Frontline workers — who account for approximately 80% of the workforce — use on average about 1% of their organization’s technology budget, according to various estimates.
Let that sink in.
Frontline workers — variously identified as “deskless,” “offline” or “essential” — regularly interact with customers, make sales, provide services and handle day-to-day operations. They are the face of the business and directly impact customer satisfaction and loyalty. But they have fewer tools and less voice than their more integrated and connected corporate peers.
“I was at an airplane manufacturing company recently and they’re still building planes using paper instructions and doing QA (quality assurance) using paper instructions,” said Ron Xavier, Technical Business Development Executive, Microsoft Global Center of Competency for Kyndryl Digital Workplace Services.
As incredible as that sounds, the situation at that airplane manufacturer is not unusual. Manufacturers struggle more than retail and hospitality, for example. But many frontline workers across all industries are stuck using outdated systems and processes that hamper productivity and negatively impact their employee experience.
In the 2023 Employee Experience Study by Brandon Hall Group™, only 40% of employers said they have the right technology for their frontline workers to successfully navigate the workplace. Only half said they have tools to help employees adopt all the various technologies that are used in the workplace.
However, more employers are recognizing they must do better. Almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents to our study said it is important to use innovative technologies to support employee productivity and efficiency.
Changing the Status Quo
Frontline workers are often mobile or work out of multiple locations where it can be difficult to access devices and internet connectivity. Their jobs require specialized software and applications to access customer data, check inventory, submit orders, manage projects and more. They deal with customers face-to-face and need technologies that enable quick access to information to resolve issues on the spot.
Kyndryl, the world’s largest provider of IT infrastructure services, and Microsoft have a strategic alliance to deliver state-of-the-art solutions to help customers accelerate hybrid cloud adoption, modernize applications and processes, support mission-critical workloads and enable modern work experiences.
Kyndryl’s Xavier and Noel Pennington, Director of Partner Strategy for Microsoft Cloud for Retail, are evangelists in this space. They are passionate about the need for employers to invest in technology that empowers frontline workers to increase their connection to the business and improve their engagement, productivity and efficiency.
“I am a retail guy,” Pennington said. “Retail wants to spend $6 on technology per user per year. They don’t see the value of technology to drive all their initiatives and goals. Companies are missing the boat on the minimum tech spend they need to move the needle.”
A Microsoft Work Trend Index special report on frontline workers and technology, published last year, found that frontline workers are at an inflection point. No one felt the burden of the disruption from the pandemic more than the two billion frontline workers around the globe. They’ve kept grocery stores stocked, ensured the power grid stayed up and running, provided essential healthcare services, and made and distributed the products the world depends on — all while weathering personal risk and ongoing disruption.
The Microsoft report found that frontline workers will consider a job change for better pay and benefits, work-life balance, and flexibility. Technology plays a big role in enabling all that. Plus, 63% of frontline workers are excited about the job opportunities that technology creates and technology ranks third on the list of factors that workers say could help reduce workplace stress, the Microsoft report shows.
“I think tools like Microsoft Teams and Viva allow companies to onboard employees quickly and integrate workers very quickly,” Pennington said. “If you don’t have tools and technologies that help you do your job – whether you work at McDonald’s or Home Depot, or installing windows or whatever, it’s difficult for workers to feel connected.”
Digital Tools Have High Impact
Technology options abound — mobile apps, wearables, instant messaging, video conferencing, assistive technology, real-time data and analytics, and much more. The key is selecting the right tools for the right environment.
When frontline employees are equipped with user-friendly, mobile-enabled technologies tailored to their specific environment, roles and workflows, there are many benefits:
- Improves productivity and efficiency. Digital tools provide quick access to information and automate manual processes so workers can accomplish more in less time.
- Increases engagement and job satisfaction. Workers feel more empowered and appreciated when given modern tools that make their jobs easier.
- Enhances customer service. Workers can access customer data instantly to resolve issues faster and deliver more personalized service.
- Boosts collaboration. Digital communication and file-sharing tools keep frontline teams connected and working together.
- Provides real-time performance insights. Data and analytics give frontline workers feedback to improve their work.
- Enables omnichannel support. Workers can seamlessly move between assisting customers via phone, email, chat, in-person and more.
- Improves training. Digital learning platforms allow quick onboarding and ongoing skills development.
