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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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7 Apple presentation secrets enterprise workers need

Apple’s competitors hate the company’s slick marketing, but enterprise workers should try to follow the path of distilled simplicity to help get their own messages across.

Seize the day

You have 90 seconds to capture your audience’s attention.

Practice your presentation, thank people who helped make it happen and try to be authentic and genuine. People always react better to authentic people. To the extent that authenticity has itself become an art form.

Don’t waste (other people’s) time

How often do you find a presentation slide shows so much information you don’t take any of it in? Apple doesn’t do this.

Almost every announcement I have seen tells me that when it wants to get its message across it focuses on one number (large font) and one description (small). And boosts the impact of the slide with an eye-catching high-quality image and short and punchy lists. Keep it short. Keep it simple.

A picture really is a thousand words – and video takes this to a different level.

Waste people’s time (for a reason)

There’s something else Apple knows.

Think about Apple’s marketing boss, Phil Schiller, who showed an incredibly crowded slide during the most recent iPhone 11 keynote. It contained so much information, not least news of Apple’s U1 (UWB) chip, which Apple still hasn’t told us much about.

The result? By hiding it in plain sight, Apple generated lots of speculation and publicity for a feature it has so far told us hardly anything about.

This is a great way to provoke publicity, but can also be used to hide things you need to disclose but don’t want to explain – put what you want to share on a crowded slide, focus on one item on the slide and click through to the next slide before people catch on.

Take people seriously

Presentations are like any other product. They can’t just be thrown together at the last minute (well, they can, but tend to be less effective) – so if you have the time it pays to iterate until the message you are sharing is distilled to its essence.

This kind of focus makes a difference in any business, including presentations. Why does what you want to say matter, who too, and how can you explain it better?

Apple’s former iPod VP Tony Fadell told Walter Isaacson ‘Steve Jobs once told me, “If you need slides, it shows you don’t know what you’re talking about.”’

“People who know what they’re talking about don’t use PowerPoint,” he also said.

Go deep. But don’t forget that it once took Jobs eight years to buy a sofa.

Build narrative, tell stories


Why does your story matter? What does the statement you are making mean in context? Is it larger than or smaller than something people already experience every day?

The idea is that not only must every part of your presentation flow to the next, but that you also provide people with just enough information to put the data into context using ideas they already understand. Apple does this a lot.

I think one of the best examples of this was Steve Jobs, who introduced the original MacBook Air as being thinner than any other computer, before showing an image of the Mac in a brown manila envelope to drive his point home.

That single image sold a lot of Macs.

Just like the image of Steve waving the iBook through a hula hoop while remaining online created every Wi-Fi coffee shop and launched the move to wireless Internet. And sold Macs.

Be visual

Write your presentation. Then go through it in order to find out if anything you are trying to say can be expressed with an image. Ideally an image to help fix the claim inside the mind of the audience, along with a verbal statement to contextualize and explain it.

Keep it short!

Want more ideas?

I still think The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo is a good place to start.

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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Survey: Half of U.S. workers face one or more serious mobile issues monthly

A new survey of hundreds of U.S. companies shows that 51% of workers experienced at least one mobile device issue a month that hindered their ability to do their job – and the number of such problems is increasing.

The second annual State of Enterprise Mobility Survey found that mobile device failures can have financial impacts on companies, including lost productivity and workers calling in sick because of job stress – particularly for companies that use thousands of mobile devices in the field.

More than one-third (37%) of those surveyed experienced an increase in mobile device issues during the past 12 to 18 months; the most common failures involved unreliable network connections (45%); battery failure (41%); and apps that crash or become unstable (40%).

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The online survey was conducted by a market research company for mobile monitoring service B2M. It includes results from 550 companies, each of which had to manage a minimum of 500 mobile devices, with the average number of devices managed being 3,880. Included in the survey were companies in vertical industries such as government, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, telecommunications, technology and engineering.

Jack Gold, principal analyst with J. Gold Associates, agreed with some of the survey’s findings, saying that, while rare, a lack of network connectivity (both cellular and Wi-Fi) not only makes it harder to get work done productively, but “the annoyance factor is huge.”

Another aggravation: Poor battery life on older devices. The average battery is good for 200 to 300 discharge/recharge cycles before it becomes severely degraded, according to Gold. So older devices – even some that are only a year old but face high-use conditions – can easily need a recharge before users get a full day’s work done. “And that’s annoying too,” Gold said.

