M&S puts Teams on the retail frontline to streamline in-store operations

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright January 27, 2021
Store colleagues at UK-based retail giant Marks and Spencer have taken to Microsoft Teams to co-ordinate work and stay in touch on the retail frontline

Marks and Spencer Nottingham Giltbrook store exterior
(Marks and Spencer)

UK-based retail chain Marks and Spencer is one of those retailers that came late to digital, finally taking the first steps in its digital-first transformation in 2019. Among these was an initial roll-out of Microsoft Teams as a platform for delivering communications and applications to staff in its stores. The timing was fortuitous, with 400 stores live by the time the COVID-19 pandemic added a new urgency, and another 200 added in a 3-week remote roll-out as lockdown took hold in the spring of 2020.

To find out more about the roll-out and how it has changed store routines, I spoke to Scott Townend, a 20-year veteran at M&S who is Programme Manager for Teams within the retailer's central retail communication and activity team. Although Teams is best known as a tool for office workers, at Marks and Spencer it has proven its worth as a mobile app in the hands of frontline retail staff who spend the working day on their feet. Staff in stores where it has rolled out have embraced it with enthusiasm, says Townend:

We've got 93% of our colleagues using Teams, but that is growing every week. We are not done. We are seeing some stores that are easily 100% already. And that's everyone in the store, regardless of where they are, whether they're on furlough or not. So we are seeing some incredible adoption rates.

How store colleagues use Teams

One of the big drivers of adoption has been the inclusion of a shift scheduling app in the Teams platform. This is integrated with the company's backend workforce management system from Blue Yonder, so that store colleagues can view their schedule and also swap or add shifts if they want. Townend explains:

Shifts has really made that difference, [has been] a burning reason as to why colleagues want to connect, because it really empowers them from a self-service point of view. Not only can they view their shift, but they can also pick up additional shifts that they want to work. We saw thousands of shifts being picked up through Teams over our peak trading months in particular.

Teams is also used intensively in its primary role as a communications and teamwork platform. This was the initial use case in the second half of 2019, when the company started piloting Teams with its store and regional leadership teams as a platform for doing day-to-day handovers, sharing actions from meetings or distributing or receiving information. In the subsequent roll-out to store colleagues, channels were created that related to the size of store and to different areas of the store that people work in.

Colleagues now use Teams for all kinds of communications — contacting people who will be on the same shift as them, passing on messages between shifts, letting other departments know about issues that have arisen or been fixed, commenting or liking messages, and receiving information and alerts from managers and head office support teams. It's been a new channel for building relationships and especially useful when social distancing has reduced opportunities for interacting in person. It's also proven invaluable for those who are on furlough to keep in touch with what's going on in the store and feel connected during their absence.

Replacing paper and email

Teams has made it easier to contribute to the company's 'Suggest to Steve' initiative, through which frontline staff can send suggestions about store operations and customer service directly to CEO Steve Rowe. This has been available via email for several years, but it's notable that submission rates have doubled overnight from stores rolling out Teams, where it's available as a form.

Another application that's been piloted in several dozen stores and is about to roll out to around 100 more is a task manager. This allows head office staff — or support center staff, as the company prefers to call them — to schedule actions centrally, which in-store managers can then assign or colleagues can pick up directly. As items are crossed off the list, managers can then track what's been completed and what outstanding items may need following up. The app replaces a process where tasks were uploaded to Sharepoint and then printed out in-store, as Townend explains:

We previously would have uploaded it to a SharePoint site. Colleagues would be waiting for when that will be uploaded, they'll then go to a backstage workstation, print it off.

This way, they can pick this up at any point, and they can deal with it right on their mobile. They can do that on their personal mobile, or they can do that on the shared device.

As well as personal mobiles, in-store staff also use shared Honeywell ruggedized handsets, and managers have Surface tablets. With so much now available on mobile devices rather than printed out on sheets of paper, there's been a marked reduction in spend on stationery, ink and postage. Messages that need to go to all colleagues previously needed to be sent in the postal mail but are now instantly delivered via Teams. Stores with Teams have seen a one third reduction in their use of paper and toner in the past year, although COVID lockdowns would have also been a contributing factor in that reduction. It's been a useful boost towards meeting sustainability targets.

Overall, Teams has made a significant contribution to Marks and Spencers' digital journey in the past year, believes Townend. Interestingly, staff have said that it's helped them with work-life balance, as they have more granular control over notifications than they used to when relying on email to keep in touch. And Teams has definitely proven itself as a mobile app that gels with the working routine of the retailer's frontline staff, at the same time as replacing Sharepoint, email and Skype in the routines of office-based staff.

My take

The Marks and Spencer story is a powerful validation for Teams as a platform for frontline workers. It's also an illustration of the digital empowerment of frontline workers that Microsoft CVP Emma Williams recently told us is happening as a result of deploying Teams and similar tools.

I would also frame it as a real-world example of diginomica's philosophy of frictionless enterprise in action, using connected digital technology to eliminate paper-based processes, break down functional demarcations and make information and resources available on demand. It's a particularly strong example because at the same time it shows the interaction of the frictionless enterprise framework with digital teamwork and customer experience. The journey ahead for Marks and Spencer remains challenging, but its Teams deployment is helping it create a collaborative, change-ready organization that can stay responsive to changing customer needs and expectations.