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Prioritizing Frontline Talent Development in a Digital-first Landscape

written by Sanjay Advani July 04, 2024

Across the world, many workers aren’t confined to their desks. A Gartner study pegs this number of frontline employees at 2.7 billion. These workers make up a majority of the workforce in sectors like manufacturing, delivery services, retail, agriculture, hospitality, construction etc.

Frontline workers are also often the first point of contact between the company and its customers. They play crucial roles in day-to-day operations and many of them are often engaged in jobs that demand physical labor with irregular work hours.

Even though these deskless workers represent 80% of the global workforce and play a key role in keeping industries running, there’s little being done to fulfill their learning needs. Not because they don’t require upskilling and training, but because Learning & Development (L&D) teams often struggle to effectively engage them.

Current State of Frontline Talent Development

Despite the significant changes in the skills required for future workplaces, access to learning and training resources remains highly unequal for frontline employees.

As many as 41% of frontline workers (source: Quinyx) feel they lack any kind of career development opportunities. For most, career advancement has a lot to do with higher pay which is hardly surprising. But that’s not all. Many also attribute job growth, robust learning opportunities, aligned skill sets, and a supportive manager to it along with the pay (source: McKinsey).

Unfortunately, inspite of the Covid-19 induced digital transformation, only about 1% of enterprise technology (source: Emergence) spending is allocated to frontline workers. What is also concerning is that employers are predominantly providing desk-bound devices to this on-the-move workforce.

Why has frontline talent development taken a backseat?

One reason is that they are being offered traditional models of learning and development that have failed for them. Constantly on the move, these workers find it challenging to take advantage of learning opportunities without dedicated space and time. They also have difficulty accessing the learning content and systems that are primarily designed for office workers.

Here are some more reasons why traditional talent development models don’t work for frontline workers:

Inaccessibility: A significant portion (80%) of frontline workers lack work email addresses (source: LinkedIn). This complicates efforts to provide consistent, up-to-date work processes and job-related information. Further, limited or no internet access at work sites hampers accessibility for this cohort.

Digital Literacy: Many of these workers require foundational literacy, and/or digital skills alongside work-related learning, which is not always seen as a corporate responsibility.

Lengthy Training: Many organizations rely on lengthy, in-person or blended training programs with extensive content. Attempting to fit this existing learning material into a microlearning format often proves ineffective pedagogically. Frontline workers, expect personalized and user-friendly learning experiences in their flow of work.

Socio economic & Educational factors: Engaging frontline workers can sometimes be challenging due to their limited prior educational experiences, low self-esteem levels, and uncertain future opportunities dependent on learning.

What Talent Development Should Look Like for Frontline Staff

Deskless workers need to adhere to strict compliance regulations in their daily work, which means they need training the most. But, since traditional methods of training prove ineffective, they may experience more disconnect and disengagement in the absence of any training. This could lead to higher turnover and lower retention rates among them as compared to their desk-based colleagues.

Discovering innovative methods to engage—or re-engage—this workforce segment can bring many benefits. Enhanced job satisfaction not only boosts their own productivity but also enhances overall organizational efficiency.

Using learning platforms like next-gen Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Learning Experience Platforms (LXP) can be instrumental in enabling L&D teams to innovate and be more effective when training frontline workers.

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Here’s how:

1. Inclusive Access

Ensuring frontline workers feel integrated into the team is crucial, even if they don’t interact daily with their desk-bound colleagues. Therefore, it is essential for all employees to have convenient access to learning resources throughout their careers.

  • Mobile learning can play a pivotal role in democratizing access to learning opportunities. Being mobile-first with native mobile apps for Android and iOS enables seamless integration into the daily workflow of the workers.
  • Frontline workers often operate in complex or distracting environments, where they may lack the time or motivation to navigate through a complex interface. Also, given the varying levels of digital literacy, a user-friendly, intuitive platform design becomes crucial. This ensures frontline workers have easy access to learning materials.
  • Offering learning resources in multiple languages ensures that all frontline workers, regardless of their language preferences or skills, can access the content they need. Multi-lingual support broadens the reach of learning programs and helps create an inclusive environment for a diverse workforce.

2. Learning in the flow of work

For frontline workers, it is important to ensure that learning is relevant, timely, and directly applicable to their immediate needs by integrating it into their daily routines.

  • Just-in-time learning and performance support are essential for frontline workers, who often face unexpected challenges and need quick solutions. This approach delivers concise, relevant content exactly when and where it’s needed.
  • Contextual search and AI chatbots offer tailored support by understanding the context of workers’ questions and providing instant, relevant information. AI chatbots can assist with queries in real-time, while contextual search helps users quickly find specific resources or answers, ensuring that frontline workers get the help they need without disrupting their workflow.
  • Seamless integration with third-party tech and tools ensures that learning solutions are embedded into the existing technologies and tools used by frontline workers. By incorporating learning opportunities directly into platforms like MS Office or other workplace communication and productivity tools, L&D teams can meet learners where they are, providing easy access to training resources and support without requiring them to leave their daily work environment.
  • Digital coaching offers frontline workers personalized, on-demand professional development. Through virtual coaching sessions and automated feedback, workers receive tailored guidance and support to improve their skills. This approach provides flexible learning opportunities that easily fit into their schedules and work environments.

3. Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning helps frontline workers develop essential skills like critical thinking and problem-solving. These skills are vital as they adapt to new challenges and opportunities.

  • Providing a variety of learning materials, such as interactive modules, video tutorials, and real-time feedback supports different learning styles and preferences. This approach allows frontline workers to choose resources that best suit their needs and learning methods.
  • Allowing workers to set their own learning goals helps create a sense of ownership over their development journey. By setting personal objectives, workers can drive their own learning progress and stay motivated.

4. Peer Learning

To support frontline workers’ practical learning needs, encouraging a peer learning environment is essential.

  • Frontline workers often thrive in practical, hands-on learning environments rather than isolated online learning. To cater to this preference, providing opportunities for in-person or virtual classroom training sessions allows workers to engage directly with instructors and peers. This helps in real-time interaction and immediate application of skills.
  • Creating collaborative activities encourages peer-to-peer knowledge exchange. Group projects, team challenges, or problem-solving sessions enable workers to learn from each other’s experiences and expertise while enhancing skill development.
  • An online platform with social learning features for casual, knowledge-sharing interactions can support peer learning. A forum or chat group where employees can discuss challenges, share tips, and ask questions promotes a supportive community and allows for informal learning opportunities.

Way Forward

As we move forward in this digital-first era, it is essential that we don’t leave our frontline workers behind. By prioritizing their development with innovative learning solutions, organizations can create a more inclusive and effective work environment for everyone.

Investing in these opportunities isn’t just a smart move; it’s a necessary step towards a more successful and engaged workforce. It is time organizations elevate their approach and ensure that every worker, no matter where they are, has the chance to succeed and grow.

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Sanjay Advani

Sanjay is passionate about value creation through partner ecosystems and customer obsession. Over his 30-year career spanning GTM leadership roles at companies like Degreed, Intrepid Learning, Microsoft and Cisco, Sanjay’s teams have driven significant business impact by building a win-win for clients, partners and their company. Based out of the Seattle area, Sanjay currently assists Learning/Skills/Work tech companies with their global GTM and partnership strategies and execution.

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