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Microsoft targets frontline workers with Teams walkie-talkie feature

Microsoft has added new features aimed at frontline workers that use its Teams workstream collaboration app, including a new “walkie-talkie” feature. 

With 200 million monthly active users on Office 365, Microsoft has been expanding its focus on  workers in the hospitality, manufacturing and retail industries. Many such employees have been underserved by IT in the past, the company argued, even though they’re the first point of contact with customers or products. 

Microsoft and others such as Google and Facebook, with its Workplace enterprise social network, see a lucrative – and relatively untapped market – in frontline workers. Microsoft notes there are some two billion people worldwide now in service- or task-oriented roles.

A raft of updates to Teams, Microsoft’s Office 365 collaboration app, arrived last week. Among them is the walkie-talkie feature, which is built into the Teams mobile app and lets users begin a conversation with a coworker at the push of a button or broadcast an audio message just as they’d do on an analog device. 

Unlike traditional walkie-talkies, there is no risk of cross-talk or eavesdropping by outsiders, Microsoft said in a statement. As it relies Wi-Fi or cellular data, the feature can be used across different geographic locations, too. The feature, available in preview “in the first half of this year,” is designed to reduce the number of devices workers carry and cut IT costs. 

The push-to-talk (PTT) function will be integrated into Samsung’s Galaxy XCover Pro, a ruggedized smartphone aimed at enterprise use and unveiled at the end of the CES trade show on Sunday. The XCover Pro features two programmable buttons users can press to activate the voice option in Teams.  

“Microsoft and Samsung have a deep history of bringing together the best hardware and software to help solve our customers’ challenges,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement. “The powerful combination of Microsoft Teams and the new Galaxy XCover Pro builds on this partnership and will provide firstline workers everywhere with the technology they need to be more collaborative, productive and secure.” 

The push to talk option should help Microsoft as it targets frontline workers with its products, said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, a senior analyst at 451 Research.

“These workers have typically been outside the scope of IT and business communications, but are becoming increasingly relevant for digital transformation initiatives,” he said. “The addition of PTT in Teams is particularly relevant because in many cases, frontline workers can benefit from a ‘heads up, hands free’ approach to mobile communications.”

Other features announced by Microsoft include integration with Microsoft Tasks in Teams,; integration with third-party work management platforms from Kronos and JDA; and identity and management features such as SMS sign-in using one-time codes sent to a smartphone; delegated user management; and shared device sign-out.

This is not the first time Microsoft has offered Teams features for frontline workers. A year ago, the company added location sharing, the ability to record and share audio messages, and a camera module with image annotation. It has also folded in functionality aimed at frontline workers from separate services, including shift management tool StaffHub and WhatsApp-like communications app Kaizala.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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How to roll out the right tech for frontline workers

LONDON – The benefits of getting digital tools into the hands of frontline workers are becoming clear to more companies – and they’re spending more money to help those workers be successful. Whether they be in manufacturing, logistics, maintenance, healthcare or hospitality, non-office based workers play a significant role in an organization’s success because they are often the first point of contact with customers or products.

In addition to relying on smartphones and tablets for certain job roles – particularly those that require hands-free computing – there is growing demand for wearables such as smartwatches and augmented (or virtual) reality headsets. 

There are now 24 million frontline workers in the U.S. according to The Upskill Initiative. And Gartner predicts that up to 70% of mobile and endpoint net new investments will be aimed at those workers over the next five years. Furthermore, the analyst firm expects that 30% of total mobile and endpoint budgets next year will be dedicated to frontline worker needs, up from 10% currently. 

Spending on hardware for frontline workers is one of the fastest-growing areas in enterprise IT, said Rob Smith, a senior director analyst at Gartner who focuses on mobile and client computing. 

It’s one of the few examples of a ‘greenfield’ spending area for digital tools; the increased investment in hardware “is something that we haven’t seen since 2008 with mobile devices,” said Smith.

He spoke at At Gartner’s Digital Workplace Summit in London earlier this month. “It’s an area of IT that is actually growing; most of IT is flat.”

While benefits include enhanced productivity, error reduction, and even a morale boost for staffers often overlooked when it comes to new hardware, deploying the technology can be fraught with difficulties.  

Smith offered several tips for successfully deploying frontline worker devices. 

Involve workers in tech choices from the get-go

The key advice for organizations rolling out hardware to frontline staff is to include them in plans as early as possible. This will help identify potential problems that could slow adoption and increase the likelihood workers actually use the tech.

“Employee acceptance is by far the biggest challenge,” said Smith. “Forget the reliability of hardware, forget availability, forget anything else, if the employees say ‘No,’ you are never going to get it out the door. So involve them from the beginning.” 

To have the best shot at success, IT needs to engage directly with users. 