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Adding to the mobile problems – perhaps unexpectedly: business apps are generally not built as well as consumer apps because developers tend to spend more time on improving the user experience, according to Gold. Typically, the user experience with applications is either that they work great or barely function.

“Annoying users is a sure way to get people to complain, and there is nothing more annoying than getting in my way of being productive,” Gold said, even as he urged caution in reading the survey results. “Having said all that, I find many of these surveys questionable.”

According to Gold, without knowing more about the user base, it’s hard to evaluate the results compared to the larger mobile user community.

According to the B2M survey, employees feel anxious or stressed (69%) when mobile device failures prevent them from doing their jobs, an increase from 39% of workers who said that in last year’s survey. Thirty-seven percent of respondents have taken at least one day off in the last 12 months due to the stress of not being able to do their work because of mobility issues, more than double the number who said that in last year’s survey (16%).

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Mobility issues are also hurting enterprises when it comes to productivity, with 95% of all workers affected by mobile issues saying it has negatively affected productivity.

This year, the annual survey included reponses from 249 IT workers in charge of enterprise mobility in an effort to get their perspective on how they manage mobility, the outages they experience, and how to make things better for both admins and users.

While 96% of the IT workers surveyed indicated they have mobile device management or enterprise mobility management tools in place, only 2% said they get all the analytics they need to manage mobile devices.

“Mobility is a business-critical asset across most enterprises today, yet this research clearly highlights that mobile device failures are high in volume; negatively impacting productivity, staff morale and costing businesses revenue,” said Gary Lee, Chief Revenue Officer of B2M Solutions. “The research also reveals is a clear gap between the issues impacting frontline workers and visibility of these among the IT department.”

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Copyright © 2019 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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The smart worker’s guide to using a Chromebook offline

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A Chromebook is just a glorified browser in a box. Or this one: It’s like a “real” computer but without all the good stuff — and it’s practically useless offline.

You see where we’re going with this, right? Those are all wildly inaccurate myths that have plagued Chrome OS since its start. To be fair, some of them did have nuggets of reality back in the platform’s earliest days, when it was still a small-scale, beta-like project within Google. But for years upon years now, Chromebooks have been capable productivity tools that offer ample advantages over traditional desktop operating systems and work just as well as any other computers offline.

When it comes to offline effectiveness, the key — just like with a Windows or a Mac system — is a healthy dose of planning and preparation. Some cloud-centric services require a touch of setup before they’ll be functional offline, and some common work tasks need specific third-party software in place in order to be handled without an active internet connection. None of that, however, is difficult to do. And it’s certainly not impossible.

If you’re using a Chromebook for work, think through the following four areas to make sure your computer is offline-ready and primed for productivity before the need arises. Then, when your next business flight takes off, skip the barely usable airplane Wi-Fi and instead sit back, relax, and enjoy your Slack-interruption-free productivity session.

1. Make sure your Google apps are prepared for offline use

Google’s core productivity apps are completely offline-capable — but in most cases, it’s up to you to take the initiative and set them up appropriately.

For Gmail:

  • Open the Gmail website from your Chromebook, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner, and select “Settings” from the menu that appears. Click “Offline” in the menu at the top of the settings screen.
  • Check the box next to “Enable offline mail.”
  • Make sure to carefully consider the remaining options on the page — how many days’ worth of email should be stored, whether attachments should be made available offline, and whether data should remain on your computer even after you sign out (fine for a single-person computer) or should instead be erased and resynced every time you sign out and back in (more advisable for a system that’s shared by multiple people) — and choose the settings that make the most sense for your situation.
  • Click the “Save Changes” button at the bottom of the screen, accept any confirmation prompts that pop up, and then wait while Gmail reloads itself and downloads your data.
01 chromebook offline gmail JR Raphael/IDG

Setting Gmail up for offline use takes all of 30 seconds to do.

There’s just one more step, and it’s an important one: Set a bookmark in your browser for Gmail by pressing Ctrl-D — or, easier yet, create a shortcut for the site in your Chrome OS shelf by clicking Chrome’s three-dot menu icon while viewing Gmail, selecting “More tools,” and then selecting “Create shortcut.” Either way will let you pull up the site and access your mail when there isn’t an active connection.

For Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides:

  • Make sure you have the Google Docs Offline Chrome extension installed. (If you see a blue box on its Chrome Web Store page that says “Remove from Chrome,” you’re good to go. If you see a box that says “Add to Chrome,” you need to click that and follow the steps to complete the installation.)
  • Go to the Google Drive website, click the gear icon in the upper-right corner, and select “Settings” from the menu that appears.
  • Look for the line labeled “Offline” in the settings box that pops up. If the box next to the phrase “Create, open, and edit your recent Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides files on this device while offline” isn’t already checked, check it.
02 chromebook offline google docs JR Raphael/IDG

One check of a box, and all your recent Docs, Sheets, and Slides files will be available even without an internet connection.

Just like with Gmail, you’ll need to make sure you have a bookmark or shortcut created to pull up Drive when your Chromebook isn’t connected. You’ll also need to double-check that the specific files you want to work with are set to be available offline ahead of time — as, rather annoyingly, Drive stores only a vague collection of “recent files” by default, and you don’t want to assume that whatever you need will be included.

Here’s what to do:

  • Open up the Drive website while you’re online and find whatever Docs, Sheets, or Slides files you want. (You can also do this directly from the Docs, Sheets, or Slides websites, if you’d prefer.)
  • Right-click on each file’s title, then activate the toggle next to “Available offline,” if it isn’t already active.
  • Repeat as needed for any additional files.

For general Google-Drive-stored files:

That previous section addresses only Docs, Sheets, and Slides files — not other types of files you’ve uploaded to Google Drive, such as images, PDFs, ZIP archives, or MP3s. (It’s a rather confusing distinction to have to make, I realize, especially given how blurred the line is between Drive and the Docs-branded productivity apps. Hey, that’s Google for ya.)

For any non-Docs, -Sheets, or -Slides files from your Drive storage that you need to be able to access offline:

  • Open the Files app on your Chromebook, then select “Google Drive” from the list of choices on the left.
  • Find any file or folder you want to make available offline, right-click it, and select “Available offline” from the menu that appears.
  • If a file or folder is already available offline, you’ll see a checkmark next to that same option.
03 chromebook offline google drive JR Raphael/IDG

The Chrome OS Files app holds the key to making Drive files and folders accessible offline.

You’ll then be able to access those files from that same Files app anytime you’re offline. And, of course, any files you’ve manually downloaded or copied to your Chromebook’s local storage will already be available for offline use.

For Google Keep:

  • Make sure you have the Google Keep Chrome app installed. (If you see a blue box on its Chrome Web Store page that says “Remove from Chrome,” you’re good to go. If you see a box that says “Add to Chrome,” you need to click that and follow the steps to complete the installation.)
  • Open the app once to make sure it signs you in and starts syncing your data.

You’ll then be able to access your notes anytime you’re offline simply by opening the Keep app.

2. Figure out what other offline-ready apps you have — and what you still need

Chrome OS comes with a handful of offline-ready basics, such as a calculator and a plain text editor. The aforementioned Files app is fully offline-friendly, too, and it includes a simple image viewer and editor along with an audio player.

04 chromebook offline image editor JR Raphael/IDG

Your Chromebook’s Files app has its own built-in image editor.

Your Chromebook probably also came with both Google Play Movies and Google Play Music preloaded; both of those will allow you to download media to keep yourself sane during a long flight (provided you’re willing to pay for the associated services).

Google’s official Chrome Web Store has a wide variety of other offline-capable options that are worth browsing through and considering. And if you still haven’t found the tool you need, it’s time to move on to Chrome OS’s more advanced options.

3. Find Android apps and Linux apps to fill any remaining voids

Though it’s still technically a cloud-centric platform, Chrome OS supports all sorts of apps these days — and odds are, you’ll be able to find whatever you need among the software’s more traditional app options.

By embracing Android apps on your Chromebook, for instance, you can use Google Calendar offline — something no other desktop platform supports. You can also stay connected to your data in services such as Evernote, OneNote, and Trello with or without an active internet connection, and you can even download videos from YouTube and Netflix for offline viewing (another perk that isn’t possible on lots of regular laptops — here’s lookin’ at you, MacBook…). Basically, if an app works offline on Android — which most do — it’ll work offline on Chrome OS, too.

05 chromebook offline android apps JR Raphael/IDG

With the Google Calendar Android app installed, your entire agenda is always at your fingertips — even when the internet is not.

For even more powerful possibilities, you might want to take the time to think about some Linux apps for your Chromebook — provided you have a recent enough system to handle such utilities. It’s definitely power-user terrain, but it’s not impossible to navigate. Click over to my step-by-step Linux-Chrome-OS guide to get started, and then check out my list of Chromebook Linux app recommendations for some standout ideas.

