For a big development agency corresponding to Suffolk Construction, managing communications between 2,500 office-based and on-site workers is a problem, even at one of the best of instances. However keeping everybody connected within the midst of this 12 months’s COVID-19 pandemic required the corporate’s IT staff to scramble greater than common.

To maintain the enterprise working — and workers protected — Suffolk leaned on its Microsoft Teams deployment. In line with Doug Myers, government vice chairman and CIO on the Boston-based firm, the collaboration platform helped Suffolk’s workers navigate the disruptive results of the pandemic.

“In the course of the early days of the pandemic, when situational consciousness is an actual problem, we have been capable of get a Teams channel stood up in a short time the place we might get info out to workers,” mentioned Myers. “We acknowledged early on that we needed to change our normal procedures if we have been going to maintain our workers protected, preserve them working and ensure that we might proceed to do what we do safely.”

One instance: the corporate created a devoted Teams channel to collate the outcomes of onsite temperature checks for workers. Seventy thermal imaging cameras have been put in and linked to the channel to report the outcomes. “You are taking lots of of worker temperatures every day on any given job web site as they’re coming into,” mentioned Myers. “That was a extremely nice instance of one thing we might develop shortly that was assembly the wants of individuals within the discipline.”

Thermal imaging cameras connected to Teams Suffolk Construction

Thermal imaging cameras have been connected to a Teams channel to watch employee well being as workers returned to work throughout the pandemic.

As well as, workers arriving on web site can now scan a QR code linked to a Microsoft Kind that features the COVID-19 analysis questions advisable by the Facilities for Illness Management (CDC). The solutions can then be surfaced in a Energy BI dashboard for employees to view.

“We need to make certain they will go to work and do [their job],” Myers mentioned. “However the very first thing we needed to do was ensure that they may accomplish that safely.”

‘Data work’ isn’t only for workplace workers

Suffolk mission groups use Teams for a wide range of functions, together with internet hosting conferences and presenting design and development paperwork to architects, all of which will be accomplished remotely quite than in-person in trailers. Workers additionally use Teams to speak in real-time between job websites and different workers.

“It’s utilized by all people: people who find themselves practical workers, most of whom are nonetheless working remotely, live on it. It is how they will keep engaged with their groups. However then it is also utilized by our workers within the discipline, for his or her administrative duties and for his or her conferences,” mentioned Myers.

Suffolk had already seen regular uptake of Teams earlier than the pandemic, however utilization soared as many workers have been required to work remotely. 

“We rolled it out prematurely of the pandemic; it has labored vastly in our favor for having accomplished that,” he mentioned. “We have been already getting good adoption after which it simply went by the roof as soon as folks noticed that grow to be such a core a part of their day.”

The usage of Teams has been welcomed by front-line workers, mentioned Myers, who make up round 70% of the corporate’s workforce. Suffolk has mixture of Microsoft 365’s E5 and E1 licenses; it doesn’t use the F1 or F3 licenses geared toward front-line workers.  Microsoft made changes to those licenses earlier this year.

“On a weekly basis, I hear from ops people saying, ‘I never believed we could have done all this remotely, I can’t believe how effective Teams is for me to help me manage what I have to do,’” said Myers. “Keep in mind, ops folks are typically not the most effusive in their praise, they’re typically very direct about what’s working and what’s not. …They really did go out of their way to [say] that they were surprised by how effective we could be in this new environment, and they all fall back to Teams and the associated Power Apps that are in place.”

Although Teams, which launched in 2017, is predominantly aimed at office-based workers, Microsoft has built out various capabilities for front-line workers in the retail, hospitality and construction industries who are often overlooked when it comes to IT spending.

Providing front-line workers with digital tools has been a “growing trend” in the past two years, said Angela Ashenden, principal analyst for workplace transformation at CCS Insight. That reflects a recognition of the importance of connecting non-office-based workers to each other — and to the rest of the business.

