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Microsoft sees Teams bringing digital innovation to frontline workers in retail and elsewhere

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright January 20, 2021
interview with Emma Williams, who heads up Microsoft's push to bring Teams to frontline workers in retail and other industries

Chedraui frontline workers use Microsoft Teams
Frontline workers at retail chain Chedraui use Teams (Microsoft/Chedraui)

Just as digital tools have revolutionized office work — to the extent that we've now realized we largely don't really need offices any more — today a new paperless revolution is brewing for frontline workers. Connected mobile applications are finally bringing digital capabilities to the two billion worldwide who work on their feet, serving customers or operating and servicing machines and facilities. The impact will be huge, believes Emma Williams, Microsoft CVP of Modern Workplace Transformations:

In the world of frontline workers, we are going to see the rate of innovation that will happen there will be dramatic, because having gone from paper to suddenly being digitally empowered, this is going to take off and there will be a wave of innovation.

While the notion of delivering capabilities to frontline workers on mobile devices is far from new, in the past these have typically been isolated sets of specific applications. What's new today is the advent of general-purpose collaboration platforms that can embed various applications and capabilities, and which are also used by other workers across the organization. This has the dual effect of lowering both the cost and ease of introducing new digital capabilities to this part of the workforce. The consequence is an increase in what Microsoft calls the level of 'tech intensity' for frontline workers. As Williams explains:

Tech intensity is the rate of an organization's rate of adoption of technology. Traditionally, we saw that rate of tech intensity on the information worker side, but over the last two and a half years, we've increasingly been seeing that rate of tech intensity increased dramatically on the frontline worker side.

Teams as a tool for frontline workers

Microsoft Teams of course was originally designed for desk-based office workers, but Williams has been at the forefront of its transformation into a tool for frontline workers. That work is now complete, she tells me:

You asked me the question, is Teams really built for frontline workers? My answer to you is loud and clear, absolutely now, because of all of the work we've done over the last couple of years ... and we are in this for the long haul.

Microsoft has the customers to prove it. To coincide with the opening of the NRF virtual trade show for the retail industry last week — where Microsoft also introduced a first look at its Cloud for Retail — UK-based Marks and Spencer and Mexican retailer Chedraui have been speaking about their use of Teams. Marks and Spencer is rolling out Teams to over 60,000 associates in stores to replace paper-based processes with mobile apps, while Chedraui's 40,000 retail associates are using Teams to manage in-store tasks and stay in touch with company messages. Pilar Rojas Suárez, CIO and Director of Systems at Chedraui, says she values the ability to bring everything together in Teams:

In the past, we had various collaboration tools, but we struggled to integrate all the tools and maintain productive communication between employees.

Microsoft Teams ... brought all the communication and productivity tools we needed together in a single platform combined with robust security.

Shift scheduling and task management

One of the big drivers to encourage take-up of Teams among frontline workers is the ability to embed essential applications that they use as part of their daily routine. A prime example is shift scheduling. In the old paper-based world, the shift schedule for the week would be printed out and pinned on a board in the break room. In recent years, store associates have got into the habit of snapping a picture on their smartphone so they have a digital record.

With Teams, it's not only already on their phone, they're also able to swap shifts with colleagues or take on extra shifts using the app. The use of geo-fencing on mobile devices provides another benefit in these times of COVID-enforced social distancing, as Williams explains:

Instead of standing up with all of your colleagues and lining up for 15 minutes to clock in and clock out of an old-fashioned machine where you're not socially distanced, now you just walk into the building, clock into your shift. We recognize you're there, and it's automatically taken care of for you.

Task management is another Teams app that has replaced printed sheets or handwritten whiteboards on a wall hidden away somewhere at the back of the store. Tasks can be assigned either at store level or from head office, and can be directed to specific roles and shifts to make sure they reach the right person. Williams sums up:

There's these critical workflows that were paper-based up until now — [they were] manual, messy ... Your manager gave you a bunch of things to do and told you when he gathered with you in the room in the morning on the shift, and now you're trying to remember them all. We instead are tracking all these tasks and publishing shifts, a very easy way to communicate and aligned [with] chats and channels from Microsoft Teams. So it's in one simple, unified, mobile-first experience for frontline workers.

Some retailers are adding their own custom-built Power Apps, such as a counting app for use at the store entrance to ensure socially distanced capacity limits aren't exceeded, or a fulfilment app to streamline curbside pickup. Meanwhile Microsoft is introducing new ways for IT teams to onboard frontline workers more easily, for example using phone numbers as ID instead of email addresses, or delegating password reset to store managers using SMS to verify sign-in.

Retail, healthcare and more

Retail is just one of many industries where frontline workers make up the bulk of the workforce. Williams cites the example of healthcare, where one Texas hospital has substantially reduced the length of hospital patient stays by rolling out the frontline worker capabilities of Teams to all clinical staff. Simply cutting the time it takes to communicate internally as patients move through the facility is saving millions of dollars per year. Williams concludes:

Frontline workers represent about 80% of the employee base of many of these industries. Retail is an example, 80% of the employee base are frontline workers. In healthcare, it's about 70-75%. Manufacturing, it's nearly up to 90%.

You can't actually look at digital transformation in [these] industries without taking the lens of, how are you empowering the frontline workers?

As well as bringing digital innovation to these workers, the use of a company-wide collaboration platform like Teams also means that, for the first time, everyone in the enterprise is connected. She points out:

One of the things I say to my team all the time is, think about the power of actually having frontline workers and information workers like corporate head office, all on the same digital platform — the same platform for the first time in human history, not even a digital platform, just the same platform ...

This is going to be a massive opportunity for innovation, and a faster round trip on being able to deliver customer satisfaction, and deliver KPIs and the types of business outcomes that customers want.

My take

Frontline workers have long been the neglected Cinderella sector of the enterprise when it comes to digital enablement. Before the advent of wi-fi and mobile broadband, it was simply too much trouble to connect them and IT departments concentrated instead on wiring up their office colleagues. But in a world where the customer experience is becoming increasingly mobile and touchpoints are necessarily fleeting, bringing digital capabilities to this part of the workforce has suddenly become a priority.

Having identified this as a target market for Teams several years ago, Microsoft now finds itself with a significant opportunity. Although Facebook and Google are both also paying attention to this market with their respective Workplace products, Microsoft Teams offers the broadest set of application integration capabilities and starts with strong enterprise IT credibility. If it can also demonstrate ease of use and rapid adoption among this workforce, it will be well placed to claim a leadership position.

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