4. Give yourself some offline-ready reading material

You may not be able to browse the web while you’re offline, but that doesn’t mean you can’t catch up on some worthwhile web-based reading.

The simplest way to store articles for offline use is to save them directly in your browser: While viewing any website on your Chromebook, click the three-line menu icon in Chrome’s upper-right corner, hover over “More tools,” and then select “Save page as.” (Or hit Ctrl-S for an even faster way to get to the same place.) Hit Enter or click the Save button, and that’s it: The entire page you were viewing is now available for your offline reading pleasure.

When you’re ready to find the article, open Chrome’s Downloads page — either by looking for the “Downloads” option in the main browser menu or by hitting Ctrl-J while a browser tab is open — and then click on its title in the list that appears. The entire page will load as if you were looking at it live.

06 chromebook offline web pages JR Raphael/IDG

An online article, offline — no complex hoop-jumping required.

If you’d rather have a more fully featured article-saving setup that works across multiple platforms, you can use a service like Pocket — which offers an offline-ready Chrome app along with apps for both Android and iOS. Pocket is free with an optional $45-a-year Premium plan that removes suggested stories and adds in advanced search, storing, and highlighting features.

If books or magazines are what you’re after, meanwhile, Amazon’s Kindle Android app and Google’s Play Books Android app both provide commendable reading experiences (more so than their web-based counterparts).

And with that, your Chromebook is officially ready for compromise-free offline productivity — and maybe even a little offline procrastination.

Don’t worry: I won’t tell.

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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How to craft an MDM policy BYOD workers will actually follow

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend has long since moved from being an outlier to the norm for most companies and employees. But with all those devices come a wealth of potential security problems. Rogue apps, malware, data breaches are sometimes just a click or swipe away.

Even with that reality, crafting policies for employee and executive devices remains a challenge because most people resist interference with the most important devices that they own – their smartphones, tablets and laptops. The challenge isn’t one of technical capabilities; it’s more about understanding how to apply the mobile device management (MDM) solutions already available and effectively communicate corporate guidelines and rules to users.

Here’s how to crack the problem of errant users and ignored corporate policies.

Communication and transparency are a must

Let’s start with the most important issue: communication.

Communication isn’t an area where IT departments typically excel. Most communications from IT to users is one way, short of details, and likely to – at best – be glanced at before being discarded or deleted. (It doesn’t matter whether it’s an urgent email or an agreement that employees click through without reading.) This presents a couple of challenges, the first of which is getting employee attention and holding it long enough for workers to understand the message.

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Prime One-Day is Rolling Out as Machines Replace Workers

Amazon recently said that it would shift all Prime members from free two-day shipping to free one-day shipping throughout 2019. As it turns out, some customers are already getting bumped to free one-day, as reported by The Verge.

While logistically it’s going to take Amazon a while to get free one-day shipping rolled out to all customers—especially those in more rural areas that may be further from distribution centers—it’s nice to see it already rolling out to some others. Of course, one-day shipping isn’t new on the whole, as it was previously available to some users with a minimum $35 order. The “new” one-day shipping option will not only make it the default choice for Prime members but also removes the $35 threshold.

This news comes in tandem with a report from Reuters that Amazon is starting to replace some of its human box packers with machines that can pack up orders “4 to 5 times” faster than people. The machines, which are already in a handful of warehouses, can pack a staggering 600 to 700 boxes per hour. That’s insane.

For Amazon, however, it’s not necessarily about speed—“It’s truly about efficiency and savings,” according to the Reuters report. I’m honestly not sure how “efficiency” doesn’t translate almost directly to “speed,” but hey, whatever. If it’s faster, it’s more efficient.

The biggest question here, of course, is what this means for the workers who are replaced with the packing machines. As you can probably imagine, box packing is a high-turnover job, so instead of letting workers go, Amazon simply won’t refill those roles as workers quit. Ultimately, the machines will likely replace around 1,300 workers across the country.

As for the ones who stick with the packing positions, Amazon said those people could be re-purposed to different positions. The machines themselves still require three human workers anyway: one to program orders, one to load up cardboard and glue for the custom-built boxes, and one to clear out the “occasional” jams. And while installing the machines will set Amazon back some $1 million per machine, the company says it can recoup the expense in less than two years and re-invest the money that it will ultimately save into “new services for customers, where new jobs will continue to be created.” Sounds good.

In Other News

Windows 10 is on 825 million devices, an “unhackable” USB stick was exposing passwords, Office 365 has a crap-ton of subscribers, and a lot more.