“It’s partly an operational need, with demand for the digitizing of processes that have often been very manual and paper-based,” she said. “But we’re also seeing a growing interest in terms of improving employee engagement among this audience, particularly among the younger workforce.”

The pandemic has only served to amplify the need “with collaboration and communication tools being thrown sharply in focus in terms of their strategic importance, and businesses increasingly wanting to have a single solution across their entire business,” said Ashenden.

Microsoft Teams walkie-talkie

One of the Teams features aimed at first-line workers is a digital walkie-talkie unveiled earlier this year. The simple push-to-talk capability enables encrypted conversations over Wi-Fi and cellular networks at the click of a button.  

The feature is currently being tested at Suffolk using Samsung’s Galaxy XCover Pro smartphones, which include a dedicated push-to-talk button designed to make use of the Teams walkie-talkie functionality.

The pilot project is intended to address a number of communications headaches for staffers.

Teams Walkie Talkie feature Suffolk Construction

Suffolk is currently trying Teams’ walkie-talkie functionality announced earlier this year for its workforce.

Often, workers will carry multiple devices for conversations on different radio channels, while communication range is limited. Furthermore, walkie-talkies may be sharing radio bands with emergency services. “The police might be on a similar band, so you’ve got the potential for overlapping conversations,” he said.

“The belief is that this is actually a better alternative to the radio because it’s a single device, more secure communication, not having the overlapping channels.”

On a building site, good communication is about more than just efficiency, said Myers.

“One of the best ways to make sure that your workers go home safely is that communication is crystal clear,” he said. “If you’ve got a hazardous task, you’ve got to make sure that you lay out how you’re going to approach it. Over the course of the day, you have to make sure people are on the same page in terms of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Support for the walkie-talkie feature with Apple devices would be welcome, too. “Obviously we’re very interested in what Microsoft might be able to do with an iOS version.”

There are several advantages for using business apps like Teams for communication, particularly compared to consumer messaging applications — especially for security and compliance, said Ashenden. Enterprise-grade apps also enable businesses to retain full control over user data for privacy and GDPR purposes.

“And while walkie-talkies have fulfilled a critical role for many years, they are a point solution, whereas team collaboration tools provide a much richer platform for sharing information, supporting and enabling business processes, and creating a community that connects the whole business together,” she said.

Although some businesses with front-line workers worry about them spending more time on mobile phones than helping customers, many are “increasingly recognizing that the advantages of a more connected and engaged workforce outweigh these concerns,” said Ashenden.

Improving information flow across the organization

Going forward, there are plans at Suffolk to create role-based access for staffers using Microsoft’s Active Directory.

“Rather than saying, ‘Here are all of our applications available to you, pick the ones you need,’ we want to be able to give people an experience that says, ‘I know who you are, I know what your role is, so here are the applications that you have access to when you need them, and here’s the data that you need,’ so that people get a more customized experience,” Myers said.

“It allows us to standardize the experience for people and to have the consumer experience that they might be having on their personal phone, where the devices at Suffolk, that IT provides, can know who you are and know what you use, and make sure that we’re facilitating that for people.”

Myers is also investigating the integration of an enhanced employee directory with the Microsoft stack to improve information sharing. That means moving past the standard employee directory that includes only basic information such as email address, phone number and out-of-date headshots instead of helping employees easily find the person they need. 

“[It could mean] you find somebody who has encountered a challenge with an underground parking garage and navigate based on their past experience and the jobs they’ve worked on, to be able to reach out across the country tap into the company’s collective wisdom,” he said.  

“When you’re a professional services provider like Suffolk, we are the sum of our knowledge and experience. If we can use the technology to network people together and share knowledge and experience, then you get better employee engagement across the country.”

He added: “There’s structured information, there’s unstructured information, and then there’s information in people’s heads. If you can use technology to be able to get to those answers, to me that’s a huge win.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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