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Will Ross


Founder of Skillhood - Skills Wallet for Frontline Work

Read more from Will Ross

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How to use self-directed learning when onboarding frontline workers

How L&D managers can empower employees to undertake self-directed learning as part of the onboarding process.

One of the unusual characteristics of Covid-19’s economic impact was massive labour market flux. Hospitality saw a 6% (147,000) drop in jobs during the three months from March, while exceptional demand for grocery retail drove up revenues and hiring with it. While Pret a Manger was figuring out how to coax footfall with a monthly coffee subscription, Ocado had to shut down its website for two weeks to keep pace with demand. The ability for logistics and grocery retail companies to rapidly onboard new frontline workers has determined their success.

Giving employees the best chance to succeed will largely rely on their ability to learn through unsupervised training. 

This article sets out ways that L&D managers can employ content and visual design principles to enable self-learning in frontline settings. Not discussed are self-determined learning models, instead presuming that managers are looking for practical ways to share established knowledge during a critical phase of demand.

The two phases of onboarding

Ensuring that frontline workforces are supported with tangible, accessible documentation is an essential responsibility of management. It’s a vital exercise for L&D managers to define company operations and think about what information can be succinctly delivered to new joiners in their first few shifts. Ambiguous, outdated or incomplete instructions are bound to confuse, setting up the new hire for error just when they are forming their expectations of the company.

The onboarding process gives companies a chance to deliver learning content as part of two phases.

The first phase is between contract signing and until the employees’ first day on shift. Sending a company handbook indicating general guidelines is standard and should include the shift schedule, break times, equipment, facility layout and access to lockable storage. Use this moment to provide the individual with a general signpost to responsibilities specific to their role. These might have been explained at interview, but reinforcing them and indicating upcoming training is an important part of role visualisation.

The second phase of onboarding begins when the employee starts their first day, when piecemeal, on-job guidance can be given. General skills to ensure job-readiness should form part of the grounding, including health and safety material and a reminder of latest standards.

It’s after delivering general guidance that specific training can introduce skills, terms and concepts that distinguish company processes. Complementing any oral learning material with a paper or digital version allows slower learners or employees with lower English listening proficiency to have a fair chance to absorb material in their own time.

Content design

Giving employees the best chance to succeed will largely rely on their ability to learn through unsupervised training. Beyond on-shift observation and asking questions to existing employees, an accessible, mobile-friendly document can accelerate the speed and quality of learning. If employees want to commit processes to memory or consult them when troubleshooting, smartphones present a simple gateway to increase knowledge without constraining time of managers or other colleagues.

Some design principles to keep in mind when compiling content

  • Cognitive load concerns our ability to learn. Australia’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation breaks cognitive load into three parts: intrinsic complexity, extraneous distractions and germane associations with pre-existing long-term memory. Reducing complexity and minimising distractions opens up headspace, which can be enhanced with images of the workplace.
  • Cognitive load links with the MAYA principle – the idea that communicators should include the most advanced, yet acceptable information. This can manifest itself in form when writing content – use short sentences and paragraphs, limiting the number of steps in processes as much as possible. By limiting the number of options, ideally to a consistent ‘golden’ number, you increase the chance of future recall through retrieval.
  • Establish an information hierarchy by locating items in your onboarding documentation to reflect the sequence of events. Employees will scan the document to get a sense of the information hierarchy before looking into learning specific processes.
  • Embrace military speak and use BLUF: bottom line up front. Military professionals lead their email with a short, staccato statement known as the BLUF. This means, you start by setting the scene with an outline of the scenario, who it impacts and what the process objective is before diving into steps of completion. Start each section like this.
  • A visual hierarchy via an F-shaped pattern reinforces information hierarchy by using enlarged headers for new sections and occasional colour or emboldened text. The F-shaped pattern of eye scanning provides a good short cut – the eye looks first at the top of line of a new section before dragging down the left side of the page. (Although this is less of a lever on mobile phones where elements are generally centred).


It’s easy to underestimate the importance of early interactions with a new hire, and then how new skills and knowledge can be introduced throughout employment. Establishing a URL or location for storing onboarding content allows employees to check into it in the future.

Priming plays a role in providing initial stimuli to allow the employee to associate information with what they already know. Making the most of this might mean sharing a quick map of the workplace, or a glossary of terms as early modules in the onboarding. That way a new joiner can quickly navigate the facility without asking for directions and can begin to associate different locations with processes and terms.

After priming or very near to a new joiner’s start, the task is to introduce processes specific to the company and allow them to be completed on the floor. Depending on the frequency of a task, L&D managers might also look to embed retrieval into onboarding for critical or complex processes. Retrieval refers to spaced repetition theory for learning, namely that a little forgetting is fundamental to the long-term learning process.

Less busy periods in the day provide a chance to learn and put to practice new skills or knowledge. In The Good Jobs Strategy, MIT professor Zeynep Ton advocates for using slack in the day to give employees safe moments to look laterally to where learning is needed. In retail this might mean becoming familiar with different or new inventory, refreshing location changes or taking the time to deliver exceptional customer service.

Finally, while effort should be made to increase certainty through self-guided content, keep in mind that documentation is malleable and can be updated whenever new innovation or insights evolve into best practices.

Interested in this topic? Read The four key elements of effective deskless workforce training.

Author Profile Picture
Will Ross

Founder of Skillhood - Skills Wallet for Frontline Work

Read more from Will Ross

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