Microsoft Cloud for Retail and new features in Microsoft Teams are aimed at the 80% of workers who are usually left behind by technology.
There's been a lot of discussion about remote and hybrid work for employees who normally go into an office, but 80% of the global workforce is frontline employees in retail, manufacturing, hospitality, healthcare and other industries where staff can't work from home and don't sit in front of a computer, according to the latest report from Microsoft's Work Trend Index. "The pandemic accelerated the technological transformation for information workers – those folks who went home and use things like video conferencing, but our research shows that we're now at a very similar inflection point for these frontline worker roles," says Microsoft corporate vice president of modern work, Jared Spataro.
"Frontline includes people like nurses and doctors – they're definitely on the frontlines of providing the service. It includes people on the manufacturing floor who aren't working directly with customers but are on that frontline and actually producing the goods and they must be there in person in order to create the goods. And it includes people in retail or in dining environments who have to be there in person."
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Thanks to features designed for frontline workers – from shift management and time tracking tools to mobile video chat that blurs the background so healthcare workers don't have to worry about confidential patient information showing up if they take a call from the ward – Microsoft Teams usage has grown fourfold since March 2020 (Figure A), as reported in Microsoft's Work Trend Index. The biggest increases have been in healthcare, financial services and communications, but it's also up in automotive, retail, manufacturing, energy, travel and hospitality.
"Increasingly, Teams has been used as a communication hub in these types of roles in a way that wasn't prior to the pandemic," Spataro notes. To find out what features will be most useful, the latest report from Microsoft's Work Trend Index focuses on frontline workers who are both key to successful businesses and, he admits, "traditionally underserved by technology."
Like everyone else, frontline workers are stressed, and they feel undervalued (Figure B). "They want more support for physical exhaustion and mental health – they feel that much more could be done to help supply chain issues and to help with labour shortages that are making the job especially difficult right now," Spataro explains. There's little light at the end of the tunnel: They think work will be just as stressful in 2022, or more so.
That shared stress has improved bonds with co-workers, but they don't believe company leadership is putting enough emphasis on building a supportive culture or communicating effectively with them.
Frontline managers, who ought to be conduits for that culture and communication, feel the strain even more, and they feel organizations are failing the frontline.
From Microsoft's Work Trend Index report: "60% of frontline workers are feeling that culture and communication has been lacking for them, and 32% say their voice is just not being heard." 63% of frontline workers and 69% of frontline managers say messages from leadership don't make it to them.
Spataro notes, "Think about department heads, store managers on the shop floor, advisors: They are incredibly important at this moment of stress, because they're the glue between corporate and employees who interact with customers the most. These managers foster buy-in; they boost morale; they ensure that business strategy that comes from the top is actually executed on the ground."
Frontline workers welcome technology plus training and support
Most of the discussion about the Great Reshuffle has focused on professional workers, but it's actually frontline, low wage and service workers who are more likely to be changing jobs as they think about how work fits into their lives. According to the Microsoft Work Trend Index report, the top five reasons for thinking about changing jobs are making more money, better work-life balance, not receiving pay increases, getting better benefits and more flexibility in how they work.
That makes this an opportunity for organizations to improve the work environment and the culture of work to retain employees or even attract new talent, and technology like Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Viva and the new Microsoft Cloud for Retail, which is now generally available, can help with that. "While technology isn't the only answer, it can be key to alleviating stress, to streamlining these frontline business processes, to improving culture and communication and really making things better all around," Spataro says.
The usual assumption is that frontline workers fear being automated out of a job by technology, but Microsoft's Work Trend Index survey suggests they actively welcome technology that will help them, as long as they get the support and training they need (Figure C). "Technology is ranked third on the list of things frontline workers say will reduce stress – behind pay and vacations but ahead of mental health and well-being benefits."
63% of frontline workers are excited about the job opportunities technology creates, but a third of frontline workers and managers in the eight industries in the Microsoft Work Trend Index survey said they don't have the technology they need to do their job effectively (Figure D). That's even higher (41%) for people not in management positions.
What they worry about is less being displaced by automation and more the pressure to adapt quickly to new technology: 55% say they have had to learn new tech with no formal training. Viva Learning is an option for helping staff with that but integrating Microsoft Teams with the vertical applications and rugged devices they're already using can simplify adoption. This is the same kind of integrations that Microsoft Teams is popular for in the office, but for frontline-specific tools.
The Teams Walkie Talkie app now works with the Push To Talk button on the rugged Zebra handhelds many frontline workers carry for scanning barcodes, checking inventory or looking up prices for a customer in a store, as well as on rugged Samsung devices (Figure E). It's also now available on iOS, not just Android devices.
Similarly, the Reflexis shift scheduling application commonly used in retail is now available within Microsoft Teams, so workers can see their shifts, and managers can allocate staff or approve shift changes. Shift work is one the defining characteristics of frontline work, and many employees are also seasonal hires and flex workers rather than full time-employees, so they're less likely to be deeply familiar with systems and processes.
That may help explain why frontline workers are proactively and enthusiastically adopting technology for tasks like managing shifts: Team scheduling was the top task frontline staff are looking for technology to help with.
"In many cases, a lot of our customers are actually virally finding our technology and our applications," says Emma Williams, corporate vice president for modern work engineering at Microsoft. "At one of the world's largest retailers, in their head office in Europe, it was actually the shift workers and frontline workers who found Microsoft 365 Shifts themselves. [They're saying] oh wow, this thing's amazing, I can use Microsoft Shifts with my fellow co-workers in our retail store. They're huge advocates."
How Microsoft tech can help with virtual appointments, communications and task management
Managing appointments is another place frontline workers think technology can help them (along with onboarding new teammates, automating repetitive tasks and providing real-time task updates). Microsoft Teams and the Microsoft Bookings app already help with virtual appointments; now there's an overview for keeping track (Figure F). "We're bringing together in one place where frontline workers and frontline supervisors can see a comprehensive view of their appointments with real-time updates on things like wait times, queuing, missed appointments and staffing delays, which will really streamline the experience," says Williams.
Viva Connections, which Williams describes as a mobile intranet portal, is one of the tools Microsoft suggests will help businesses get back on track with communications and building culture by combining company news, resources and conversations with colleagues with information about tasks. Integration with services like Workday and Espressive bring payroll and HR resources to Viva, with options like getting a notification when your break is over so you can clock back on in the app (Figure G). Williams says, "You already get your shift schedule now on this mobile device, and you get your tasks on the mobile device, but you could also access your company portal and you can access your payroll in one place."
Microsoft Cloud for Retail includes AI tools to predict demand and IoT integration to help track the state of the supply chain (Figure H) and show stock information on a mobile device; it can also help organizations set up curbside pickups of online orders. These features could reduce the frontline workers' stress when dealing with unhappy customers who can't find what they want.
The AI in Microsoft's retail cloud service promises insights and productivity for frontline workers with intelligent shift management that automatically assigns tags to retail staff that match their schedule and shift group name to make it easier who to pass information on to during a shift, and intelligent routing for the Walkie Talkie channels in Teams, working out which channel retail workers should join to find their teammates baaed on which channel is most used and what individual staff are working on at the time.
Once you have all those tools on a mobile device, losing it is even more inconvenient. If it's managed with Microsoft Endpoint Manager, an admin can use the GPS-powered map to track down a misplaced device, or they can now trigger an audio notification loud enough to find it on a noisy manufacturing line or shop floor.
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