The Devil’s in the Details
The challenge is giving frontline workers the right tools and connectivity and providing the training and support they need to adopt the technology and use it in the way it is intended.
Kyndryl looks at digital tools through three different lenses:
- This is having the right tools in the right place, such as the cloud-powered Microsoft 365 productivity platform, device management tools such as Microsoft Intune and Microsoft Teams for collaboration, which is especially important in frontline worker environments. And it all needs to run through a strong network, supported by Kyndryl services for 5G-enabled edge networks.
“This allows you to have people walking around a factory, a warehouse or wherever else people need to be, with necessary connectivity to communicate, get the data and information they need and receive and provide real-time answers with coworkers,” Xavier said.
- Visibility. This means having an all-in-one analytics solution, like Microsoft Fabric, that can handle everything from data movement to data science, real-time analytics and business intelligence.
- Connecting legacy systems with the right type of modern devices, such as portable small mobile computers, is critical so frontline workers can access what they need when and where they need it.
“That’s going to give them the capabilities that they need to interface with a core system so they can do time tracking, request services, access reports or do whatever they need,” Xavier said. “If we want a collaboration platform, like Teams, to be the front-end system for frontline workers, we need to be able to integrate with the organization’s core technologies that they use to run the business, but it needs to be available within your collaboration platform.”
Company-Issued Device vs. BYOD
The debate about whether employers should supply devices or employees should bring their own has been raging for years. There is no easy answer.
“I think it depends on industry,” Xavier said. “Retail, for example, is very different than manufacturing or healthcare. A big furniture retailer has their people on the floor using hand-held computers, but they don’t allow employees to bring their own devices. They want computers they control because they give them more insight into the custom capabilities of the manufacturer and [the ability] to see the health of the device. You can’t monitor as closely if someone brings their own Android device.”
Work complexity is also an issue. “If it is fairly simplistic work and the employees don’t mind using their own devices, that works for everybody. But if the work is more complex where more data can be exposed and the monitoring of the devices and the data must be more granular, then the company is much more likely to purchase specialized devices suited for that environment,” Xavier said.
Solving the User Adoption Problem
No matter how devices are supplied, the key to success is properly training frontline workers to optimally use the software.
Too often, companies favor a lot of information over context and application. It’s important not only to show workers how to use the technology but why they should use it. The adoption strategy also can’t be one-size-fits-all. It should be tailored to the demographics and work environment of the organization.
“The most effective thing I’ve ever seen done with adoption is through a day-in-the-life approach,” Xavier said. “Microsoft provides day-in-the-life presentations on using various tools in your job and the impact these tools can have on how you perform your job functions.”
“Let’s say I am an older person and I am using Teams and I need to ask someone a question and I have to walk down the hallway and go up the stairs to find someone in another room to get the answer. Or I could use the push-to-talk feature on the device and simply reach out to that person to get a quick answer, or if more detail is needed, I can ask someone to come down and show me what is needed.
“This illustrative approach puts everything in perspective so the employee understands the value of using the technology,” Xavier said. “Showing people the actions they would take during a day at their job really resonates with employees for all different generations in the workforce.”
Frontline employees are a company’s most valuable asset but often are overlooked when it comes to providing digital workplace tools. By prioritizing technology investments that target the unique needs of frontline workers, companies can significantly improve productivity, employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Future business success depends on creating a positive employee experience where the frontline workforce has the digital tools needed to do their best work each day.
Here are some strategies for HR leaders to keep in mind:
- Involve frontline workers in selection. Include input from workers on which tools would deliver the most value in their day-to-day work.
- Highlight benefits. Communicate how the technology will make specific aspects of their jobs easier to build enthusiasm.
- Conduct contextualized training. Understand how your employees learn and deliver training in ways that are likely to engage them. Depending on the situation, hands-on demos, day-in-the-life scenarios, videos and in-person sessions can all be effective. Avoid long, written documents that lack context.
- Appoint ambassadors. Identify tech-savvy frontline workers who can answer peer questions and promote adoption.
- Offer ongoing support. Have help desk staff available to troubleshoot issues and provide guidance on new features.
- Track adoption metrics. Gather data on technology usage rates and challenges impacting adoption.
- Solicit feedback. Survey frontline workers or hold focus groups to collect input on their technology experience and desired improvements.
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