During the pandemic, when the working world was split between those who can perform their jobs from home and those who cannot, our eyes were opened to the vital and heroic ways that frontline workers kept society moving: Think of the clamor on early pandemic evenings, when people stood on patios and front stoops, banging pots in honor of healthcare workers returning from their shifts. At the same time, frontline work itself transformed to a degree never before seen. From curbside pickup and virtual consultations, to drone-based search-and-rescue operations and remote expert assistance, the pandemic unlocked newfound flexibility in how and where frontline workers can connect with customers and patients. It also created new opportunities for business transformation across every industry.

“Just like those working in offices, the world’s more than 2 billion frontline workers need to be able to connect and collaborate across their organizations,” says Emma Williams, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Office Modern Workplace Transformation. “An information worker is someone who uses information to make decisions about processes and then collects information to iterate and improve those processes. We see frontline workers as fundamentally the same, only more mobile.”

And as a mobile workforce, frontline workers need tools designed specifically for the unique demands of their jobs. “Frontline workers are like the original hybrid workers, since they’ve always been combining technology with onsite work,“ points out Kristina Behr, Microsoft’s Vice President of Product Management for Frontline Workers and Industry. “Retail clerks, people on a manufacturing floor, people in mining—their work involves complex industrial processes that, more and more, require a robust ecosystem of tech applications.”

As businesses begin to reinvent themselves for a hybrid world, leaders are finding new ways to equip frontline workers with the flexibility and tools they’ve long gone without.

Retail workers find new ways to connect with customers and corporate

Canadian Tire, a retailer with more than 500 stores, has always been a predominately brick-and-mortar operation. When the first wave of COVID shutdowns happened in March 2020, workers needed new ways to safely connect with customers—and they needed them right away. So Canadian Tire shifted, practically overnight, to a hybrid model that integrated a new online ecommerce platform with in-person curbside service that limited customer-worker contact.

Sales instantly spiked. To scale up and shift quickly from in-store to online sales, the company teamed up with Microsoft and partners on cloud-based solutions that allow workers to easily communicate with their customers about everything from order updates to their place in the curbside queue. In the end, Canadian Tire was able to provide a better experience to more people, all while putting worker health and safety first. “We’ve had rave reviews from our customers about the great experience using our curbside pickup at the store,” says Paul Medeiros, the associate dealer and owner of a Canadian Tire megastore in Niagara Falls, Ontario. “They’re blown away by the communication and the level of service they’re getting via Teams, and the resulting trust means more overall shopping with Canadian Tire.”

The central operations team at Boots Opticians had also long relied on a decidedly old-school approach to communicating essential messages to its thousands of workers providing eye exams, glasses, and contact lenses across the United Kingdom. A monthly action plan went out to more than 500 core and franchise Boots locations, at which time store managers would transfer it to a calendar, print it out, and disseminate it to retail staff—often on paper. Boots store managers struggled to ensure that essential communications went out to every employee and that important follow-up actions were completed.

When the pandemic spurred Boots to accelerate its digital transformation, the improvements were immediate. By distributing the monthly action plan using task publishing in Microsoft Teams, Boots employees suddenly had a centralized and prioritized checklist that could be easily tailored to each location. Employees could receive notifications across any device, a critical capability for on-the-go workers who rarely sit in front of a desktop computer but often have a smartphone or wearable device. If a task was urgent, it stood out and was checked off when it was done—and everything could be monitored and updated at the corporate and store levels without requiring a regional manager or corporate employee to be physically onsite.

John Peterson, a Boots store manager, says it’s all so much simpler now. “Using the Teams app on my phone, I’m able to assign tasks to different colleagues within the store, check when tasks are completed, and visualize how employees are progressing as new tasks come through.”

Rescue workers save lives on the fly

The nature of frontline work often means figuring out new tools on the fly, as is the case with seasonal workers. “Think about what happens during the holidays, when a retail store’s employee population doubles and customer service demand is very high,” says Tulsi Keshkamat, Microsoft’s Product Leader for Frontline Workers in Modern Workplace Transformations. “In the past you’d think, how do you onboard someone quickly? Now we have tools that speed up the process.”

Frontline workers who linked a livestream of drone footage to Teams were able to speed up search-and-rescue operations—and save lives.
Illustration by Justin Metz

Those tools were on full display when firefighters, medics, and search-and-rescue specialists from Wisconsin’s Western Lakes Fire District upgraded their communications infrastructure several years ago. The process began with migrating to Microsoft 365 for better collaboration and coordination. Microsoft Teams helped the district liaise with other fire districts, share training and operations information, and make decisions in real time across a 215-square-mile region.

But the aha moment came with adding a livestream of drone footage to Teams, which could then be monitored on tablets, phones, or mobile data terminals from emergency vehicles, Incident Command Posts, or onsite.

When a young boy went missing in a state park, “the use of the drone with Teams allowed that four-year-old to be found much faster than by personnel walking through the park shoulder to shoulder—three times faster than what we achieved in training missions without the drone,” says Fire Chief Brad Bowen.

Having the right information at the right time is more than a convenience—it can save lives, adds Deputy Chief Brad Ingersoll. “Instead of searching for a missing hiker for five or six hours, I can go right to him using cell phone GPS coordinates in my drone, and in 20 minutes we’re taking him out of the woods and getting him to help.”

Healthcare workers discover new paths to patient care

Nowhere has frontline digitization had a more dramatic transformation in the COVID era than in healthcare. With so many people confined to their homes, and increasing concerns about physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, a new paradigm emerged almost overnight between caregivers and patients. As in-person visits became impractical or impossible, frontline workers had to adapt along with their tools, their methods, and their mindsets.

“This massive push into telemedicine forced a rethink of everything, from the way we keep medical records to creating a doctor visit,” Behr says. A digital patient experience now starts with a waiting room and continues through the medical exam and follow-ups—“virtually mirroring an in-person experience.”

Such changes created all kinds of unexpected consequences. Behr points to an oncologist from the National Health Service who shared with her that digitization has improved her day-to-day practice and is boosting overall results. “She told me that patients are frequently more relaxed discussing treatment options from home in a safe space with other family members and the dog nearby.”

Just like those working in offices, the world’s more than 2 billion frontline workers need to be able to connect and collaborate across their organizations.

These systems of engagement aren’t new. Information workers have been relying on chat, text, and video for decades. But incorporating more of these tools into frontline protocols fills a gap where technology was too often underutilized or ignored completely. That can have ripple effects. For example, the same video consultation software that ramped up in use this year among healthcare providers also found an audience in retail. Video is now a go-to for retail workers at REI, for instance, who use it to give at-home customers expert advice through virtual outfitting.

These are just a few examples of how organizations are finding new ways to equip and empower frontline workers. Just like with information workers, flexibility and the right tools are critical components to success. But if the pandemic has taught leaders anything, it’s to remember to put people—all people—at the center of every decision they make. “All of your employees—your information workers and your frontline workers—when they feel valued with the right tools to do their jobs, with the right culture to support them, when they feel trusted, their job satisfaction goes up,” Williams says. “They perform better and they’re more loyal. And your business’s bottom line results get better too.”

Want to learn more? Watch Emma Williams talk Frontline Workers with WorkLab Live host Elise Hu.