At IKEA’s flagship store in Stockholm, Sweden, Nadja Soto Huurre oversees a group of 150 employees. For years, she says, the task of coordinating her employees was as sprawling as one of the company’s blue box stores. She communicated to her team by text message. Schedules were still posted on the office wall, as they were for decades.

But a switch to Microsoft Teams quickly changed all that. Suddenly, the group could chat back and forth on a shared platform. Their schedules were at their fingertips.

“Employees of today want more control. And the availability,” Huurre says, “is perfect.”

As the pandemic response continues to evolve worldwide, the pressing need to put technology in the hands of all workers stretches everywhere from furniture stores to hospitals to construction sites. Just like those in offices, the world’s more than 2 billion frontline workers need to be able to connect and collaborate across their organizations. They need tools that help keep everyone safe and healthy. They need—and deserve—the same efficiencies their knowledge-worker counterparts gain from streamlining business processes, from scheduling to invoicing to sharing content.

Shift workers are already technologically proficient but often stuck with ancient systems and tools.

For companies like Microsoft, the public health crisis threw this need into sharp relief. The challenge—and the opportunity—today is to find the best ways for technology to help this huge and underserved market: to transform frontline work by building a digital front end. At Microsoft, Emma Williams has been leading the company’s effort to adapt its services to the unique needs of employees on the front lines, embedding teams in critical industries to understand how to adapt these tech tools for frontline workers’ vital needs.

The team shadows workers for hours at a time as they stock shelves or make their rounds checking on patients. They observe how workers interact with one another and the public, when they need information and how they get it. Befitting her background as an academic who studied Viking mythologies, Williams works to ensure that the research is grounded in real-life narratives.

“I don’t come with a traditional computer science background,” she says with a trace of an Irish accent. “For me, it’s always like, ‘What is that hero’s arc of what you’re trying to achieve?’ In every story, you begin with a hero who faces a challenge. And I look at this and think, ‘What is that nurse doing?’ She’s on her feet for a 12-hour shift in a massive hospital, and that’s her day, moving on her feet all day long. What are the challenges she’s facing? How can we actually help her slay some of those dragons?”

Microsoft researchers shadowed retail workers for hours at a time to learn how software originally designed for office-based workers could bring benefits on the front lines.

With this human-centered approach, Williams and her team have been able over time to learn the needs of these frontline workers and identify the “pain points” they face in their jobs.

Among the insights they’ve gained: These shift workers are already technologically proficient but often stuck with ancient systems and tools.

“Everyone has these very, very high-powered computer devices called phones in their hands,” Williams says. “But then they’re expected to come to work and push paper.”

A Strained Belt

Williams found a genuine thirst for more sophisticated, digital tools on the frontline—and with good reason. Many frontline workers were laboring under technological circumstances that bordered on the absurd.

Williams recalls a worker she saw in a big-box retail store. On his belt the employee hung his personal cell phone, a price scanner, a pager, and a walkie-talkie.

“I was just looking at him and thinking, ‘I don’t know how his pants stay up,’” Williams says. “It’s just ridiculous. We say, ‘You don't have to worry about that anymore.’”

Microsoft built a digital pager system for Teams that pings every two minutes until the recipient picks it up. The company developed a walkie-talkie system as well, but this one is digital and secure to avoid interference from police scanners and emergency services, not to mention hackers. “And just imagine this,” Williams says. “Now instead of all those devices on that young man’s belt, he’s got one: It's his personal phone, and it has everything.”

In hospitals, her team found workers using personal messaging apps to communicate with colleagues in other parts of the building. A nurse might send the X-ray of a broken leg to a colleague over the same app they use to talk to family and friends.

She repeatedly saw workers being forced to use their phones to photograph shift schedules posted in the break room.

But unbeknownst to the nurse, that message was a major privacy violation. The patient’s health information was now stored on the nurse’s phone and in the cloud, both of which exposed the hospital to major privacy breaches.

Eventually, Williams realized that it was privacy concerns that ultimately drove the hospitals’ reliance on paper. A nurse forced to walk that X-ray to a colleague is in no danger of violating a patient’s privacy. There was a method, after all, to the analog madness.

Well, sometimes. While Williams found different industries’ devotion to paper could sometimes be logical, other times it just wasn’t. In both retail and health care, for example, she repeatedly saw workers being forced to use their phones to photograph shift schedules posted in the break room.

Williams believes workers—and workplaces—can expect better.

A Platform for Everyone

The solution: radically rethink Microsoft Teams for frontline workers, first by optimizing chats, task lists, and shift schedules for mobile—the functions frontline workers need on the devices they already have and are most likely to use.

For health-care workers, the company devised secure protocols for pulling patient information directly from electronic health records and sharing it to other devices, in a read-only format. When the workers’ shifts end, the data is erased from the devices, enabling doctors and nurses to move away from paper while protecting patients’ privacy.

Workers on the front lines are already technologically proficient but often stuck with ancient systems and tools.

At St. Luke’s University Health Network in Pennsylvania, health-care workers are using Teams for “digital huddles” to coordinate patient care, replacing a hodgepodge of paper, text messages, and digital notes left in electronic medical records (EMR). Teams works with both St. Luke’s EMR and scheduling software, acting as a single, central front end to bring together the relevant information workers need while they’re doing their rounds. “Our providers have the luxury of one collaboration system across the entire network,” says Dr. James Balshi, chief medical information officer and vascular surgeon at St. Luke’s.

For both retail and health-care workers, Microsoft also developed a way for communications to cease temporarily when their shift ends, giving everyone the mental breaks they need and deserve.

Microsoft’s Jared Spataro, who was also involved in the development of these Teams features for frontline workers, likens it to a comprehensive “digital platform that will power work, life, and learning.”

As he sees it, “what people need for frontline work is a lightweight, simplified, easy-to-use comms platform that has the ability to be more than just simple chat.”

The positive response has been swift. A large retailer in the United Kingdom recently surveyed its employees after putting Teams in the hands of its frontline workers. Employees said the new platform was “phenomenally better” than using their own messaging apps, which the retailer had tacitly allowed, given no alternative.

The applications stretch into every sector where frontline work happens. There’s great potential to help workers in banking, hospitality, janitorial services, even airlines. Already, maintenance technicians on shop floors and high up on cell phone towers are using camera-equipped headsets integrated with Teams to get real-time coaching on making repairs. On construction sites, workers are using Teams to connect with project managers to coordinate hundreds of tasks—a capability that went from advantage to necessity during the pandemic, when face-to-face meetings were no longer an option. No-code or low-code apps mean that anyone can make a huge impact at their organizations by inventing new ways to get work done.

“People are hungry for it,” Williams says of the billions of frontline workers underserved by digital transformation. “They’re sophisticated users and they see the value of more secure teamwork and collaboration.” The chance to transform work as so many know it is here. It’s time for a change not just in technology but in sensibility: Digital tools are for everyone, and they can help everyone do their jobs better. Frontline workers are able partners at the ready to help lead this imperative change.