Over the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a technological transformation for many office-based workers, forcing them to change work habits and rely on videoconferencing and collaboration software to get their jobs done.
Now it's time to focus on frontline workers, 41 per cent of whom don’t have access to the technology they need, according to Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index Special Report on Frontline Workers. Based on a global survey of 9,600 frontline workers in eight countries across eight industries who can't work remotely, the research is designed to help business leaders navigate the changing workplace.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for modern work at Microsoft, said in a briefing last week that the company has generally focused on "information workers," but wants to extend that focus to frontline workers; they represent more than 80 per cent of the global workforce, or around 2 billion people worldwide.
“At Microsoft, our mission is much broader than just information workers; we really are focused on empowering every person in every organisation across the planet to achieve more,” Spataro said.
That's important, said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst for workplace transformation at CCS Insight, because technology has been a major plus for frontline workers during the pandemic.
“What the pandemic did was expose the importance of this large group of workers to their businesses," Ashenden said. "They were often the one thing that kept businesses going, and often bore the brunt of the pandemic from a business standpoint, whether through not being able to work remotely, or being exposed to the virus more through their job."
Frontline workers include those on the front lines in retail, manufacturing, hospitality, and healthcare.
The Microsoft survey highlighted a number of challenges — with the need to balance employee well-being with business growth a big issue; 51% of those surveyed said those in non-management positions on the frontline don’t feel valued, while 58% believe work-related stress will stay the same or worsen in 2022.
Companies dependent on frontline workers are not immune to the Great Resignation, which has seen a record number of employees quit jobs in search of better opportunities. Much like their office-based peers, frontline workers cite better pay, work-life balance, benefits, and flexibility as top reasons for considering a job change. Data from LinkedIn found that of the eight industries Microsoft surveyed, seven have now exceeded pre-pandemic hiring levels.
Despite the challenges facing frontline workers, many of those surveyed remain optimistic that technology can improve their day-to-day experience on the job. When asked what could help reduce worker stress, technology ranked behind pay and PTO and ahead of wellbeing benefits. Furthermore, 63 per cent said they are excited about the job opportunities technology has created.
“There's unprecedented stress and [Microsoft] believes that you could actually do better by prioritising [frontline] employees,” Spataro said. “In other words, we would say that a strong frontline means a better bottom line. We think that aligning the business with the needs of employees is actually going to produce not only happier, better employees, but really better business outcomes.”
Along with overall optimism, many respondents cited technology-related concerns: 46 per cent said they fear job loss if they don't adapt to new tech, and 55 per cent said they had to learn to use new technologies at work without being given formal training.
Ashenden said that a major issue is that tech innovation over the past 20 years has largely focused on desk-based employees, especially when it comes to productivity and collaboration. As a result, frontline workers' tools have not evolved and are often out-dated.
“Some businesses get around this by cobbling together technologies themselves or trying to adapt technologies designed for desk-based workers," she said, "but it's only now that we're seeing focused investment by major tech players like Microsoft to provide tailored, off-the-shelf solutions that are specifically designed for this group of workers.
“The increased awareness and understanding that the pandemic brought about has reinforced the appetite for businesses to invest in these solutions."
Productivity and the role of Microsoft Teams
While conducting the survey, Microsoft looked at productivity patterns and how Microsoft Teams is increasingly being used as a communication hub. Telemetry data shows that between March 2020 and November 2021, the monthly use of Microsoft Teams on the frontline grew 400 per cent.
Although platforms like Teams were not necessarily developed with frontline workers in mind, many non-desk-based employees use tools traditionally seen in the office. For example, remote assistance applications allow workers to provide support to customers and partners without actually being in person, and virtual meeting technology lets sales people stay connected with customers — even accelerating sales cycles by allowing them to do more customer calls each day.
As for worker concerns about training, Ashenden said that's not a problem just for frontline workers. “There's often an assumption that the tools are intuitive enough that people will work out for themselves how to use them, or that they will learn from their peers," she said. "In practice, this means that the organisation will struggle to get the full value from the technology through a lack of process and consistency.
"It also risks employees getting frustrated and, therefore, adoption is limited. This is when you end up with employees looking for other, 'better' alternatives, which they consider better meet their needs more effectively, and application fragmentation worsens.”
With that in mind, Microsoft this week announced updates to its Viva and Microsoft Teams platforms targeted at frontline roles.
The Microsoft Teams Walkie Talkie app will now be available on Zebra, Crosscall and, HMD Global’s Nokia devices, allowing workers to have a high-tech, push-to-talk walkie talkies, regardless of the device they're using.
Microsoft also added virtual appointments in Teams, providing real-time updates on wait times, missed appointments, and staffing delays.
The Viva Connections app in Microsoft Teams now has integrations with strategic partners like Workday and Expressive, allowing easier access to important resources and putting payroll and HR resources in one location. And updates to the Viva Learning app enable frontline employees to discover, share, and track learning content within Teams for more consistent training across the workplace.
Ashenden said it's important that Microsoft sees frontline workers as a strategic group in its product development strategy, not just a one-off opportunity.
“We've seen that with the trickle of new features for this audience over the last couple of years, not just in Teams but also in Dynamics 365 applications, and the investment in the Work Index research to understand frontline worker sentiment...,” she said.
“It's great to see the Viva product team now addressing this group, as well," Ashenden said. "Microsoft's approach with all these tools is to enable businesses to implement one solution for every type of worker — information worker or frontline — building in tailored experiences and features to support the different groups.
"This helps avoid the technical divide between frontline workers and information workers, especially when it comes to connecting, communicating and knowledge sharing across the organisation."