Transformation starts on the frontlines

By Rob Lauber,
Former SVP & CLO at McDonald's Corp,
and CEO of XLO Global LLC

“Why would I want to work here?”

—Frontline employee

Over the last two years, we’ve learned that people are capable of great transformation, and that the ways we work can change quickly under pressure. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the case of frontline workers, who are actively creating the customer experience every day.

It’s easy to trace a line from customer experience to business performance, and that line includes employee engagement. Engaged employees simply provide better customer experiences, so in my career, I’ve found that learning and development initiatives that focus on employee engagement typically offer a lot of ROI.

What does employee engagement mean today? Traditionally, frontline workers — a population of roughly 50 million people, according to the Brookings Institution1 — have been culled from the younger generations, and today, those generations have been reared on digital: mobile, gaming, and Virtual Reality (VR). If you’re stuck on the old ways of training, you don’t have the edge with employees, who these days have more choices than ever.

The younger population is shrinking. There are 5 million more millennials in the U.S. than Gen Zers,2 which is going to exacerbate turnover issues in the workforce. We’re already seeing a huge labor crunch of trying to get people into frontline jobs as businesses accelerate post-pandemic.

To attract young frontline workers, you have to have solid answers to the question “Why would I want to work here?” I’ve seen three themes emerge.


There are opportunities for learning.

In my tenure as Chief Learning Officer of McDonald’s, I witnessed the chronic challenge of keeping employees engaged in training. Younger generations use increasingly sophisticated technology solutions outside work, so we have to match internal learning tools to those expectations — and even extend beyond them to provide new, unique training experiences.


Employees seek room to grow.

With entry-level jobs, of course, a certain degree of turnover is expected. But if you can get people invested in your company and provide multiple career paths within your organization, sometimes they’ll stay.

For instance, an entry-level worker might move from a frontline role to an operational management role to an IT role. That, in fact, was the path I took in my career at McDonald’s. We will continue to see education emerge as a compelling HR benefit, so activating an internal talent marketplace as part of that is a smart way to maximize
skill sets.


There are powerful feedback opportunities.

Feedback enables growth, so it’s important to explore insightful methods for testing and training skills at scale. Traditionally at McDonald’s, floor managers would conduct “skills observation checklists” to assess whether new hires could successfully complete a task in the right sequence — for instance, making french fries. Human observation is effective, but it’s not scalable over time. New technologies such as VR offer consistent, scalable methods of employee assessment, so you can now gauge not just whether a worker can make fries in the right order, but what other skills they excel at, and where they might move next within the organization.

In other words, you can teach them the “secret sauce” processes and ideas that make your company tick while simultaneously setting them on a meaningful career path within your company.

The ongoing effort of workforce transformation

The last two years have been extremely challenging for people forced into new ways of working. While L&D teams have learned a lot, transformation can’t just be something we do in reaction to a massive societal calamity. It’s happening every day in so many ways, as new digital tools emerge, training methods evolve, and business pressures accelerate.

  • ​​Tomer, A. & Kane, J. W. (2020). ”To protect frontline workers during and after COVID-19, we must define who they are.” The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/research/to-protect-frontline-workers-during-and-after-covid-19-we-must-define-who-they-are/.
  • Statista Research Department. (2021). “U.S. population by generation 2020.” Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/797321/us-population-by-generation/.