Breaking new frontiers for frontline workers

Microsoft’s Anya Minbiole outlines how empowering employees can help retailers to boost workforce productivity and develop innovative customer experiences to ensure success in the rapidly evolving retail environment

Rebecca Gibson
Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson on 15 October 2021
Breaking new frontiers for frontline workers

Traditionally undervalued and underappreciated, the world’s two billion frontline workers have emerged as the true heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic over the past 18 months. Collectively, they have provided life-saving medical care to patients, continued to keep factories running to manufacture critical products, maintained vital delivery services, and kept retail stores operational to provide people with access to food and other essential goods.

Now that retailers have realised the pivotal role their frontline workers play across their entire supply chain and in the end-to-end customer experience, they are investing in empowering these employees with the tools and technologies they need to work more productively. For example, Microsoft and Harvard Business Review Analytics Services’ Building for Success at the Firstline of Business survey found that 78 per cent of executives said their organisations must connect and empower their frontline workers with technology and data to drive future success.

“The pandemic has made many people prioritise their personal well-being and statistics from the World Economic Forum show that 83 per cent of workers now rank ‘meaning’ as one of the three most important factors in their job,” says Anya Minbiole, global business strategy leader of worldwide retail and consumer goods at Microsoft. “We’ve seen through Microsoft WorkLab research that the key to boosting the well-being and resilience of employees is to give them a strong sense of purpose and control over their work experiences. This is particularly true for the mission-driven Generation Z workers that have recently joined the workforce and are now influencing their co-workers and customers.”

Consequently, it is critical that retailers provide employees with the tools, knowledge and information they need to work effectively, complete tasks efficiently, and make decisions that will enable them to better serve customers, says Minbiole. Retailers should also automate basic repetitive tasks to free up employees to engage in higher-value tasks, such as assisting customers.

“Being productive makes us feel empowered and increases the value we feel in our work, which leads to joy and resilience, but carrying out monotonous tasks – such as manually counting inventory or typing in data – detracts from this,” says Minbiole. “For example, Walmart Canada has invested in SES-imagotag’s Microsoft Azure-based VUSION Retail IoT Cloud platform to automate pricing and promotion management and introduce digital shelves at 328 stores. Prices and promotions are now updated automatically in store and online, which ensures customers see accurate and consistent pricing information. It also liberates employees from a cumbersome low-value task, allowing them to focus on customer service and merchandising, both of which are more satisfying and fulfilling.”

Faced by mandated store closures, strict health and safety restrictions, unpredictable shifts in customer demand and major disruptions to supply chains, retailers were forced to rapidly rethink their operational strategies to enable employees to remain productive and continue serving customers when the pandemic hit. Many turned to Microsoft Teams.

US-based office products and services provider Office Depot quickly deployed Teams and Microsoft 365 at the onset of the pandemic to enable teams to conceptualise, plan and execute a move from in-store shopping to kerbside pickup services in just 48 hours. It has since continued to use functionalities such as chat, video calls, Teams live meetings and Teams live events to improve communication and collaboration between nearly 20,000 associates at its 1,200 stores, as well as to conduct virtual store walk-throughs and facilitate employee training. Now that employees can work effectively and deliver consistently high levels of customer service, Office Depot’s customer satisfaction ratings have increased.

Microsoft has recently developed Teams capabilities that are specifically designed to make frontline workers more efficient and productive. One is Task publishing, which enables retailers to easily coordinate and manage store operations at scale from a central platform.

“Business leaders can assign tasks to entire teams at all stores or selected stores, or to specific individuals, and they can provide detailed instructions to ensure that jobs are completed correctly and on time,” explains Minbiole. “Employees can view their personalised task list in their Teams app and check off items when they are finished. Real-time analytics and reporting provide managers with end-to-end visibility into team performance, allowing them to identify opportunities for optimising operations and make more informed decisions.”

Grocer Chedraui, which operates almost 300 stores across Mexico and the US states of California, Arizona and Nevada, implemented Tasks publishing when it migrated 40,000 associates to Teams at the start of the pandemic. Previously, task management, document collaboration and communications took place in separate applications, but now managers use Tasks to set operational tasks, align store promotions and displays across multiple locations, and ensure employees have all the information they need to do their jobs. This has boosted productivity and operational efficiency.

Retailers also use the new Teams Shifts feature to streamline and automate staffing and schedule management via Teams. Swedish furniture company Ikea is already experimenting with Shifts at its flagship store in Stockholm as part of its recent implementation of Microsoft 365 and Teams. In the past, managers created paper schedules and pinned them to the office wall, then employees had to fill out different forms to request shift changes and leave, or call various colleagues if they were sick. Now, managers and employees can manage their workdays by using Teams Shifts on their smartphones. Ikea has calculated that implementing Shifts could save SEK364,000 ($37,700) in the flagship store alone.

“There has been a decade’s worth of transformation in retail since the start of the pandemic, with retailers having to invest in tools such as Teams to improve frontline productivity and overcome the challenges of the pandemic and the shortage of workers,” says Minbiole. “The number of daily active Teams users has doubled since the start of the pandemic and almost trebled year over year. And now, with shoppers returning to stores, retailers are exploring how they can use digital technologies to automate stores, introduce new payment models, establish omnichannel retail, and more.”

