A retail store associate looks at his Zebra WS50 wearable Android mobile computer for task guidance
By Your Edge Contributor | May 31, 2023

How Wearable Technology is Speeding Up Front-Line Worker Training in Warehouses, Distribution Centers, Retail Stores and More

Devices that audibly or visually tell workers where to go and what to do when they get there can help them reach full productivity faster.

This post was contributed by Samuel Gonzales, Director of Global Systems and Solutions, Ivanti, a Zebra Premier Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Partner.


It’s hard to believe in this digital world that a warehouse operator (or any organization) is struggling to onboard front-line workers. Yet, over half of decision-makers surveyed in Zebra’s latest Warehousing Vision Study said that training workers was their second biggest struggle. It’s taking an average of 4.7 weeks to get associates to full productivity! (The fastest time reported was four weeks for receiving. The longest was five weeks for cross-docking and 5.1 weeks for put wall.)

Retailers are reporting similar challenges. In the 15th Annual Global Shopper Study from Zebra, released in late 2022, three-quarters of retail decision-makers said reskilling or upskilling current employees is a challenge.  

Why is this happening?! There is so much technology – and even more on-demand content – available to guide employees through new tasks. You would think workers would be able to clock in and make an immediate impact in their first hour.

Well, as I dug deeper into the data from the Global Shopper Study, two stats caught my attention: 

  • Nearly nine-in-10 retail decision-makers and associates say training and learning could be improved by technology. I agree with this completely, as I believe there is a missed opportunity for self-directed on-the-job training via mobile technology.

  • Three-quarters (76%) of retailers said they will invest time and money on training associates on technology in 2023. Not training associates (who will ultimately need to use technology to do their jobs), but training associates on how to use the technology they’ll have to rely on to do their jobs. No wonder onboarding times are extending out for a month or longer! 

This last stat really stunned me. Technology shouldn’t be so complicated that you’re having to spend a lot of resources teaching people how to use the technology tools central to their success – at least not when it comes to the technology tools used by front-line workers. We know turnover can be high in front-line roles, and I would imagine part of the reason why new workers get frustrated and quit so quickly is because they don’t feel they are contributing to their organizations fast enough. Or perhaps they get frustrated with how complicated their job seems to be because the technology is difficult to learn and use. 

If your business processes are simple, but the technologies used within those processes are not – at least not from a user experience (UX) perspective – that’s a problem. And it’s one you need to solve immediately.

Where Wearables Come In

Warehouse, distribution, transportation, logistics, retail, and manufacturing operations functioned just fine before technology existed. I’m not saying they functioned perfectly. But the simplicity of paper checklists, inventory lists and job aides reduced friction in workers’ days. If they didn’t know how to do something, they would shadow a colleague for a while to learn or just ask for help. 

Today, it seems like new employees are having to spend a lot of time learning how to use technology in addition to learning how to do their jobs because they are expected to be autonomous (even though every move they make impacts someone else’s ability to do their jobs properly). According to a recent Microsoft study, 55% of front-line workers report they’ve had to “learn new tech on the fly, with no formal training or practice.” If being inherently tech-savvy is a pre-requisite for front-line work, or the only way to be successful at work, then I don’t see how companies will survive in the on-demand economy. 

While a growing percentage of the labor pool is comprised of Digital Natives, and 64% of front-line workers are excited about the job opportunities technology creates, nearly half of front-line workers (45%) “feel pressure to adapt to new technology over fear of losing their jobs.” 

You cannot allow technology – or the fear of technology – to complicate employees’ first day, week or month (and eventually scare them away.) You must give them technology that facilitates on-the-job training in a way that is simple, straightforward and familiar rather than forcing them to learn complicated new technology to complete new tasks. The tech you give them should be self-explanatory as much as possible – familiar, even. That’s one of the reasons why wearables must become a staple in your warehouse: to maximize productivity and operational efficiency and to simplify and reduce user training. 

I don’t have to tell you how manual warehouse work tends to be – and by “manual” I mean hands on. 

Though there are plenty of mobile devices you could use to improve the speed and accuracy of warehouse workflows, such as the mobile computer or tablet you may be reading this post on today, the reality is that any device that must occupy someone’s hand could be adding friction to those workflows. The only way people can move as fast as humanly possible in a warehouse is if they have their hands totally free to pick items, pack and pickup boxes, operate equipment and more. Of course, having “both hands on the wheel” is also a safety necessity. With wearables, they don’t have to worry about picking up and putting down a device every time they need to pick up something else. They can just flow through their tasks, referring to their wearable computer or headset as needed for guidance. And because the device can essentially show – or audibly tell – them where to go and what to do next, they don’t necessarily need a large screen device for direction. They can also get up to speed quickly, which means they can reach full productivity faster.

Now, I know you may say that wearables are going to feel foreign to some people. While almost everyone has a smartphone, not everyone uses smart glasses, which could contribute to a learning curve. However, many people do have smartwatches, and wearable computers, like the Zebra WS50, look and function a lot like the consumer smartwatch an employee may be wearing when they show up for their first day of work (even though the WS50 is an enterprise-grade device built specifically for business applications common in manufacturing, warehouse, transportation, logistics, and retail.) So, when workers put on the WS50, which runs on the Android operating system (OS) like many consumer devices, there won’t be much of a learning curve, if any. They’ll have to learn the software on the device just like they may have to learn a new app on their personal wearables or smartphones. But familiarizing themselves with that software will be akin to learning the paperwork they would otherwise have to reference or complete if technology didn’t exist. 

In fact, one of the reasons wearable computers like the WS50 have become so popular with business leaders and front-line workers alike is because Zebra designed the WS50 and Ivanti’s Velocity software application to enable day-one productivity. As you’ll see in the video below, with Ivanti Velocity software integration on the Zebra WS50, the device essentially coaches users through their jobs. It facilitates the on-the-job training that expedites time-to-productivity and aids with worker retention – without layering on a secondary tech training requirement during onboarding. Instead of asking another team member to hold a new employee’s hand, you can give the new employee a WS50 loaded with step-by-step guidance software to wear on their hand (or wrist) and send them on their way. 

Watch this:

Bottom Line

Technology will remain pivotal to your business operations, so you must find a way to make technology work better for your front-line workers. They need to be able to jump into a new job and feel productive on day one – or jump in to fill a new role and successfully complete tasks in a moment’s notice. They no longer have the luxury of month-long onboarding periods. Neither do you. 

So, make sure you are only investing in technology that offers highly immersive, micro learning experiences for all employees rather than choosing technology that requires a lot of extra training investment. If anything, allocate that training money to the creation of snackable, on-demand visual or audible guides that can give front-line workers the full autonomy they want and the confidence they need be a valued member of your team. 

If you want to learn more about the WS50 or how Zebra and Ivanti are working together to deliver wearable solutions to your current employee onboarding and productivity challenges, check out these recent conversations:

Best Practices, Energy and Utilities, Manufacturing, Warehouse and Distribution, Transportation and Logistics, Retail, Hospitality, Public Sector,

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