“This is a weird concept for IT because we don’t like to talk to anybody: ‘I have five jobs, the last thing I want to do is talk to HR, legal, let alone talk to some frontline worker about how they do their job.’ Well, you have to involve them. If you don’t…, it is not going to get deployed and no one is going to accept it and it won’t get used.”

Smith cited the rollout of head-mounted displays to miners at an oil and gas company that he did not identify. The devices, which were attached to miners’ headgear to provide visual directions of where to dig, were quickly rejected by older employees; they chose to rely on their decades of experience rather than new technology they felt had been foisted on them by IT. 

“Pretty much every helmet they delivered came back broken,” said Smith. “‘Oh sorry, it didn’t work.’ ‘We dropped it. ‘It got run over by the lorry.’ These things happened. Needless to say, they are not being used at the moment and all that work for this super high-end engineering device and however many they bought, [became effectively] useless.” 

That example contrasts with Volkswagen, which consulted with worker union representatives before rolling out Vuzix M300 smart glasses to staff on factory productions lines. The aim of the project was to improve productivity and reduce car part defects. 

Vuzix M300 Vuzix

Vuzix M300

Efforts were made to ensure that workers – some of whom had worked on the line for decades – could decide whether or not they wanted to use the smart glasses. “In the case of Volkswagen,  what they did was you had the choice: you could embrace the new tech, or they would train you or move you to another line. But they couldn’t replace you because you refused to use the new tech,” said Smith. “That was key.”

Consider data regulations for smart devices

Another issue involves managing the personal data that can be generated by wearable devices. The arrival of GDPR in 2018 tightened data privacy rules for companies with operations in Europe, and has also set a benchmark of how employee data should be handled more widely. This has implications for employees using wearable devices and means that security and compliance staff should be consulted early on, said Smith.  

“All smartwatches today, pretty much, include heart monitoring,” he said. “Well, heart monitoring is personal data which falls very much under GDPR. Step counts also fall under GDPR.”

Smith cited a UK-based rail organization that intended to supply station conductors with smartwatches to help them track train arrivals and departures.  Based on compliance recommendations, the organization decided to procure a custom-made smartwatch, manufactured without any health sensors to track personal data, rather than deploying something  off-the-shelf.  

“That was their only possible solution. Nobody liked that answer, but that was the only answer,” he said. “So you have got to think about what are the implications of this tech.” 

Be prepared for vendors to end device support

Investing in emerging hardware categories carries a certain degree of risk.  

Smith talked about how The 02 Arena – a 20,000 capacity venue in the center of London –  invested in Samsung Galaxy smartwatches to direct maintenance staff to toilets that require cleaning during an event. 

“Three months after they launched this project, Samsung discontinued this watch with no notice,” said Smith. “None. So they went on Ebay, they went to every source they could find and they bought every one of them they could find because there was no other choice. And, while they did, they redesigned every single application to make it work with a new watch face.”

In many cases, vendors offering nascent technology such as smart glasses are relatively small, meaning there is always a risk that they may not be around for long. If they go out of business, then any guarantees of support are gone. One way to mitigate against that issue is to rely on common platforms where possible. 

“So who else makes similar devices we could use to replace them? The more common you can make solutions and less niche, the better your deployment is going to go,” said Smith.

Why bother with new frontline hardware? ‘Insane’ benefits

With a variety of other complex tech challenges facing companies, rolling out wearables or other new devices to workers may seem to be a bridge too far. But, when done successfully, there are clear advantages for business.

“So why do it?” said Smith. “Well, it’s insane, the benefits.”

DHL Supply Chain, a logistics business within German Post, for example, saw a 15% performance improvement after it equipped warehouse workers with smart glasses that provide visual instructions of where items are located. Onboarding and training times were also halved. (The company has continued to invest after a pilot project and recently rolled out Google’s second-generation Glass Enterprise Edition smart glasses more widely across DHL operations in Europe and the U.S.)

Smith also highlighted an experiment conducted by Boeing, where three groups of trainees were tasked with carrying out an assembly process. One group was given a traditional manual, the second a tablet and the third an AR display.  

The first group made around eight errors, on average, the first time they performed a task. During later attempts the error rate was cut to four. Those who used a tablet to follow instructions, made on average of three to four errors the first time – and two errors afterward. 

“The people who they gave head-mounted displays, the very first time – no errors,” said Smith.  “You certainly don’t want a wiring issue in an airplane engine, and if you can go from four errors consistently to no errors, well you can’t put a price tag on that, you really can’t.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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How Teams is helping frontline workers at Ferguson

Frontline workers tend to be overlooked when it comes to technology. But the growing awareness that they, too, need access to the latest digital tools is pushing companies to change how they do business.

