How to Support Frontline Employees in Times of Crisis
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How to Support Frontline Employees in Times of Crisis

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, global crises can be incredibly disruptive for all parts of society. Not only do they create new stresses in terms of health and work, but they can have major implications for the services people rely upon every day. 

For supermarket chain WinCo Foods, the crisis has highlighted the critical roles of WinCo’s store managers and other frontline employees in keeping people safe and providing the support they need. 

On top of their baseline day-to-day management and logistics tasks, WinCo’s store managers now need to be mentors, guides, and sources of emotional and psychological support for staff and customers alike. 

Recently, I chatted with Lenn Moorhead-Rosenberg, Talent Development Director at WinCo Foods, about how they’re supporting the company’s frontline employees with great L&D resources, collective coaching, and a friendly approach from management

“It’s a big job” - Why frontline managers need extra L&D support

The job of a frontline manager at a grocery store is a big job in a normal world. In a time of a global pandemic, it’s an even greater responsibility. 

“Store managers are responsible for their entire box,” says Lenn. “There’s a variety of expectations, from operational things like scheduling and managing employee relations, to dealing with ordering and merchandising. They’re making sure we meet the needs of our customers and local communities. It’s a big job.”

In this context, explains Lenn, store managers have to be a one-stop-shop for leadership, guidance, and support. This requires a mixture of flexibility, compassion, and empathy.

“Managers need to be coaches, mentors, and guides,” says Lenn. “We’re asking them to play additional roles in the crisis, such as being a resource or a guide for psychological safety, or checking in to see how our staff members’ families are doing.”

"We’re asking them [store managers] to play additional roles in the crisis, such as being a resource or a guide for psychological safety, or checking in to see how our staff members’ families are doing.”

So, given these additional roles, what can WinCo do to support their frontline managers? It all comes down to collaborative and responsive L&D. 

How can L&D help frontline managers to cope in times of crisis?

A crisis like the current global pandemic places a lot of strain on essential businesses such as grocery stores. To help store managers cope with this strain and rise to the challenge, WinCo uses a mixture of L&D resources, collaborative working, and personal support.

“We’ve done a good job preparing our managers for certain things,” says Lenn. “We’ve given them skills with accountability and situational leadership, and this is a good foundation. This is all about keeping customers safe, and maintaining social distancing norms.”

On top of this foundation, WinCo has also offered reminders about the existing resources available to managers. 

“In preparing for the additional roles like being a coach or mentor, we’re reminding managers about our available resources. For example, we have a wonderful employee assistance programme, but we needed to make sure our managers were promoting it.”

Related: How to Pivot Your L&D Strategy in Times of Crisis

Learning through collective coaching and shared insights

Another great way to support staff in times of crisis? Focus on collaborative learning and coaching.

“We’ve started to host collective coaching calls,” says Lenn. “We’ve invited our managers to talk about three things: What are you doing to recognize and thank employees? What are you doing to make employees feel safe? And what are you doing to take care of yourself?”

As Lenn explains, a lot of managers are so busy taking care of their people, they forget to look after their own health. “We have some people working 16 hours a day, seven days straight. We need people to focus on the basics and talk to each other, and we shared the results afterward to spread awareness.”

These collaborative coaching sessions not only gave managers the opportunity to share their experiences, says Lenn, but also offer the chance to learn from others. 

“We came up with the idea of having learning moments. These are short topics of interest that we’ve collected, curating best practices. For example, how do you handle folks who may be experiencing fear or anxiety? We’ve offered some best practice guidelines and resources for how to address these.”

These kinds of responsive, targeted L&D approaches can make all the difference for staff managing a high workload. As Lenn explained, these coaching sessions and specialized resources made managers feel valued and recognized.

“One of the things we found is that just by the nature of these learning moments, people appreciate that we’re thinking of them,” says Lenn. “A few times a week, we’re communicating with them and letting them know we’re thinking of them. This is validating, and tells people they aren’t going through it alone.”

“A few times a week, we’re communicating with them and letting them know we’re thinking of them. This is validating, and tells people they aren’t going through it alone.”

Breaking taboos through compassionate L&D resources

In times of stress, not everybody wants to acknowledge when they’re in need of help. 

Whether it’s a competitive work environment, a lack of time to communicate, or simply a personal reluctance, it can be tough to break the taboo and tell someone when you’re struggling. The right L&D approach can help break down these barriers.

“We’re talking about being vulnerable, and a lot of people aren’t willing to share these feelings,” says Lenn. “In the grocery industry, there have been waves of concern with the pandemic. First, there’s the initial rush of people coming in. Then, it’s a concern with customer safety. We give our managers the tools to deal with all of these concerns.”

Being a store manager requires a high degree of organization, but it also takes interpersonal skills such as empathy and active listening. As Lenn explains, these are skills WinCo will be focusing more on in the future in L&D resources.

“Our core competencies include the values and behaviors we value the most,” says Lenn. “We’ll need to go back and revisit these to make sure they include the most important things, like building trust. We want people to be willing to come to our managers and share their concerns about their families and loved ones.” 

Related: 4 Benefits of Collaborative Learning backed by Science and Psychology

With the right approach to supporting key staff, any business can cope with a crisis. A mixture of collaborative learning, shared insights, and compassionate L&D resources can help frontline managers make it through. 

In these busy times, we really appreciate Lenn’s time and efforts in sharing his insights into supporting critical frontline staff. Thanks again, Lenn!

Want more insights to #GetReady for what's next? Check out our series of interviews with L&D experts on how learning and development should change and strategies to train teams given the current climate.