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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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Slack vs. Teams: Which is best for your business?

Chat-based collaboration software is a must-have in today’s business environment, with Slack and Microsoft Teams the two leading options for the enterprise. The stakes couldn’t be higher. As a one-product company, Slack, which went public in June, can’t afford to lose ground to behemoth Microsoft, which has the advantage of a gazillion revenue streams to rely upon and is giving Teams away for free in most Office 365 and Microsoft 365 plans.

At the same time, Microsoft executive Jared Spataro was recently quoted as saying that the company considers Teams to be as important to its future as Windows was to its past. Indeed, Microsoft has been touting Teams’ growing user numbers with great fanfare, citing 20 million active daily users in November, compared with Slack’s 12 million. For its part, Slack has questioned Microsoft’s figures, saying its own users are more actively engaged.

The winner of this competition? You. There are two excellent collaboration platforms from which to choose, both of which are constantly getting better as new features are added. But making that choice isn’t easy. In fact, some enterprises have effectively chosen not to choose.

To make your decision a little easier, I’ve compared Slack and Teams for enterprises in six categories: interface and usability; integrations; additional noteworthy differences; mobile apps; security, compliance and enterprise management; and pricing. Here’s what I found.

Slack vs. Teams: Interface and usability

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Microsoft Teams comes to Linux

Microsoft Teams is now available on Linux as a public preview, the first time an Office 365 application has been brought to the open source operating system.

A native Linux client has been one of the most requested Teams features on Microsoft’s User Voice forum; plans to introduce were announced at the company’s Ignite conference last month. The app will feature all of the core Teams capabilities available in Windows and MacOS versions.

Native Linux packages can be downloaded in .deb and.rpm formats.

“We are committed to supporting mixed environments across our cloud and productivity offerings, and with this announcement, we are pleased to extend the Teams experience to Linux users,” Microsoft said in a blog post Tuesday. “It’s also an exciting opportunity for developers who have built apps for Teams to be able to grow their reach to this new set of users.”

The new Teams app will help connect employees at Swedish car manufacturer Volvo, where Linux is in use by several departments.

“Up until now, our Linux users have largely been stuck on a collaboration island with different unofficial and unsupported clients for Skype for Business and more recently Microsoft Teams,” Jimmy Beckman of Volvo Cars said in a statement. “With Teams for Linux from Microsoft, we have been able to leave that island and collaborate across our different platforms with the full functionality of a rich client. …Being able to participate in screen sharing is a huge improvement for the Linux users at Volvo Cars.”

Microsoft claims that Teams has grown to more than 20 million daily active users since its launch as a rival to Slack in 2017.

By introducing a Linux client, Microsoft is hoping to increase the appeal of Teams to developers –  an area where Slack has typically held a stronger position.

“Microsoft knows it needs to have a better story here, and I think this is the first sign of the company investing strongly in this opportunity,” said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight.

“A Linux client for Teams has been one of the biggest requests on its ideas community, UserVoice,” she said. “So there is clear demand and Microsoft no doubt recognizes this as a tangible and relatively straightforward first step to engaging this audience better.”

Microsoft recently announced another highly requested feature, bringing private channels to Teams. This lets users create channels that that are viewable and accessible only by specified co-workers, which can be useful for teams dealing with sensitive or confidential content. Another requested feature, multi-window chat, is also on its way.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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14 Microsoft Teams apps to help you work smarter

When it comes to adding apps to collaboration software, Slack tends to get most of the attention. Yet Microsoft Teams, which now has a larger number of active daily users than Slack, offers dozens of third-party tools that make it easier to get work done without leaving the Teams interface. Integrations can help you brainstorm, set up meetings and track projects, among other tasks. 

[ In case you missed it: 4 tips for picking the right collaboration suite and How to combine project management and collaboration ]

Most apps add a new tab that appears at the top of the Teams interface for controlling the app’s features. Other integrations include a bot, which allows you to type commands, for example to find a file or track a project’s status. App’s can also trigger notifications, like when a file you’re sharing has been updated, within the channel.

Other examples: You can type a simple command in a channel that tells a bot to create a new task in a project management app, like Wrike or Trello. In addition, you could click on a tab to view pull up a recently edited Photoshop file from Adobe Creative Cloud. Or you can have notifications in a channel update you automatically with website metrics, like pageviews and daily users. 

Here are some of the most useful integrations for enterprise users who need to collaborate with their coworkers in Teams.

Add apps

To add an app in Teams, look near the bottom of the left-hand navigation pane. Select “Apps” and a directory opens showing you all the available apps, sorted by category.

When it comes to adding apps to collaboration software, Slack tends to get most of the attention. Yet Microsoft Teams, which now has a larger number of active daily users than Slack, offers dozens of third-party tools that make it easier to get work done without leaving the Teams interface. Integrations can help you brainstorm, set up meetings and track projects, among other tasks. 

[ In case you missed it: 4 tips for picking the right collaboration suite and How to combine project management and collaboration ]

Most apps add a new tab that appears at the top of the Teams interface for controlling the app’s features. Other integrations include a bot, which allows you to type commands, for example to find a file or track a project’s status. App’s can also trigger notifications, like when a file you’re sharing has been updated, within the channel.

Other examples: You can type a simple command in a channel that tells a bot to create a new task in a project management app, like Wrike or Trello. In addition, you could click on a tab to view pull up a recently edited Photoshop file from Adobe Creative Cloud. Or you can have notifications in a channel update you automatically with website metrics, like pageviews and daily users. 

Here are some of the most useful integrations for enterprise users who need to collaborate with their coworkers in Teams.

[ Related: 7 top Slack alternatives for 2019 ]

Add apps

To add an app in Teams, look near the bottom of the left-hand navigation pane. Select “Apps” and a directory opens showing you all the available apps, sorted by category. When you click an app, a description appears, detailing the features of the app within Teams. 

[ Related: Microsoft Teams: Slack’s big rival explained ]

It’s worth clicking the “Privacy and Permissions” link to see what the app will receive once you click “Add” to integrate the app in Teams. You may want to run any privacy concerns by your system administrator, if you have one. Some permissions, like whether you’re able to add apps at all — or which ones — may already be set by your admin. In some cases the apps are given permission that may give your IT department pause. For example, once you sign in, some bots are able to take actions on your behalf.

[ Related: 7 top Slack alternatives for 2019 ]

Keep in mind that these third-party apps require you to set up an account, so if you don’t already have one, you’ll be prompted to sign up, or log in, when you add them to Teams.

Plan ahead with Trello, Wrike and Asana

Cloud-based project management services, like Trello, Wrike and Asana, can help workgroups set deadlines, assigns tasks and automatically update stakeholders on the project’s status. Frequently, workplace chat sparks new ideas and integrating a dedicated app to assign tasks and deadlines right in Teams can speed things up, while keeping discussion in one central location.

Trello and Asana both use Kanban boards, which organize tasks by whether they’re being planned, in progress, or complete. Wrike calls them cards, which you can view within Teams, or if you want to view multiple projects and deadlines at once, you can view them as a Gannt chart without leaving Teams.

Check traffic with Google Analytics

The Google Analytics app can post to your channel automatically with high-level traffic reports from websites and mobile apps. For example, you can automatically have the app post to your channel with a digest of metrics like pageviews, new users and how many pages they viewed in a session. If you routinely report these numbers, for example at a daily meeting, instead of having someone view and report the numbers for your site, you can set them to automatically appear daily, weekly or monthly in your channel. 

Be social with Twitter and Yammer

Twitter’s app provides a way to track your organization’s social media mentions, by reporting them as they happen in your channel, when you add the app to Teams. You can choose to be notified when your handle is tweeted, or a hashtag you choose, like an area of interest in your industry.

For internal updates, you can add a tab for Yammer, which acts as a social media presence within an organization, with status updates, links, photos and video. Once the app is added, you can share Yammer posts in a channel, or view see posts and topic threads in a tab. 

Kick off a meeting with Webex and Zoom

If your workgroup uses video meetings outside of Office 365, for example, with Webex Meetings or Zoom, you can schedule and join meetings from a tab in Teams. In Zoom, for example, you can type a command “start [topic]” to begin a new meeting (and let everybody know what it’s about.) In Webex Meetings, you can click the app’s tab and see all your upcoming meetings, as well as people you frequently meet with so you can quickly add them, or set up a meeting with everybody in your channel.

For offices that adopt the agile methodology — and it may be useful even if you don’t — the Scrumgenius app automates routine daily check ins with a team. A bot asks each channel member what they’re working on, what they’ve completed and if they’re running into hangups that are keeping them from completing projects (you can also customize the questions). Then a bot updates the channel or sends the updates to an email address.

Release the code: GitHub, Jira Cloud and Azure Devops

If your organization builds software, for internal operations or for public release, there are several apps you can add to Teams for creating and tracking new code and changes, and track bug reports. Teams offers support for most of the popular, cloud-based services including GitHub, Jira Cloud, and Azure DevOps. Each of these apps add a tab in Teams, so you can see the status of software under development. The GitHub app, for example, lets you view new code requests or get notifications in a channel when changes to projects you’re following are modified.

All three apps integrate bots so you can check and modify a project’s status by typing a command in a channel. For example, when a new bug is reported in Jira, you can type a keyword to assign the issue to a team member. There are also keyword commands to use the bot for searching for issues, watching an open issue, or “voting” on an issue to prioritize how quickly a bug needs to be fixed.

Get creative with Adoble Create Cloud and Mural

Adobe’s Creative Cloud app lets you share files made in that design suite with coworkers in Teams, and provide feedback in channels. You can also receive notifications when comments are made about files you’re collaborating on. When you click the Creative Cloud icon at the bottom of a Teams message, your most recent Adobe files appear for you to select and share. 

If you use whiteboards with your team, the Mural app helps make the process faster with premade design elements. The app lets your coworkers simultaneously edit a whiteboard in a Teams channel, adding templates and icons that should make collaborative planning simpler, especially for the artistically challenged. You can start with icons, like sticky notes and basic flow-chart shapes, or drag and drop complex templates for planning projects, as well as calendars for prioritizing tasks over a week or more. 

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Apple’s OS development teams are going to ‘Build Different’

Some say the mantra for agile development is to be sufficiently resolute to move fast and break things, but as enterprises grow the consequences of doing so become unsustainable, as Apple appears to have learned with iOS 13.

Build different

A report claims Apple has changed the way its development teams work in response to a variety of bugs that crept into iOS 13.

It seems that Apple’s engineers have tended to push even features into daily builds of the operating systems before they were fully tested.

The effect of this was to make test hardware unstable as the OS would end up running a whole bunch of system components, some stable, some not, and some abandoned.

Of course, Apple’s platforms are inherently pretty robust, but the impact on the company’s testing procedures appears to have been to make it rather difficult for the testers to fully comprehend the actual state of the software they were testing.

This means that bugs crept into the operating system without being recognized as such, the report suggests – and the company has changed its approach for iOS 14 (“Azul”) development.

These changes have also been applied to the way it develops all its other platforms.

Actions have consequences

The impact of Apple’s previous development procedure on end users meant we saw multiple reports of things like disappearing email, app instability and sketchy network coverage once iOS 13 shipped.

To its credit, Apple moved swiftly to address problems as it found them, but the operating system has now seen 10 versions since September 19, 2019 – but this means customers have needed to install new software on more or less a weekly basis.

This also impacts third party software developers who may have needed to upgrade their apps at the same time. That’s annoying to customers and developers, and has a cost significance for Apple’s enterprise users.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that regular software upgrades and an efficient distribution system are also platform strengths, but I believe Apple strives to deliver feature enhancements in its releases – it doesn’t want to be fixing bugs.

At the same time, Bloomberg claims its developers were aware of problems with iOS 13 even before June’s WWDC event, choosing to focus on building a less buggy iOS 13.1 version rather than attempting to optimize iOS 13.

It is worth observing that iOS 13.1 patched 24 bugs on its release.

How Apple has changed its approach

The company is adopting a different approach in iOS 14 development — and this approach is being adopted across all its operating systems.

Incomplete software features will not longer be distributed in the same way. They will still be inside those daily builds, but will be switched off by default. Testers need to autonomously enable new features through a configuration panel, called Flags.

The intention is that by doing this, Apple gains better visibility into how software components are performing, what works and what doesn’t, and will hopefully more easily identify features that just aren’t yet ready to ship.

That’s the plan, at any rate.

The significance of this is that Apple’s customers should end up with a better user experience and encounter fewer software bugs in future – even if they are running public beta versions.

This is important because one of the jewels in Apple’s crown is that its customers upgrade their devices rapidly. It’s important as it provides developers with a stable platform for their apps, and provides security benefits to end users.

Apple has said that at present, 50% of all devices use a version of iOS 13, but the rate of adoption does seem a little slower than it was at this stage of previous release cycles.

It’s not a huge difference – Apple’s platform advantage remains – but it is not a trajectory the company will want to encourage.

Which is I guess why information of the change in its development practises has leaked.

Are there any lessons?

There are always lessons. One of the biggest is scale.

Apple serves around a billion customers with iOS.

Unlike the customer base of other more fragmented mobile platforms, nearly all these people are using a version of the OS that’s at most around a year old.

This is a strength as it means developers can focus their effort on the current and most recent versions of the company’s operating systems.

However, ensuring this advantage requires that the company knuckles down on stability when it releases software; while the scale of the audience it needs to address means that even a slight imperfection can become a colossal problem.

It’s the classic problem in any form of success:

On the way up, most organizations can be agile and flexible to change, unconstrained by reputation or legacy.

However, at some point on the journey, most organizations grow to a point at which significant resources must be spent on simply standing still, and may need to slow expansion and development in order to maintain the quality of what they provide already.

Most mature businesses end up there. Apple’s teams do a pretty good job as a veteran company at maintaining agility while also maintaining existing products, but the move to adopt new development practises reflects a similar challenge.

Some may argue that taking this step suggests Apple is becoming slightly less agile… but I don’t believe for a second this means it has forgotten how to dance – and with early rumors suggesting iOS 14 will be packed with new features (with some held back for iOS 15), I’ve a feeling it will still show others how well it commands the floor.

Though hopefully with bug-free dancing shoes.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Atlassian expands Jira Service Desk to non-IT biz teams

Atlassian has expanded the focus of its Jira Service Desk to target a wider range of business teams, such as HR, legal and facilities workers. 

Jira Service Desk, launched six years ago to help IT teams track and resolve service requests quickly, has since been integrated with the Australian software company’s portfolio of apps, such as Confluence, as well as third-party apps like Slack. It is the fastest growing product in Atlassian’s portfolio. 

Although billed as a collaborative IT service management (ITSM) tool, many Jira Service Desk customers have, in practice, adapted the application to deliver a variety of services to end users in the enterprise, Atlassian said.  With that in mind, the company today introduced new templates and workflows in Jira Service Desk to encourage its use outside of IT. 

Templates make it easier to configure the application to better meet the demands from HR, facilities and legal teams. The “out-of-the-box” functionality allows HR or operations managers to create and maintain their own service desks with minimal involvement from IT, Atlassian said.

“HR and facilities teams can now leverage Jira Service Desk to more easily manage tasks like employee on-boarding and fielding maintenance requests, and legal teams can shift from manually chasing down signatures to working collaboratively with an automated digital workflow,” the company said in a blog post.

