To Address 2 Billion Workers, Microsoft is Thinking Outside the Conversation

There is one fundamental force that is behind nearly every successful company, the ability to communicate effectively. It’s a trivial idea but as companies grow and more layers of decision-makers are introduced, the need for clear and concise communication increases exponentially.

Several years ago, when Microsoft fully embraced that the company is the driving force behind productivity, it represented a dramatic shift in how the company not only developed software but planned for its future. Office 365, as the pinnacle achievement for Software-as-a-Service and Azure, as the backbone for operational infrastructure, are services that are often imitated but rarely replicated and have created a foundation for Microsoft’s expansion.

Microsoft has created tools and features to improve productivity that historically have been targeted at knowledge workers, or those sitting in the corporate offices. But there is a much larger demographic that the company estimates is around 2 billion users, the Firstline worker, and to some extent, this group has been neglected when it comes to productivity software.

There is a common pitfall that many of us fall into when thinking about Firstline workers; we often make the assumption that this means ‘retail’ worker. But the demographic is significantly larger than that and it includes some of the most highly educated and highly skilled people on the planet, surgeons.

This skill disparity creates a challenging dynamic when you try to develop software for this group of workers and for Microsoft, they can’t follow the same path to success that has been forged by its Office suite. But as more of our daily operations become ‘digified’, addressing the productivity needs of the 2 billion Firstline works becomes essential, and Microsoft hopes to grow its presence in this segment.

Make no mistake, Microsoft is far from the first company to try and build solutions that focus on this demographic. As companies continue to grow, especially as they cross the 10,000 or more employee threshold, embracing technology from the boardroom down to the Firstline worker is a challenge in training, communication, and also, maintaining control.

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Microsoft is working to address this market by adding functionality to its popular Teams application to enhance workflows for all types of workplace scenarios. The company is also building hardware, such as the Surface Go, to help bring low-cost, high quality, interactions to the Firstline worker.

Earlier this month, I spoke with Steve Ball, Principal Program Manager Lead at Microsoft, about how the company is on a multi-year journey to help Firstline workers be more productive and stay looped into the communication channels that are critical to the long-term success of every business.

With more hardware at the edge of computing environments, exposure to corporate data is becoming increasingly complex but also the need to communicate effectively at the edges of your business is more critical than ever.

This is the challenge that Microsoft is trying to solve: how do you communicate effectively to Firstline workers, empower them to be more productive, all while maintaining control over your critical assets? Further, how do you empower these users in a way that does not introduce significant overhead – in roles where turnover can be high, investing in training for IT purposes is usually not an option – and for those who are not technically savvy, how do you make sure they understand what actions they are taking in the software?

This is a big problem and not something that can be solved overnight. Ball acknowledged that this is a multi-year journey for Microsoft but the foundation is starting to materialize and the company’s Teams application is bringing communication to Firstline workers in a way that is secure and easy to understand.

Because Firstline workers typically do not have a dedicated workstation/hardware, sharing tools is routine in everything from retail to medical environments and even construction sites. With features like SMS Sign In and Single Sign Out, Microsoft is balancing the act of securing data while also making it easier for a novice-user to gain access to the information they need, quickly.

Single Sign Out is a perfect example of accommodating the Firstline worker and how Microsoft is thinking outside the box when it comes to moving between devices. It’s easy to sign into Teams/OneDrive/Exchange on a shared device with Single Sign-On, but previously, signing out was not as easy and a user could easily forget to sign out of service before handing over a device; Single Sign Out solves this challenge.

When coupled with secure authentication like Windows Hello or Microsoft’s own Authenticator app, the company is taking head-on the challenges of logging in and logging out of a shared device. It sounds simple on the surface, but exposed accounts when a user forgets to sign out represents a significant security weakness at the edge of an environment.

But it’s not all about security too, features like My Staff help Firstline managers coordinate frequent calendar shifts that occur at the retail level but more importantly, IT can now delegate onboarding processes to the Firstline operations.

In conversation with Ball, he noted how around the holidays, retail establishments need to ramp up staffing with 10s of thousands of new employees joining the ranks seemingly overnight. This creates a significant burden on IT, who traditionally must onboard the user with the correct permissions that can create latency from when a user is hired, to when they can start working.

Microsoft is creating solutions to allow Firstline managers to take control of the onboarding process to get a new employee operational the same day that they are hired, rather than being at the mercy of when IT can process the ticket. The same can be said for offboarding as well, empowering Firstline managers with more control over their staff and operations is not only improving efficiency at the edge but it can reduce the burden on the backend staff as well.

What all of these features and security controls enable is the critical communication path that is required for a business to work efficiently. The ability to have communication span from the boardroom down to the edge, but also the edge can communicate quickly and easily up the org-chart, can knock down barriers that exist today in analog environments.

Microsoft has positioned Teams as not only a communication hub, but a tool that can enable creative and streamlined workflows for everyone from the CEO down to the Firstline worker. While it’s easy to build a chat tool, Teams has morphed into a productivity-OS, a place where all workers can communicate, manage their employees or task lists, and stay organized with a one-stop-shop application.

For the last decade or two, much of the digital revolution has focused on the backend office or in logistics, the Firstline employee, despite representing 2 billion workers, has often been secondary to other corporate needs. Microsoft is developing solutions that target these users in a way that is designed to make their roles easier without introducing unnecessary complexity and at the same time, trying to address the most fundamental force in business, communication.