  • Windows 10 is installed on “over 825 million devices:” According to internal documentation obtained by Thurrott.com, Windows is still dominant. [Thurrott]
  • “Unhackable” USB stick found to be leaking passwords: Honestly, calling your device “unhackable” in the first place is a pretty boneheaded move. The eyeDISK USB drive was compromised pretty easily by using a packet analyzer to detect that it was sending passwords in plaintext. Oops. [TechRadar]
  • Office 365 has more than 214 million subscribers: Dude, that’s SO many subs. More than Amazon Prime and Spotify Premium combined, according to MSPowerUser. Wild. [MSPU]
  • Samsung missed the Galaxy Home window…again: Last year, Samsung announced the Bixby smart speaker that no one wanted, then missed the delivery window. It showed it off again at CES 2019 with an April 2019 shipping window, but it missed that too. There must not be a lot of emphasis on delivering it any time soon. [CNET]
  • Google targets “Phone X” against the Pixel 3a: Google started its Pixel 3a campaign hard and heavy, already challenging something called the “Phone X” on price and camera features. 😉 [9to5Google]
  • Spotify is letting artists share the stories behind their music: A new feature called Storyline gives artists an Instagram-like way to share the story behind the song. That’s cool. [Android Police]
  • Google may be testing automatic crash detection on phones: Code found in the latest Android Q beta hints at car crash detection, though it’s unclear what this would do once a crash is detected. One could assume it will automatically notify the authorities, but we’ll wait until more info is available to make further assumptions.

It what may be the most bizarre story I’ve seen in a while, the CFO of a school lunch company called Choicelunch has been arrested for hacking into a competitor’s database and stealing data on hundreds of students. Information on the students, what they like to eat, and known allergies was stolen from The LunchMaster last year then traced back to where Choicelunch is headquartered. An FBI investigation into the data breach eventually pinned the hack on Choicelunch’s CFO. It turns out that school lunches are a high-stakes, cutthroat world. Who knew? [The Register]

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Your Private Facebook Posts Are Being Read By Workers

A report from Reuters states that Facebook is sharing private posts with contracted workers to help train its AI. That means real-life people are probably reading your private posts. This sounds all too familiar.

The report suggests that Facebook outsources this task to an Indian company called Wipro, where as many as 260 workers comb through upwards of 700 posts each every day. Every post is cross-checked by two different workers to make sure they’re each getting labeled correctly.

So what exactly are they doing? The process is ambiguously called “data annotation”—they’re categorizing and labeling posts so AI can better learn what it’s seeing. They note the type of content—a selfie, food, or an animal, for example. They also have to include the author’s intent; are they making a joke, trying to inspire others, or plan an event? The imagination would suggest that last bit could get a little murky in certain situations.

While the report itself is pretty straightforward, there seem to be some conflicting feelings coming from Facebook employees (and former employees). The company’s director of product management for AI, Nipun Mathur, told Reuters that “it’s a core part of what you need” and that he doesn’t “see the need going away.” A former Facebook privacy manager, however, had different feelings on the matter, expressing unease with users’ information being scrutinized without explicit consent.

But on the other side of that coin, a Facebook spokesperson claims that the data policy “makes it clear…we use the information people provide to Facebook to improve their experience and that we might work with service providers to help with this process.” In other words: this is what you signed up for—according to Facebook, at least.

All that is to say one thing: in this day and age, “private” never really means private—it just means that you don’t know who is really seeing it. I guess you could make everything public and alleviate the issue altogether, heh. [Reuters via The Verge]

In other news, OnePlus made a questionable video about the 7’s waterproofing features, WWDC rumors, more Chrome OS virtual desktop development, and more.

