The Front-Line Workforce Has Spoken: Their Training Is Falling Short

Almost half of front-line employees (46 percent) took on new tasks as a result of the pandemic—and 23 percent filled a new position altogether. But only 48 percent said that training had been provided for their new role and/or task(s), according to a recent survey.

In times of rapid change, your business’ ability to pivot quickly and smoothly is a bit of a superpower. And your front-line workforce—as the staffers on the ground making your strategy a reality—is something of a secret weapon.

The last year has afforded us countless examples of this. Let’s take the grocery industry as an example. Almost overnight, demand for click-and-collect tripled as COVID-19 raged. Grocers scrambled to shift their front-line workforce into fulfillment roles. Those who could quickly get the right people in the right roles with the right training were able to capitalize on this tremendous demand. Those who couldn’t lost revenue and customers.

As businesses adapted to pandemic-related disruptions, front-line workers had to adapt, too: learning new skills, shouldering greater responsibilities, and sometimes even taking on new roles altogether. And they’ve done it all under pressure, and without the usual training support.

As we face a future with more questions than answers, businesses will continue to rely on their front-line workforce’s agility to get them through. But is the front line getting the support they need to be ready for anything? And how should businesses prioritize their training and communications to maximize front-line preparedness?

To get answers to these questions, we partnered with Arlington Research for the State of Front-Line Employee Training Report. We surveyed 2,000 front-line employees who work at businesses with 1,000-plus employees in the U.S., the UK and Australia. Here’s what we found.

1. Communication volume is high, but the quality has been hit or miss.

The last eight months have been anything but business as usual. But despite the challenges, it seems that companies did a fairly good job of staying in touch with front-line employees, even when they were furloughed.

  • 95 percent of front-line workers had some contact from their employer since the start of the pandemic.
  • 98 percent of front-line workers who had been furloughed had some contact with their employer.
  • 71 percent of front-line employees reported receiving timely information from their employer about its response to the pandemic—although this was lower in grocery (64 percent) and retail (66 percent).

But were front-line employees getting the information they needed? Unfortunately, the communications missed the mark for more than half of respondents:

  • 46 percent said communications were relevant.
  • 40 percent said they were reliable.
  • 39 percent said they were timely.

2. Training falls short for two-thirds of front-line employees.

Almost half of front-line employees (46 percent) took on new tasks as a result of the pandemic—and almost a quarter (23 percent) filled a new position altogether. But only 48 percent said that training had been provided for their new role and/or task(s). This was even lower for front-line employees in retail (21 percent) and grocery (27 percent).

Overall, only 64 percent of front-line employees said they received continued training and coaching to help them do their job safely and productively. Again, retail (56 percent) and grocery (59 percent) lagged behind. Naturally, this impacted how prepared people felt: 39 percent of front-line employees reported they didn’t feel prepared to do their job properly in the current environment.

While training is clearly still happening—even in the midst of major workplace disruption—that doesn’t mean it’s working. When asked about the quality of training they received:

  • 34 percent said training was easy to understand and remember.
  • 32 percent said it helped them to feel confident in their ability to do their job.
  • 28 percent said it was personalized and relevant to their role.
  • 21 percent said it was enjoyable and engaging (sinking to 14 percent in retail and 15 percent in grocery).

Across the board, roughly two-thirds of employees aren’t getting what they need. On an individual level, this impacts employees’ confidence, engagement and performance. On a business level, it makes it harder to mobilize your front-line quickly and effectively in response to business needs and market demands.

3 Ways to Improve Your Front-Line Communications and Training

These findings show that the problem is not a lack of training and communications on the front-lines. Rather, it’s the quality and effectiveness that needs improvement. We asked front-line employees what they needed to feel supported at work, and three key takeaways emerged:

1. Provide learning that fits the way they work.

When it comes to the types of training front-line employees prefer, on-the-job training with a peer or manager is considered most helpful. This makes complete sense. Front-line employees spend their work lives away from a desk, so learning “where they work” is the most frictionless and relevant experience.

2. Give them the flexibility of online options.

Front-line workers want the freedom to access key work-related information online:

  • 45 percent said they’d like to receive more online training (including video, interactive modules, and practice questions)
  • 84 percent also want to be able to access digital messages and training right from their personal devices

3. Ditch one-and-done training—once and for all.

One-and-done training has always been inadequate. It fails to account for a simple fact of being human: We forget. But forgetting job-related information (such as safety procedures) comes with higher consequences now. And the amount of information front-line employees are expected to remember is higher, too. Ongoing reinforcement is crucial to make sure new information sticks—so employees do the right things on the job in the moments that really matter.

The pandemic has made one thing crystal clear: Business runs through the front lines. To survive and thrive through disruption, you need your front-line workforce ready for anything. And they need your support. That leaves businesses with a clear choice: Support your front line right—or risk being left behind by competitors who do.

Carol Leaman is the CEO of Axonify, a modern training and communications solution for front-line employees. The experience is fun, fast, personalized, and designed to make critical information stick. Some 83 percent of users log in two to three times a week, which translates into meaningful behavior change that drives business results. More than 160 customers in 150-plus countries around the world, including Walmart, Bloomingdale’s, Levi’s, and Merck, trust Axonify to fuel their people’s performance to keep pace with their business. Founded in 2011, Axonify is headquartered in Waterloo, ON Canada. For more information, visit: