Three approaches to support front line workers within a hybrid work world

When the working world was divided between employees who could work from home and employees who could not, the front line transformed beyond anyone’s expectations.

Frontline workers are the associates at the forefront of your customer interactions, the clinicians delivering patient care and those running your operations on the ground.

These front line workers have long been under served by technology and are only now becoming part of the same “future of work” conversation as information workers.

We know that those employees deployed on the company’s business front line need the right digital tools and purpose built hardware for their specific approaches to work. 

Considering this background, the question becomes, “How do we support the front line workers and ensure that they are included in the future of work conversations?”

The answer lies in continuing to innovate in ways that seek to empower frontline workers with the right tools to give them a sense of purpose, the flexibility to adjust to the new daily realities of hybrid work and the knowledge to make decisions to improve business outcomes.

When companies embrace this strategic approach, they empower their front line workers to not only keep up with the changes of a hybrid world but to stay ahead of them.

We’ve seen more than a 150% increase in Microsoft Teams usage in front line workers last year in industries such as retail, financial services, healthcare, and government. 

Let’s take a look at the three ways we are continuing to innovate for front line workers. 

Empower with a sense of purpose

Just like information workers, front line workers equally want a sense of purpose—what does this job mean for them and how are they a part of their company? This is so important.

We are seeing a lot of employee turnover, mainly because front line workers are often feeling disconnected because they don’t receive communications from the head office.

They don’t know who they are working with and they lack a strong sense of community. 

Its time to democratize company culture to bring front line workers closer as it’s a good thing to do and these workers are the faces of the company and impact the bottom line.

And when employees feel they have a purpose, their loyalty increases, and they provide better services to your customers. An engaged employee equals better business results.

According to Gallup, companies with an engaged workforce have a 10% increase in customer loyalty and 23% higher profitability versus those with a disengaged workforce. 

Recreational Equipment, Inc. REI wanted to leverage this aspect with their essential front line workers, or as they usually call them, their ‘green vest’ employees.

“Connecting employees across the co-op and across the country used to be difficult,” says Chris Grey, Director of IT Infrastructure Engineering Services, REI.

“With Yammer integrated in Teams, frontline workers have a newfound ability to connect with colleagues from different areas of the business. It’s opened up a lot of opportunity.”

Green vest employees at REI are facilitated in order to access Yammer through Microsoft Teams so as to create groups that are aligned around topics like hiking and cycling.

Groups connect employees from all over the company for networking and culture building. 

Joey Northcott, the Divisional VP of Technology Services at REI said, “For the first time, retail employees and headquarters employees can chat about shared interests.”

It is very important to connect corporate headquarters to front line workers, whether it is a Chief Executive Officer video of the week, communications about new company policies or sharing opportunities for employees so as to contribute ideas and feedback. 

Connecting workforce to work together on shared goals is critical to any firm’s success.

Currently, with the general availability of Viva Connections mobile, leveraging this connected company employee relationship becomes easy to implement and is inclusive.

Viva Connections delivers a single, company-branded destination for frontline workers to access company news, tasks, resources, shifts, and more in the flow of their work.

This aspect helps to facilitate giving the entire workforce, from frontline to the corporates the ability to access news and participate in company culture like never before.

Another aspect of creating a sense of belonging and purpose at a company involves making an effort to facilitate management in recognizing employees for a job well done.

Front line workers have felt this from every angle last year, whether it be the public recognition displayed globally or co-workers simply reaching out to support each other.

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, we saw digital applications for example Praise, grow in usage over seven times from pre-pandemic levels for frontline workers. 

Praise helps to provide a platform that facilitates employees to encourage each other, appreciate their peers for their support and therefore helps to foster a positive culture. 

Provide tools that enable flexibility

Think about the reality of a frontline worker’s day-to-day experience in a hybrid world.

Day one the worker could be on the floor engaging with customers. Day two they could be in the warehouse fulfilling curbside orders. Day three they could be at home interacting with customers through virtual consultations and enabling sales through e-commerce.

Workers at the moment are not just sitting at one station or always on the floor and thus, they need the ability to stay connected as they move within the hybrid workplace.

They need flexibility in where, how and when they work, while easily determining the availability of peers with devices that allow them to work with their peers seamlessly.

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, we saw digital applications for example Shifts grow in usage over ten times from pre-pandemic levels for many front line workers. 

With Shifts, front line staff are facilitated to view their team members’ schedules and request to swap shifts within the application, a process that traditionally required each employee to call or message their manager or a team member so as to inquire about availability.

And that is exactly what Boots Opticians did.

For Boots Opticians, flexibility means providing front line workers with self serving shift scheduling digital tools and reducing paper based processes around task execution.

Before leveraging Shifts, requesting time off involved providing a request in writing to store managers and waiting for them to acknowledge and approve the request manually. 

John Peterson, the Store Manager at Boots Opticians said, “My peers love Shifts as they know their schedule and they don’t have to react to inefficient, paper driven processes.”

The move to hybrid also saw a dramatic shift from in-person appointments to virtual visits.

We first experienced this aspect within healthcare organizations where the need to safely check on patients required rapid innovation in virtual care platforms and tools. 

Long-term benefits accrue to industries for example retail with clients like REI, who needed a way to recreate the personalized service and experience customers had in store.

They therefore decided to develop Virtual Outfitting and through leveraging Microsoft Teams they can now connect their green vest employees with customers face-to-face.

Dominque Morel, Divisional Vice President of Expertise at REI said, “More than 86% of our customers are extremely satisfied with our virtual outfitting solution through Teams.” 

To enhance the virtual visit experience for every client or patient, we continue to build solutions that reimagine the in-person components of an appointment into a digital one.

With waiting room for virtual visits, you can ensure every customer or patient feels welcome.

Additional new embedded features include the ability to add a company logo, personalized messaging, and real-time visit notifications. These notifications can help reduce absenteeism and can be automatically linked to virtual visits scheduled through Microsoft Bookings.

For healthcare, SMS can also be connected to an electronic health record (EHR) system.

Customers and patients can also join their virtual visit from a mobile browser without needing to install an app, making the engagement process even more seamless. 

Waiting room is now in preview. SMS is now generally available for Bookings and in preview for the Microsoft Teams EHR connector. Mobile browser join is now generally available.

Virtual visits help in providing a comprehensive view of appointments in one location, with real-time updates on wait times, missed appointments, staffing delays, thus streamlining scheduling workflows to create a first-class experience for customers and patients.

Schedulers can send SMS and email reminders directly from the queue view to offer updates and use Microsoft Forms integration to secure patient or client data prior to the visit.

Scheduled queuing for virtual visits is currently embedded in the private preview and Microsoft Forms integration to Bookings is also currently available in the private preview.

As virtual visits continuously become even more of a commonplace in the day to day workflows of healthcare services’ front line workers, we are extremely excited to be extending the EHR connector in order to include the Cerner EHR for multi-participant virtual visits.

Providers and patients can access their virtual visits by enabling patients to launch virtual visits from their Cerner patient portal or from an SMS, with no app download required.

Healthcare providers can further more launch visits from Cerner PowerChart. We invite you to join us at our upcoming, free health and collaboration virtual forum to learn more. 

Equip front line workers with the right knowledge

The other aspect is empowering the front line workers with access to the right knowledge.

Due to the fact that front line workers have been traditionally under served by technology, their workflow schedules have largely been based on paper-based processes.

Bringing the right tools and information directly to the fingertips of the frontline is essential.

Front line workers must easily reach the right people, find data to make educated decisions faster and share insight and data with both immediate colleagues and leaders.

When employees have access to the right information at the right time, they are greatly facilitated so as to make the right decisions for the business and their customers. 

‘Duty of care’ extends to health risks at home - ASPL workplace expert

Western Lakes Fire Department added the live stream of the drone footage to Teams. 

The live stream could then be monitored from emergency vehicles, Incident Command Posts or on-site whether users deploy tablets, phones or mobile data terminals. 

Brad Ingersoll, the Deputy Chief of Western Lakes Fire Department applauded Teams.

“Lifesaving is a matter of minutes or seconds and thus the increased situational awareness we get from Teams and the drone just makes us faster and better at our job.” 

One process that has seen massive digital transformation is pivoting from in-person expertise to expert remote assistance, to provide real-time guidance and knowledge on the ground.

We are therefore making these experiences seamless through Microsoft Teams integration with devices that are custom made for harnessing by front line workers.

RealWear headsets enable access to experts in a heads-up, hands-free way, thus workers can maintain situational awareness while getting detailed assistance from a peer.

RealWear will be the first device running Android Open Source Project (AOSP) supported by Microsoft Endpoint Manager which manages and protects devices that run AOSP. 

This means that organizations can easily configure RealWear devices for either shared or single-use by frontline workers and apply protection policies in Teams that help keep company information, and the knowledge passed between workers, even more secure. 

Sanjay Jhawar, the Co-Founder and President of RealWear expounded on the integration.

“We have been closely collaborating with Microsoft Endpoint Manager during the course of last year and we are so delighted to be the first supported Microsoft device partner.” 

RealWear integration with Microsoft Teams is already generally available whereas the Microsoft Endpoint Manager support for AOSP devices is currently in preview.

We continue to improve Microsoft Endpoint Manager and Microsoft Azure Active Directory shared device mode to enable compliant, secure and efficient shared device scenarios for the operating systems on which front line workers depend for data to do their job.

It is critical to understand that knowledge is not just simpy about on-the-ground insights, but it is also very important when indulging in interaction with clients and patients. 

Marks and Spencer equip their front line workers with Teams to serve as the single collaboration hub to do jobs from checking stock to sharing product insights with peers. 

Julia Palmer Bennett, the Store Manager of Marks and Spencer expounded on this aspect.

“As retailers, the best place we can be is on the shop floor. By harnessing the Surface Go devices and the Microsoft Teams platform, employees have the information that they need at their fingertips in order to help customers and work more efficiently.” 

Front line workers are required to make and receive approval requests, which can be the difference between whether an equipment permit is ready or a shipment leaves on time.

We are also announcing the general availability of DocuSign as an Approvals partner.

This partnership extends our electronic signature capabilities already in place in Teams to allow workers to create and send approval requests right in the flow of work.

Integration of the approvals app with Microsoft Word streamlines approvals so that workers can create, manage or request approvals directly from Teams or Word documents.

Approvals in DocuSign will come and Word Add-in for Approvals is generally available. 

The future of hybrid work for front line workers

The bottom line is that front line workers need to feel connected to their organization.

Front line workers need flexible solutions to support their unique work and the right knowledge in order to execute some ground decisions, especially for the hybrid world.

Otherwise, businesses risk gaps in critical communication and may end up undermining the ability of front line workers to meet the always changing needs of the business.

When all employees, from information workers to front line workers, feel valued and empowered with the right work tools with the right company culture they perform better.

When your workers perform better, your whole business performs better.

I had a chat with Worklab Live host Elise Hu about how Microsoft helps leaders redefine the value of front line workers and what they need to operate in the hybrid work world.

To learn how retail leadership is finding new ways to shift towards employee-centric business models to ensure they are the employer of choice for frontline workers, check out this retail blog from Shelley Bransten, Corporate VP, WW Retail and Consumer Goods Industry.

We also know frontline workers are the backbone of the manufacturing industry and thus you should learn how manufacturing leaders are adopting new technology in this manufacturing blog by Colin Masson, Global Industry Marketing Director, Manufacturing.

We want to help industries and front line workers to keep up and thrive in this hybrid world.

Whichever industry you are in, be sure to check out our entire frontline solution available at the moment and learn more about our new product innovations touched on.

Emma Williams is the Corporate Vice President for Modern Work Transformations at Microsoft.