  • OnePlus threw the 7 in a bucket of water, then said not to do that: OnePlus is a company that has a history of making questionable marketing decisions, and its recent video highlighting the OnePlus 7’s waterproofing is a good example. It shows the phone thrown into a bucket of water, during which some text at the bottom of the screen basically says “don’t do this.” The phone doesn’t have IP certification, which apparently costs more money than the company wants to spend. All this does is leave a lot of questions about how waterproof the phone really is. [The Verge, TechRadar]
  • WWDC rumors aplenty: Bloomberg reported a bunch of WWDC rumors for this year, including iOS 13, macOS 10.15, watchOS 6, a new tvOS, and a lot more. Per the norm, however, take it all with a grain of salt until it’s actually confirmed. [Bloomberg]
  • More Chrome OS virtual desktop development: Last week we talked about virtual desktops in Chrome OS, and over the weekend a couple more videos popped up that show even more development. It looks so good. [Chrome Unboxed]
  • Google is going to rebrand Express as Google Shopping: We’ll likely hear more about this at I/O, but it looks like Google is gearing up to “rapidly” expand Google Express and rebrand it to Google Shopping. Neat. [9to5Google]
  • A hacker is holding Git repositories for ransom: The hacker is reportedly wiping them clean, then threatening to release the code if victims don’t pay the ransom within ten days. Wow. [ZDNet]
  • Update Chrome for Android without visiting the Play Store: Google is testing a new update method in Chrome Canary for Android that will allow users to update it without first going to the Play Store. [Techdows]
  • More than half of Bitcoin nodes are running vulnerable code: There are more than 100,000 Bitcoin nodes, and half of them are running vulnerable code. That’s unsettling. [The Next Web]

Over the weekend, CNBC had an absolutely fascinating writeup about cybercriminal organizations. It turns out they often follow the same model as real companies, including competing with each other for customers, hiring project managers, and even having “CEOs” to keep everything organized and on track. All to steal data, money, and identity of others. Unreal.

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Microsoft lets SMB workers share Office on a single PC with expanded M365 Business rights

Microsoft this week announced it has added shared computer activation (SCA) for Office to the less-expensive Microsoft 365 Business subscription, giving small- and medium-sized businesses a way for multiple employees to run Office’s productivity applications from a single PC.

“((This will help)) in scenarios where multiple users are connecting to the same remote computer at the same time ((or)) where multiple users share the same computer and the users are logging in with their own account,” Ashanka Iddya, a senior product manager, wrote in a Monday post to a company blog.

The roll-out of SCA for Microsoft 365 Business (M365 Business) customers will begin April 30, Iddya added, and should be completed within “the next couple of months.”

M365 Business is one of several subscription plans in the Microsoft 365 line, but unlike those labeled “Enterprise,” is available only to companies that purchase 300 or fewer licenses. Its $20 per-user, per-month cost is considerably less than the $34 per-user, per-month price of M365 E3, the enterprise plan that, until this change, was the least expensive to offer SCA.

There are other differences between M365 Business and Enterprise E3, notably Windows 10, which is bundled with E3 but not Business. The latter runs on Windows 10 Pro, the OS that is factory installed on business-grade PCs. (M365 Business also includes upgrade rights to Windows 10 Pro from Windows 7 Professional, so it’s attractive for companies considering an in-place Windows upgrade rather than buying new hardware.) Both include Office applications and Microsoft-hosted Exchange, but E3 throws in more sophisticated security components and device management tools.

The inclusion of SCA in M365 Business did not come from out of the blue. Some had told Microsoft that SCA needed to be part of the package so that employees could run Office’s applications from a remote system. “I went to provision 28 users of M365 Business for a customer and had to abort and put them back on Office 365 Enterprise E3,” wrote Donavan Lane, founder of Innovia Consulting, in a December 2018 message on a support forum. “Turns out M365 Business doesn’t support Shared Computer Activation which is used for many of our RDS ((Remote Desktop Services) customers.”

In turn, Microsoft’s Iddya hinted that Lane would soon get his wish. “We are actively considering this feedback on enabling Office SCA for M365 Business users,” Iddya said a few days later.

In March, Microsoft notified M365 Business subscribers that SCA soon would come to their plans, garnering kudos from Mark O’Shea, a 20-year veteran of Microsoft and now a consultant working in Sydney. “This chips away at another one of the reasons why an SMB customer may have needed to go down the Microsoft 365 E3 path, and opens up some different usage scenarios,” O’Shea wrote in his blog.

“The first of these scenarios is computers shared by multiple users with different user profiles, which is common for certain roles and industries,” O’Shea continued. “But I see the bigger inclusion for a broader range of customers and users … that support will be there for Remote Desktop Service and other VDI ((virtual desktop infrastructure)) scenarios.”

Not surprisingly, the new SCA rights in M365 Business still require that each user be licensed for Office 365 Business, the version of the suite included with that subscription. In other words, Microsoft isn’t giving away anything here: Companies can’t legally “share” Office on a single PC among, say, five users, only three of whom are covered by M365 Business licenses.

And SCA doesn’t pertain to Office for Mac; users can only share the Windows version of Office on an SCA-covered machine.

More information about SCA can be found on Microsoft’s website.

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