I love Bill Murray movies. Well, most Bill Murray movies (lookin’ at you, Garfield) ...

Groundhog Day is a classic. Ghostbusters is a childhood favorite. Caddyshack is the most quotable film ever (Cinderella story). But one Bill Murrary movie seems to fly under the radar despite being perhaps his most quintessential performance. What about What About Bob?

What About Bob? movie poster

What About Bob? is the story of “a successful psychotherapist (who) loses his mind after one of his most dependent patients, an obsessive-compulsive neurotic, tracks him down during his family vacation.” Basically, Richard Dreyfuss (who did not have a good time during filming) yells at Bill Murray for 1 hour 39 minutes. It’s HILARIOUS!

The title refers to the way Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss) constantly and willfully ignores Bob Wiley (Murray). Bob isn’t a part of Dr. Leo Marvin’s master plan for his career or family. So, despite Bob’s obvious challenges and positive intentions, Dr. Leo Marvin doesn’t give him time and attention. At the end of the movie (SPOILER), Dr. Leo Marvin’s house explodes because he didn’t understand what Bob really needed (and deserved).

Bob shows what can happen when we get stuck in a bubble and fail to adapt to new priorities. Bob is more than a movie character. Bob is the frontline workforce.

The disrupted frontline

Frontline employees work in grocery, retail, distribution, delivery, contact centers, hotels, and professional sales. They interact directly with your company’s customers and products every day. In real life, they rarely get the support they need (and deserve) to do their best work.

I write and talk about the frontline a lot. In August 2019, I explained why I believe the frontline deserves better based on my personal experience managing frontline teams and training frontline workers. Fourteen months ago, I visualized frontline employees like this ... (Figure 2)

Frontline in 2019

Figure 2: Frontline in 2019

Today, I use images like this ... (Figure 3)

Frontline in 2020

Figure 3: Frontline in 2020

What do they say about images and thousands of words again?

The pandemic has turned the frontline workplace upside down. Half of employees in frontline-heavy industries, such as retail, grocery, professional sales, and contact centers have been furloughed at some point this year. Those who returned to work are wearing face coverings and trying to maintain physical distance for 8+ hour shifts. Many are also relearning how to do their jobs or taking on new/expanded roles in often intense and uncertain environments.

The state of frontline learning

What does this have to do with Bill Murray? Like Bob, the frontline is often left behind when it comes to workplace priorities. Stakeholders, executives, management, HR, and L&D rarely prioritize this group, which makes up 80% of employees worldwide. Sure, there are exceptions within select categories, industries, and companies. However, new research shows just how unprepared most organizations were to support the frontline through disruption.

  • Only 58% of frontline employees receive regular training. Most of this takes place during one-and-done onboarding programs. They are then left to figure things out on their own.
  • Less than 40% believe the information shared by their employers during the pandemic was reliable and timely.
  • Less than half were provided additional training when they were asked to take on a new role or extra tasks.
  • Only 34% found their training to be easy to understand and remember.

The state of learning on the frontline is summed up in one statistic: 39% of employees don’t feel prepared to do their jobs properly in the current environment. There are 3.3 billion working people on the planet. This means approximately 1,287,000,000 people do not have the resources they need to do their jobs safely and productively under extremely challenging circumstances. This is a very, very big problem for employers, managers, employees, and consumers because we all rely on the frontline.

Why do we overlook the frontline?

Several years ago, I advised a training team that was rebooting its company onboarding. Early in the design process, I asked how manufacturing employees would participate in the program. The answer: they won’t. They were “too hard to schedule and had high turnover,” so they weren’t included. This team built the products that people who worked in the office sold and shipped. They spent 8 to 12 hours per shift doing hard, complex, dangerous work. Nonetheless, stakeholders failed (or chose not) to understand their value. As a result, L&D didn’t have the resources or mechanisms to provide right-fit support. So the frontline was left out. They received basic, compliance-heavy job training while everyone else (who also did important work) participated in a more dynamic and continuous learning program.

This is how too many companies still treat the frontline—as an afterthought. Yes, there are a lot of them. Yes, they usually work in disparate locations. Yes, they come from a variety of backgrounds and have different needs. Yes, most of them are going to leave for another opportunity sooner rather than later. But these conditions should just make building a high-impact frontline learning ecosystem a more challenging and exciting task for forward-thinking teams, right?

Becoming frontline forward

How can L&D fix this problem? How can we get the frontline the support they need (and deserve) to do their best work every day? How can we become frontline forward when our priorities are often determined for us by stakeholders and executives?

As is true for so many things in our profession, it all starts with mindset. Michael C. Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work and a recent guest on The 80 Percent podcast, made a great point when he said, “This is how you show that you respect employees. This is how you show that you care and believe in them. Because you’re investing in them. Training is critically, fundamentally important. Without it you’re not going to have a great place to work for all.” It’s not just about learning. It’s about respecting people equally, regardless of their title or tenure, in the ways you support them at work.

L&D can work with frontline forward partners to build the business case for frontline learning. How you build this case will vary based on the culture and priorities of your organization. It could be rooted in respect, inclusion, trust, transparency, and other employee engagement factors. Or, as Michael also mentioned on the podcast, it could be based on financial performance. “Companies that are people-first outperform the Russell 2000, the Russell 3000 and the S&P 500 three-to-one. We have the data to show what happens when you put your people first.”

Influence plays a major factor in shifting mindset and growing frontline investment. L&D can also take the lead by strategically expanding the learning ecosystem to include channels and tactics that are proven to enable frontline performance.

  • BYOD. Personal devices throw the doors open for improved frontline learning. They move training out of the back room and put it in the hands of the people who need it, on devices they already know and love.
  • Communication. Awareness is the first step to preparedness. L&D and internal communications may be two different teams, but we need to work together to get information to the frontline quickly and consistently.
  • Shared knowledge. Making information easy to find and available on-demand is the simplest way to bring learning to the frontline. After all, most problems don’t require a course. Instead, people just need to be able to find answers quickly within their workflow.
  • Microlearning. Frontline employees only have a few minutes available in their typical workday, especially during times of great change. Training has to be short and specific to fit and deliver clear value. A few minutes per day adds up over the long term.
  • Measurement. To make the case for frontline investment, especially when budgets are tight, you have to prove that your solutions work. To prove that your solutions work, you have to fix your organization’s learning measurement problem.

The right blend of tactics will help us create meaningful, continuous learning experiences that fit within the everyday reality of our frontline workers. It will increase the percentage of employees worldwide that feel prepared to do their jobs properly, regardless of the circumstances. And it will help our organizations avoid disastrous outcomes such as that which befell Dr. Leo Marvin.

It’s up to all of us to prioritize the frontline. If you support a frontline team, share your story. If you run a blog or magazine, publish more frontline stories. If you host professional events, include more frontline sessions. L&D has a unique opportunity to champion great places to work for all by making sure the frontline is always included.

Begin your frontline forward journey by downloading and sharing the full (ungated) State of Frontline Employee Training 2020 Report from Arlington Research and Axonify. If you like Bill Murray but have no idea what I was talking about at the beginning of this article, you can stream What About Bob? for free on IMDb TV or rent it on Amazon Prime Video. Here’s the trailer ...


Be safe. Be well. And be kind to the frontline.