Why is it critical for retailers to prioritise frontline workers?

Why is it critical for retailers to prioritise frontline workers?

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Microsoft’s Anya Minbiole explains how equipping frontline workers with technologies that enable them to communicate, collaborate and streamline their tasks helps retailers to optimise operations, boost productivity, drive sales and improve customer experiences

Rebecca Gibson |

Jenifer Hart has to juggle multiple time-sensitive responsibilities in her role as a multi-brand beauty advisor for L’Oréal Luxe, a division of beauty company L'Oréal. Not only does she have a busy customer-facing role at a store in England, but she also creates and delivers educational content for other beauty advisors in the UK. 

In the past, Hart had to switch between various platforms to manage her daily tasks, access critical information and communicate with other beauty advisors and head office about training, product launches, merchandising, promotions and more. This was time-consuming, stressful and open to errors. Now that L’Oréal has migrated to Microsoft Teams, Hart can do everything from one device via one platform, which has simplified her job role and freed up time for her to do the task she cares most about: delivering a great customer service. 

According to Microsoft’s business strategy leader for retail and consumer goods Anya Minbiole, this is the type of experience that all retailers should deliver to their frontline workers, particularly now that supply chain disruptions, the rising cost of goods, labour shortages and other factors are forcing them to do more with less. However, while many aspire to achieve this aim, most have yet to take the steps to do so. Avanade’s 2022 global workplace study, for example, suggests that 67 per cent of retailers are yet to achieve parity between the experiences they offer frontline and information workers.  

“Historically, retailers have focused on equipping knowledge workers with tools and data insights but haven’t devoted the same attention to their frontline staff,” says Minbiole. “This is primarily because high turnover rates, the transient nature of the tasks they carry out and the lack of access to their own secure device makes it difficult for retailers to equip frontline workers with a digital identity.”  

The pandemic has forced many to reconsider their current approach and take steps to reduce frontline inequity. 

“We’ve always had minor issues with things such as poor communication, labour shortages and supply chains, but when the pandemic brought multiple shocks to the system simultaneously, they suddenly became major challenges that threatened retailers’ ability to remain operational,” says Minbiole.  

“Retailers discovered they couldn’t easily communicate with all their frontline employees, which made it difficult to disseminate essential information, share product and inventory updates, manage staff absences and shift changes, and more. Employees were also taking on unfamiliar roles and didn’t know how to access critical information to complete tasks, which negatively impacted the customer experience. The predominant reason for this is that retailers didn’t have the right technology in place.” 

Avanade’s global workplace study indicates that only 30 per cent of retail respondents have implemented a virtualised workplace platform to enable employees to access applications and data from anywhere, via any device. Meanwhile, just 35 per cent have embraced cloud-based platforms, AI and automation to simplify knowledge sharing. And only 39 per cent of retailers globally have streamlined their employee experience ecosystem and workplace applications.  

Yet, Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index shows that 63 per cent of frontline workers are “excited” about the new opportunities digital technologies could create. More than one-third suggest that technology could be used to improve shift scheduling, onboard new team members, automate basic in-store tasks and deliver real-time task updates.  

“Frontline workers are overwhelmed, and they can’t afford to waste time completing basic, repetitive tasks that could easily be automated,” says Minbiole. “Instead, frontline workers need to be free to engage in high-value tasks, such as providing personalised assistance to customers, which will boost their productivity and job satisfaction.”  

Simplify and streamline 

Microsoft offers multiple tools and technologies that are designed to help frontline staff to work more efficiently, productively and collaboratively.  

Microsoft Cloud for Retail, for instance, consolidates disparate data sources via a common data model and provides industry-specific integrations between Microsoft Cloud products and third-party applications. One of the latest additions to the platform is Store Operations Assist. “This gives managers and frontline workers access to all the information they need to complete day-to-day activities in physical stores,” says Minbiole.  

Microsoft Teams also offers multiple applications, including Tasks, to help leadership teams coordinate and manage store operations at scale from one central platform.  

UK-based fashion brand River Island, for instance, has replaced its multi-step process for allocating tasks across more than 300 physical stores by adopting Tasks in Teams underpinned by Microsoft Planner and Microsoft To Do. Now, head office can share a list of tasks for store managers to delegate to their team members, who will each receive a personalised task list in their Teams app. They can tick items once they have been completed, while store managers can monitor progress using real-time analytics dashboards. 

River Island also uses the Shifts feature to streamline and automate staffing and schedule management via Teams. Other notable Shifts users include US-based jewellery lifestyle brand Kendra Scott, UK-based firm Boots Opticians, and Swedish furniture company Ikea, which predicts that the app could save SEK364,000 ($35,490) in its flagship store in Stockholm alone. 

“Frontline workers are constantly switching between various tasks and interacting with different customers throughout the day, so digital technology must be seamlessly integrated into their workflow to be useful and effective,” says Minbiole. “Being able to access multiple applications directly from within Teams makes it easy for workers to communicate and collaborate while fulfilling their daily tasks and delivering enhanced customer experiences.” 

Building a better culture 

Retailers can also use digital technology to create an inclusive and supportive culture where frontline workers can grow and thrive.  

“Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index highlights that 51 per cent of employees in non-management positions do not feel valued as employees and that 62 per cent of frontline workers think leadership teams don’t prioritise building a workplace culture,” says Minbiole. “Retailers are missing a trick here – when they actively engage frontline workers and give them a sense of purpose, they become more motivated. This often translates to them delivering better customer experiences, driving greater sales and more.”  

Microsoft Viva, which can be accessed from within Teams, brings together communications, knowledge, insights and resources in one integrated platform to help retailers create a thriving workplace culture. Features include Viva Engage, which offers a Storylines tab where employees can showcase work and share and celebrate personal updates, as well as a Leadership Corner that facilitates two-way conversations between leaders and their teams. Leaders can create dedicated campaign pages to drive key initiatives and also start Ask Me Anything events to enable all employees to join inclusive, virtual ‘town hall’ meetings.  

“Viva Engage bridges the gap between leadership, desk-based and frontline workers, providing an inclusive social space where everyone can interact, join company-wide discussions, celebrate successes and more,” says Minbiole. “It strengthens bonds between colleagues, makes individuals feel like they’re playing an active role in shaping the future of the organisation, and ensures they feel valued when their hard work is recognised.” 

Frontline workers can also use Viva applications to upskill and share knowledge with co-workers. Viva Learning, for instance, enables them to complete required and recommended training, while the Answers tab allows them to ask questions, crowdsource knowledge from across the organisation and connect with subject matter experts. 

“If an employee is struggling to complete a task, they can quickly find the answer they need or directly contact a knowledgeable co-worker to resolve the issue and continue working productively,” says Minbiole. “They can also use Viva to share feedback that may help others.” 

Powerful partnerships  

Microsoft is collaborating with its extensive ecosystem of partners to ensure its tools and technologies reach the hands of every retail employee. One such partner is digital, cloud and advisory services provider Avanade.  

“Together we’re capturing workplace insights from leading retailers and analysing them to design key experiences around moments that matter most to employees,” says Minbiole. “This covers everything from improving employee well-being to communication, knowledge sharing, onboarding, upskilling, and task and shift management.” 

In addition, Microsoft is working with multiple partners, such as software and hardware provider Zebra Technologies and UKG, which supplies human resources and workforce management solutions.  

“We’re delivering apps such as Teams Walkie Talkie on Zebra’s rugged mobile devices to help workers communicate easily while they’re in store, and we’ve integrated Teams with Zebra’s Reflexis Workforce Management solutions to streamline shift scheduling,” says Minbiole. “Similarly, Microsoft has collaborated with UKG to embed its Workforce Management solution into Shifts, enabling users to view, swap and accept shifts, request leave, view and log their hours and complete other scheduling tasks directly from Teams.” 

A holistic approach 

These are just a few of the many innovations Microsoft is developing in collaboration with partners. However, Minbiole cautions retailers against investing in such solutions too hastily.  

“If they want to truly optimise operations and improve employee and customer experiences, retailers must first set out a clear corporate vision with key goals and metrics,” says Minbiole. “They should ask themselves what differentiates their brand from the competition, what types of customer and employee experiences they want to offer, how they see physical and online stores evolving, and many other similar questions. Next, they should identify the barriers and operational challenges they need to overcome to achieve these goals, and then explore how they can use digital technologies to achieve these aims.  

“The important thing is to ensure that every system, device, platform, tool and person is seamlessly connected across the organisation.” 

Happy employees lead to happy customers 

Retailers have spent decades focusing on optimising the customer experience but are now realising that investing to improve the frontline workers’ experience means they are ultimately investing in enhancing the customer experience too. 

“The frontline worker role extends across the entire retail value chain and every individual plays a pivotal role in determining the customer experience and driving a retailer’s bottom line,” says Minbiole. “We know that a welcoming environment, the right products and friendly, knowledgeable staff are key ingredients to a successful retail experience. Together with our partners, Microsoft is empowering store associates with tools, data and insights so they can work more efficiently, deliver better customer experiences, drive sales and much more, all while feeling more motivated, fulfilled and valued.”  

Partner perspectives 

We asked a range of Microsoft partners how they are using Microsoft technologies to help retailers drive greater productivity, job satisfaction and collaboration for their employees. 

“Modern technology gives retail organisations an opportunity to empower their frontline workers with the tools they need to be more productive, collaborative and connected. Microsoft 365, Microsoft Teams and collaboration applications are among the most effective tools for achieving this goal,” says Maruthi Rao Gadde, principal technology architect for digital workplace at Infosys.    

“Businesses in the retail sector are relying on Microsoft Teams, which offers rich multimedia collaboration experiences that allow hybrid and remote teams to work effectively with their customers, global suppliers and their colleagues,” says Hilary Oliver, chief marketing and experience officer at Tollring.   

“Leading retailers are prioritising technologies that make the employee experience simple, powerful and effective. Many times, the quickest and biggest gains can be achieved by evolving the systems employees use every day,” says Robert Klitsch, industry principal and marketing director at UKG.    

“Retail teams are constantly on the move in fast-paced, noisy environments, driving the need for  better tools to streamline communications and help workers to do their jobs effectively,” says Nigel Dunn, managing director for EMEA North at Jabra. 

Read more from these partners, as well as Avanade, isolved, RSM US, Synergy Technical and Zebra Technologies, in the Spring 2023 issue of Technology Record.  

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