The announcement comes as a range of vendors in the market, including ServiceNow and others, have also moved to expand their products with modules that support non-IT use, driving a trend around enterprise service management (ESM). So it makes sense for Atlassian to expand its app capabilities, said Charles Betz, a principal analyst at Forrester and co-author of “The Forrester Wave: Enterprise Service Management, Q4 2019,” which evaluates vendors in the ESM market. 

“At Forrester, we are very supportive of the extension of the service desk into broader non-IT-centric workloads, because every corporate function has a service aspect,” said Betz. “People need services from their HR department, they need services from facilities.”

Betz added that demand for non-IT use is growing quickly. A Forrester survey of 45 ESM customers showed that 78% were already using the tools for non-IT purposes. “And of that 78%, up to half of their transactional workload was non-IT workload,” he added.

Atlassian recently unveiled free and premium tiers of Jira Service Desk, with users able to pay more for higher for 99.99% uptime SLA, unlimited storage and additional support. 

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Microsoft Teams gets private channels, email integration with Outlook

Microsoft Teams users can now converse with colleagues privately after the long-awaited introduction of private channels – one of a variety of updates announced by Microsoft at its Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla. this week. The company also highlighted enhanced integration with Outlook and a multi-window feature.

Private channels have been in high demand from Teams users, and are the most requested feature on the Microsoft User Voice feedback page for Teams. The feature had been proposed by Microsoft before the launch of Teams in 2017, with a preview announced earlier this year.  

The new feature allows Teams users to create channels that that are viewable and accessible only by specified coworkers, which can be useful for teams dealing with sensitive or confidential content. 

“Every group, every team, every business has some discussions where they need to maintain some level of confidentiality,” said Karan Nigam, group product marketing manager for Microsoft Teams. “For a lot of companies, it is the financial data. With private channels, the intent is that any team can restrict the membership of that particular channel so that not everyone has access to [it], …only a certain set of people do.”

Teams private channels Microsoft

AUp to 30 private channels are available to each team, and each channel can contain up to 350 members.

“Private channels are important for any collaboration offering, just as a private conference room is required for in-person meetings,” said Patrick Moorhead, founder and president of Moor Insights & Strategy. “I believe it will facilitate more open conversations and engender trust.”

Outlook integration with Teams

Microsoft also unveiled plans to integrate Teams more deeply into Outlook, with the addition of a button in the email client that can send information from an email into the work chat app. The opposite is also possible, allowing messages from Teams to be sent to Outlook. The interoperability is designed to allow users to more easily select the communication venue that best suits them, whether that be real-time chat or asynchronous communications via email. 

“It is a simple construct, but at the same time very powerful, to be able to bridge that gap between different modalities of communication,” said Nigam. 

“Shifting between Outlook and Teams is natural,” said Moorhead. “When workers get into a 50-short-email back-and-forth, it would be better to be a Teams chat as it’s easier to see the information and respond at the right point in the thread. Conversely, a 700-word chat or report over Teams doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and would be better for Outlook.”

The addition of the feature comes as rival Slack also moves to link its platform more tightly with email clients, including Microsoft’s Outlook. Slack is also planning to go one step further and let users reply directly between email and chat.

Tasks in Teams Microsoft

The Tasks in Teams feature is slated to be available early in 2020.

Microsoft has also rolled out a unified view of assigned tasks within Teams. That allows tasks assigned to a user across a range of tools within Office 365 – To Do, Planner, Outlook and Teams – to be visible on a single page and accessible as lists, charts, boards or schedules. The single-window view is due out early in 2020.

