From smart factories to remote field service, the pandemic has accelerated manufacturers’ investment in digital tools to enable new ways of working.
But often, the workers using these tools are struggling to keep pace. In Microsoft’s recent Work Trend Index survey, 36 per cent of frontline workers said they didn’t have the right tools or technology to do their jobs effectively and 54 per cent said they’ve had to adapt to using digital tools on the fly, with no formal training.
“Frontline workers – from the factory floor to those providing on-site services for customers – are the backbone of manufacturing,” says Abid Chaudhry, senior product marketing manager for Microsoft 365 and Teams at Microsoft. “These deskless workers need the same capabilities as information workers: real-time communication and collaboration, automated processes and workflows that boost productivity, and upskilling opportunities that empower them to adapt quickly to change. But often, the digital fabric of the organisation doesn’t quite cover them. Manufacturers require secure, scalable ways to provide the tools that these employees need in a way that is relevant to the work they do. We’ve developed tools to enable everything related to people’s work to be done through a single interface – from digitalised clock-in and clock-out to shift management, prioritised task assignment, knowledge-sharing, learning and social interactions. For instance, the Updates app in Microsoft Teams enables people to create, submit and review updates to employees via chat or a Teams channel.”
Microsoft 365 and Cloud for Manufacturing (currently available in preview) are designed to help do that. By migrating to the cloud and adopting Microsoft 365, for example, international furniture manufacturer USM provided a modern workplace where its employees can collaborate with fast, uncomplicated communication and new levels of flexibility, no matter what kind of device or operating system they use. All communications are now conducted entirely via Microsoft Teams and the intranet, enabling a single app to support internal chat, telephony, data transfer and other functions. Meanwhile dedicated channels for apps, SharePoint and security mean that everyone knows where to ask questions and receive answers.
In this industry, hardware can be as critical as software in enabling safe processes that reflect the way workers operate. “On factory tours, we’ve seen frontline workers wearing toolbelts crammed with devices including pagers, cell phones and walkie-talkies,” says Chaudhry. “It was clear how much frontline manufacturing workers value push-to-talk communication, so we worked with partners like Zebra Technologies to include a push-to-talk button for the Microsoft Teams Walkie Talkie app on ruggedised mobile devices.
“For workers whose hands are already full, Dynamics 365 Guides and Remote Assist, coupled with Microsoft HoloLens devices, can be used to provide hands-free, on-the-job guidance, training and collaboration. And our alliance with RealWear has brought access to Teams through head-mounted displays, so workers can seamlessly communicate with remote colleagues while working safely.”
Combining Teams with Microsoft Power Platform and Power Apps also empowers workers to be proactive in driving new processes. “Frontline managers are leveraging the what-you-see-is-what-you-get capability of Power Platform and Power Apps to create custom low-code and no-code applications, which sit within Teams and enable new processes on the factory floor or for service technicians visiting customer sites,” says Chaudhry. “That has helped many manufacturers get through the worst of the last couple of years and it holds huge potential for the future.”
It's a strategy that looks beyond the tools and knowledge people need today, to foster a sense of community and purpose that opens new paths for continual learning and upskilling.
“Digital transformation extends to the way we think about training itself,” says Chaudhry. “A frontline culture where all employees have the skills and training to succeed and feel like they can balance productivity with personal well-being is critical to drive the future of manufacturing. Tools like the Praise function in Teams and Yammer Communities, for instance, create a two-way communication path so employees know they are being heard and appreciated.”
Creating that culture was important for Blum, a manufacturer of kitchen furniture fittings. It chose Microsoft Viva to centralise company news, tasks and conversations so frontline workers, who had previously relied on supervisors and a noticeboard for important updates, had a consistent, accessible connection to the larger company. Now, workers can use Viva Connections on the factory floor for anything from messaging colleagues to reserving time off, reviewing payslips and ordering snacks for breaks. They can quickly reach the person in charge if they have a question or need to report an incident. Using the system for social connections also helps them to build communities around shared activities and deepen their understanding of each other’s jobs.
Viva Connections is one of four Microsoft Viva modules that enable workers to access in-context information, role-based learning paths and interactive, virtual training sessions on the same interface they use for everything else. With Viva Learning, for instance, companies can digitise and consolidate historical technical documentation along with guidance on how to use new equipment. Meanwhile Viva Insights can help them use their data to drive employee engagement, increase retention and foster inclusion in a way that balances productivity with well-being.
“This is about making sure the entire workforce is included as part of the organisation’s Industry 4.0 transformation journey,” says Chaudhry. “It’s a matter of creating interactive environments so that people can use the same software they work with to learn about what’s happening in the organisation. With all the elements of productivity, knowledge-sharing and upskilling brought together on a single interface, manufacturing workers can do their jobs, reach their colleagues, learn about the company and develop their skills in a way that feels as familiar as a consumer app. These capabilities are critical for manufacturers to attract, retain and retrain a modern workforce.”
A variety of Microsoft partners also contributed to this feature: ICONICS, Augury, RealWear, Zebra Technologies and Infosys. Read about how they are helping manufacturers to transform communication, knowledge sharing and upskilling across the workforce.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.