However, to enable such innovation, retailers must first implement a robust system for securely capturing and analysing customer and product data, advises Minbiole. “Data must be at the core of everything retailers do and, once they have the capabilities to collate and mine it for actionable insights, they can implement a myriad of different applications – such as Microsoft Teams, HoloLens, Dynamics 365 for Customer Service – to empower their employees and optimise operations. For example, with full access to customer data and the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, retailers can quickly personalise customer interactions.”

Designed to consolidate disparate data sources via a common data model, the new Microsoft Cloud for Retail platform helps retailers to unlock actionable insights for optimising existing operational processes, introducing new services, and delivering seamless personalised customer and employee experiences across the end-to-end shopping journey.

“The Microsoft Cloud for Retail is one of several new industry cloud offerings from Microsoft. It offers capabilities specific to retail, including new industry-specific integrations between Microsoft Cloud products and third-party systems,” says Minbiole. “Our independent software vendors are fine-tuning those digital capabilities by building their own software that connects to the Microsoft Cloud for Retail so retail organisations can store and access critical data using the latest in productivity technology. Meanwhile, our systems integrator partners are creating customised solutions based on the Microsoft Cloud for Retail to meet each organisation’s very specific requirements.”

Minbiole predicts that platforms such as Teams and Microsoft Cloud for Retail, as well as technologies like AI and machine learning, will provide an ideal foundation for retailers to continue innovating and exploring new ways to empower employees to become more productive and deliver enhanced customer experiences over the coming years. “We’re already seeing new ideas coming from all corners of the earth that have the potential to enhance both the employee and customer experience,” she says. 

Minbiole references Stockholm-based start-up Lifvs, which leverages AI technology to remotely run a chain of small contactless, employee-less 24/7 convenience stores in rural areas of Sweden. Customers use the Lifvs mobile app to unlock the stores and purchase items by scanning their barcodes. The app also provides relevant recipe suggestions, bundle deals and personalised promotional offers.

“Technology tracks stock levels and sell-by dates in real time, and a member of staff visits the store every other day to restock the shelves,” says Minbiole. “It’s a great example showing how retailers could rethink the way they use human capital to provide services to customers. A frontline worker may spend most of their day assisting customers in person, and also get on Teams to help people navigate the store remotely. This can increase the employee’s sense of purpose because they quickly broaden their work experience, and create better customer experiences.”

It may also lead to the emergence of the omnichannel retail associate. “For years, omnichannel retail has promised to break down barriers between our physical and online shopping experiences and the pandemic accelerated these expectations,” says Minbiole. “Retailers have adapted admirably by investing in new technologies and introducing new services, but the pandemic highlighted that many frontline workers still lack insight into supply chains, real-time inventory data, customer information and much more. Retailers must now invest to ensure these employees have the tools, skills and data they need to deliver truly omnichannel retail experiences.

“Of course, the success of true omnichannel retail depends on more than just employee enablement, but one is not possible without the other because they are two sides of the same coin. Microsoft and our partners are committed to help retailers develop the innovative technologies and solutions that will enable them to achieve this goal.”

Partner perspectives
We ask selected Microsoft partners how they are leveraging Microsoft technologies to help retailers empower their employees, boost productivity and deliver compelling customer services. Below are extracts from their responses, which you can read in full from page 188 of the digital edition of the Autumn 2021 issue of Technology Record.

Sebastien Roques-Shaw, vice president of EMEA sales and partnerships at Solgari, said: “Solgari is meeting retailer’s needs with Converse, our all-channel communication solution. Converse extends and enhances Microsoft’s out-of-the-box omnichannel capabilities with voice, SMS, WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger and Chat functionality.”

Eric Anderson, chief revenue officer at Optimizely, said: “Our platform and team of experts can help retailers to optimise their sales push so every touchpoint is personalised, making it easier to lead customers to the buy button.”

Derrick Villenueve, chairman and director of strategy at Davyn, said: “Davyn is investing in the flexibility and cost efficiency of the Microsoft Power Platform, particularly its low-code capabilities, to help retail businesses streamline organisational processes.”

Iryna Moiseyeva, CEO of Cloud Services, said: “We help with Azure cloudnative solutions, the implementation of which helps to decrease costs and gives an opportunity to deploy various customer digital experience tools to grow sales and attract client attention to the retail brand.”

Mikey Abts, director of inside sales for enterprise at Nintex, said: “Many of our customers across the retail and consumer packaged goods sector are leveraging Nintex for SharePoint and Nintex for Office 365 to create holistic solutions to solve specific business problems with automation.”

Melissa Topp, senior director of global marketing at ICONICS, said: “ICONICS worked with a building and service provider for mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems to provide a Microsoft Azure-based building performance and monitoring system for one of America’s largest used car retailers.”

Magnus Mjøsund, vice president of product at Decisions, said: “Decisions extends Microsoft Teams with a meeting management solution that integrates into the existing collaborative Teams experience.”

Guillaume Portier, executive vice president of global partner management at SES-Imagotag, said: “Serving over 300 large retailers around the world in Europe, Asia, and America, SESimagotag provides the VUSION Retail IoT platform, which runs on the Microsoft Azure cloud.”  

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2021 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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