For Massachusetts-based Ferguson, which says it’s the largest distributor of plumbing supplies in the U.S., that realization meant the deployment of Microsoft’s Teams platform and a shift to channel-based communications. The company says the move has already helped improve customer service with faster, more effective information sharing.

Ferguson, which had $16.7 billion in sales last year, wanted to focus on its frontline workers as part of a digital workplace program that centers around the use of Office 365 and a rollout earlier this year of Teams. The application is now in regular use by over half of Ferguson’s 28,000 workers across 1,400 sales locations and 10 distribution centers.

Teams was launched by Microsoft in 2017 as the team collaboration component in its Office 365 app suite; it also replaced Skype for Business as the tool for workplace communications. Over the past year or so, Microsoft has begun to aim Teams at frontline or “first line” workers in industries such as hospitality and retail.

“Until recently, frontline workers were outside the realm of IT workers,” said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, a senior analyst at 451 Research. “There are several reasons for this, including the fact that collaboration tools have traditionally focused on knowledge workers. This is changing now. Organizations are becoming increasingly aware that digital transformation initiatives are relevant for all employees; this is particularly evident for client-interfacing positions.”

Teams and the showroom

At Ferguson, the Teams app is being embraced by showroom consultants who are the first point of contact for customers. These workers answer any questions, check stock and generally assist with purchases at one of the store’s showrooms.

Since most Ferguson products are on display, the workers often need to check inventory before making a sale. In the past, this generally meant turning attention away from the customer while on the phone or trying to locate colleagues, said Tony Morris, director of business process at Ferguson.

“Historically, the showroom consultant would have to get on the phone or walk to the back office for the physical warehouse and say, ‘Hey I’m looking for this product, do we have it? Can you bring it out?’ They have to disengage from the customer somewhat and the customer is then on hold, waiting. That has not been a great experience for the customer – it can take time,” Morris said.

With the introduction of chat rooms in Teams – known as channels – sales staffers at Ferguson can now find the information they need by posting a request to back office workers using their mobile device. As a result, showroom sales assistants can interact with customers from the showroom floor with less distraction.

“They can continue to service the customer but get feedback right through the Teams app, which is nice because they can give that information to the customer without putting the customer on hold or feel like the customer is sitting around waiting.”

Previously at Ferguson, staffers mainly relied on phone calls for communication, as well as Skype and Jabber. WhatsApp may have been used on an ad-hoc basis in some branches, but was not encouraged by the company.

A key benefit of Teams lies in channel-based communications, said Morris. This means a sales associate doesn’t need to know the name of a particular person within the organization to get the right information.

 “The fact that we can now have dedicated channels for different departments, groups, or even business outcomes – things that we really want to focus on – that makes such a big difference,” said Morris. “The experts in our business for those specific topics or categories can hone in on those channels and provide feedback. Before, even with Jabber, you would have to know who you were reaching out. And so it just wasn’t very efficient.”

Teams and the wholesale counter

Another way Teams is used involves counter staff who sell direct to building contractors. These customers have different requirements than retail shoppers and typically know which products they want to buy and, in many cases, make purchases on company credit. In the event of a problem, such as a customer’s account being put on hold, the sales associate is required to call back-office colleagues to get information about any outstanding invoices.

That process can be time consuming for the sales staffers and awkward for customers as their case is dealt with over the phone. Again, said Morris, Teams offered a faster and more effective way to get this information to frontline staff and smooth out the sales process.

“Once we introduced Teams, our counter staff started to build channels,” he said. “They can just post a message and say, ‘I have a customer at the counter, they are on credit hold, here is some information I need.’ They can do it without talking and so save the customer from embarrassment. With Teams, it is really efficient because they can communicate at the same time, regardless of what they are in the middle of.” 

Lessons for other companies

Castañón-Martínez said that Ferguson’s experience is an example of how frontline workers can benefit from real-time, mobile communications in verticals such as retail, particularly for client-facing employees.

“Nowadays, most employees have access to a mobile device, and use it to communicate with their coworkers,” he said. “They may be using SMS or OTT consumer apps such as WhatsApp; however, not only do these pose a security risk, they are not built for work-related activities.

“Using a tool such as Microsoft Teams will enable employees to contact each other without the need to exchange their personal phone numbers; it also allows them to create channels based on their specific requirements such as shifts, function, back office versus client-interfacing,” Castañón-Martínez said.

For Microsoft, the focus on frontline line workers is part of the evolution of Teams since its full launch two years ago.

“Microsoft’s strategy has significantly evolved in the past year, in several ways,” said Castañón-Martínez.“It remains a horizontal tool; but is aggressively targeting frontline workers, providing capabilities that will appeal to organizations in verticals such as health care, retail and education.”

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