Also new: multi-windows, Yammer integration and frontline worker features

Other Teams announcements at Ignite include:

  • Pinned channels to keep track of important conversations.
  • A pop-out multi-window feature to make it easier to access information within Teams from   separate chats, meetings, calls or document windows. 
  • Updated features for frontline workers, including the ability to sign in using a mobile phone number for authentication (a public preview will come early next year) and Global Sign-Out to ensure that all apps are exited on shared mobile devices at the end of a shift. (A public preview for  Android devices is expected early in 2020).
  • Messaging extensions such as polls and surveys for chat and channel conversations that should be available later this year. 
  • Power Apps that can now be published as custom Teams apps, accessible via an organization’s app library or pinned to the left-hand navigational bar. 
  • Features for IT admins, including Advisor for Teams to offer recommendations when deploying Teams teams; a certified app catalog that offers details on available app; and policy packages that let admins assign predefined policies to users with similar roles.
  • Access to Microsoft’s Whiteboard “digital canvas” from Teams.
  • A Linux client for Teams, with a public preview later this year.

The full list of this week’s Teams announcements is available here. 

In related news, Lori Wright, the general manager for Teams, has moved to become general manager for Microsoft’s Xbox division. Microsoft declined to comment on the change or her replacement. 

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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How to Permanently Uninstall Microsoft Teams on Windows 10

Microsoft Teams sign-in window that appears at startup.

If Microsoft Teams keeps reinstalling itself on your Windows PC and launching itself at boot, there’s a solution. You can’t just uninstall Microsoft Teams the usual way: You have to uninstall it twice.

It’s silly, but that’s how it works. Specifically, you’ll have to uninstall both “Microsoft Teams” and the “Teams Machine-Wide Installer.” If you just uninstall the Microsoft Teams application, the machine-wide installer will reinstall it every time you sign in to your PC. To completely uninstall Teams, you have to remove both applications.

To uninstall both, head to Settings > Apps > Apps & features on Windows 10.

Under Apps & features, search for “Teams.” Uninstall both Microsoft Teams and Teams Machine-Wide Installer.

Uninstalling Teams and the machine-wide installer from Settings.

You can also use the classic Control Panel to uninstall these applications. Head to Control Panel > Programs > Uninstall a Program, search for “Teams,” and uninstall both Microsoft Teams and Teams Machine-Wide Installer.

Removing Microsoft Teams via the Control Panel.

You’re done! The next time you sign in to your PC, Teams won’t automatically reinstall itself. It’ll stay deleted from your system until you download and install it on purpose.

As Microsoft’s website notes, Teams will also be uninstalled if you uninstall Office from your system. Microsoft Office seems to automatically install both Teams and the Teams Machine-Wide Installer in many cases.

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There’s finally a communication app tailormade for on-the-go teams. Try it free.

One of the hardest things for employers to do is keep up with the needs of an increasingly mobile workforce. More than ever, teams are using multiple devices to do their work on the go — and for workforces that are dispersed, it can be difficult to get on the same page for key objectives and initiatives. 

That’s where Eko comes in: this performance-boosting platform is built for mobile workforces, combining communications, process management, task management, e-learning and HR functionalities into one easy-to-use app. Ideal for remote teams, retail and hospitality, this app streamlines everything frontline staff needs to be successful into one helpful tool. 

Unlike other collaboration-centric apps that rely on integrations to function, Eko comes with everything built-in, including creating expense reports, delegating tasks and even managing goals and KPIs. That means no paperwork or relying on integration with outside apps — this swiss army knife of an app can do it all. 

Eko supports group chat and live voice/video calls, helps engage employees through recognition and rewards, digitizes processes from paid leave to weekly performance reviews and more — all with 256-bit encryption along with GDPR compliance functionalities so your data stays secure. And while Eko is built for mobile, you can also use it as a desktop app. 

The result is a team that communicates more cohesively and is managed more seamlessly — meaning less attrition and more operational efficiency for the long-term. 

There’s three different pricing plans to fit your various needs:

  • Free version: up to 10 users
  • Standard plan: $1.50/per user/per month
  • Enterprise plan: $3/per user/per month

Learn more about Eko by visiting their website — sign up for a free demo here. 

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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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