions. For example, store associates shifted from being on the sales floor to delivering curbside pickup purchases. Grocery employees moved from the checkout lane to fulfilling order pickups. And through it all, employees had the additional responsibilities of cleaning more frequently, maintaining social distancing, and sometimes enforcing mask laws, all while providing service to stressed customers.

But even as people leaned into this all-hands-on-deck approach, many did not receive the most-needed training to do their jobs effectively. Although many frontline employees reported receiving training often and regularly, more than half said they did not receive training for the newly assigned tasks.

Communication Is No Substitute for Training

Employers did try to communicate about workplace changes, and nearly three-quarters of employees said their businesses did that well. However, even when employees were told what new responsibilities to expect, they didn’t necessarily know how to handle those responsibilities without proper training. 

Retail and grocery employees were more affected by the lack of training than contact-center and sales employees. And it’s no wonder. Grocery employees have been in the spotlight since the pandemic began. Unlike many retailers, grocery stores never closed and remained incredibly busy. These employees needed to react to the quickly changing health and safety regulations and requirements. 

Additionally, while contact-center and sales agents could work in less crowded environments or perhaps even from home, grocery and retail associates had to deal with anxious customers face-to-face while feeling uneasy and uncertain themselves. 

Quality Over Quantity

Even though employees felt they didn’t have the training they needed, half of them said it wasn’t more training that they required. Instead, respondents wanted their development to be relevant, easy to understand, accessible, and immediately applicable.

Unfortunately, less than one-third of frontline employees worldwide said the training content they received during the crisis was personalized and relevant to their role. In the U.S., that percentage was especially low, at 21%. Again, not surprisingly, this gap was more evident among retail and grocery employees than for those in contact center and professional sales positions. 

What’s more, only about a third of employees said that their training was easy to understand and remember, and only 32% said their training gave them confidence in doing their jobs. In addition, only 21% of employees said their training was engaging. That’s too bad because when employees are trying to learn quickly and on the go, having interesting lessons is key to helping them pursue and retain information. 

Finally, employees want to access training when they need it, but just as importantly, they want to refer to it again when necessary. A majority wanted more training that they could access on their personal devices, featuring videos, interactive modules, and practice questions that immediately help them do their jobs. 

What all this underscores is that companies will likely operate in uncertainty for the foreseeable future. But they can no longer put off training their critical frontline employees. 

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.