Teams for firstline workers: collaboration tools for workers, everywhere

With tools like Shifts and Kaizala, Microsoft is reaching workers on the front line who interact with retail customers or handle field service support.

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Microsoft's Teams collaboration environment is an important part of its approach to productivity. Replacing Skype for Business in Office 365 plans, Teams mixes chat and telephony with a hub for key collaborative applications. You can go from an informal team chat to a video conference with screen sharing and back again, or use it as a way of having online meetings with people from outside your organisation.

But that's not the only set of use cases. The way what Microsoft calls 'knowledge workers' operate has changed fundamentally, and now it's the turn of the task workers in the front line. A large percentage of the workforce, these 'firstline workers' are working across industries, in retail, in field service. They don't have computers -- at least not on their desks, although they may share one to get messages from head office or to manage shifts. They'll probably own a smartphone, but it's theirs and they really don't want to use it for work.

Despite all that, they still need access to collaboration tools: to share insights about new products, new ways of solving problems, passing on customer information, and, of course, managing shifts and hours. Microsoft used to offer StaffHub, a web-based application and part of Office 365, that helped provide a central hub for workers to help them manage their work. While you can still use StaffHub, it's being retired on 1 October 2019, with all users being advised to download Teams.

With Teams' new central role in Office 365, and its availability in the iOS and Android app stores as well as on Windows PCs and the web, it's not surprising that StaffHub's replacement is a Teams-based app, Shifts.

Using Shifts

Part of every copy of Teams, Shifts is easy to access. It's initially enabled from an Office 365 admin account, where you can choose the default apps available to users. If you're planning on using Teams for firstline workers, you'll probably want to disable most other apps, as they're unlikely to be relevant. If you want to make Shifts appear front and center, use an App setup policy to pin Shifts to the app bar at the side of the desktop Teams. Mobile users will see it in the bottom app bar on their clients. A built-in policy for firstline workers sets up Activity, Shifts, Chat and Calling as default apps.

SEE: Policy pack: Guidelines for remote workers (Tech Pro Research)

Once you've enabled Shifts and defined an App setup policy, you can apply it to your users. This does mean that all users need to be part of your Azure Active Directory (AAD). By assigning them to an appropriate group you can automate deployment of your firstline worker policy using PowerShell.

If you're a manager and need to use Shifts in your copy of Teams, click on the three dots that open the 'More apps' menu to open it and add it to your instance. Once enabled, managers can add Shifts to a team, allowing them to create and manage team schedules. Like all Teams users, they're able to send messages directly to individual team members, as well as the entire team. It's possible to use Shifts to host documents, sharing them with team members.

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Shifts, which is part of every copy of Teams, is Microsoft's replacement for StaffHub.

Image: Simon Bisson/TechRepublic

Managing time in Shifts

Shifts is, at heart, a calendaring app. It lets firstline workers see when they're scheduled, and who they're scheduled with. Each team is divided into groups, who are managed by team leaders or managers. You can then add team members to a schedule, selecting their row in the calendar, and then adding a shift on a set day. You can give shifts their own name, if your business uses names, otherwise they're labelled with a start and end time.

Firstline workers can swap shifts using Shifts: select a shift timeslot, and choose Swap -- you'll need to give a reason. Once the team leader accepts the shift change, you'll get a notification. The process is similar for offering shifts to a team and for booking time off.

SEE: Microsoft SharePoint: A guide for business professionals (Tech Pro Research)

The workflow behind Shifts doesn't need to be complicated, which makes Teams an ideal host for this type of micro-task. Firstline workers make requests, and team leaders approve or deny them, with both able to see outstanding requests. The calendar-based user experience is familiar, and makes it easy for anyone to pick up and use no matter if they're on a PC or a phone.

Teams and Kaizala

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Kaizala delivers a WhatsApp-like experience.

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft's business mobile messaging tool Kaizala is also intended to support firstline workers, and is available alongside Teams in Office 365. Handling text messaging, alongside voice and video, it gives staff a familiar WhatsApp-like experience (a tool many have been using as an alternative to enterprise messaging services).

With admin tooling and a web apps to manage groups and send actions to users, it's a flexible and easy alternative to more complex tools like Teams, needing only a phone number to register. As it doesn't need a registered email address, it's suited for use by temporary staff or contractors who might not be part of a company directory.

Over the next year or so Microsoft intends to bring Teams and Kaizala closer together, adding Kaizala features to Teams. Companies are already using the two apps, and Microsoft says it will reveal more about its integration plans over the next 12-18 months as it works on the project.

Supporting firstline workers is increasingly important for Microsoft. It's already on the desks of a billion or so knowledge workers, so supporting the next two billion makes sense -- especially if it means selling enough Office 365 licenses to cover them!

It's not easy to take metaphors learned on the desktop to workers who work on the front line, directly interacting with retail customers or handling field service support. Tools like Shifts and Kaizala are one way of reaching those users, devices like HoloLens are another. We're going to see many more of them, targeting different types of worker and different types of work, some of them experiments, and some products. With Teams, Microsoft is mixing its traditional and its new audience, and it's going to be interesting to see how that mix develops.

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