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UCaaS for frontline workers poised for adoption 'explosion'

The unified communications and collaboration market has historically neglected customer-facing and field workers. But experts suggest a frontline UCaaS boom could be on the horizon.

Refrigerated freight company C.R. England is based in Salt Lake City, but its 6,000 drivers are constantly on the move, crisscrossing the United States and Mexico as they deliver goods for brands such as Target, Walmart, The Hershey Company and Georgia-Pacific. C.R. England executives refer to their drivers as the company's "secret weapon," but communicating with such a distributed, mobile employee base can pose a challenge.

In 2019, looking to better engage drivers in company culture, C.R. England's IT and HR departments turned to unified communications as a service (UCaaS). They integrated cloud calling capabilities from Dialpad with their in-house drivers' app, which tracks information such as trip assignments, load requirements and vehicle locations. For safety, the app also disables calling capabilities if the company's satellite tracking shows a driver's vehicle is on the road.

Each C.R. England fleet manager now leads between 10 and 60 drivers in a weekly "huddle" call to review team performance, set goals, flag issues and celebrate jobs well done, according to HR Director Erik Ekberg. Drivers get a push alert when a meeting is about to start, letting them join with a single in-app tap. And, if anyone misses a call, a cloud-based recording and transcript are available on demand for up to seven days.

"It's really fun to see the drivers communicate and be engaged and be aware of what our company goals are," Ekberg said, calling the UCaaS technology a "game changer" for frontline C.R. England employees. Comparing each fleet to an athletic team, he added that cloud calling helps fleet managers remotely "coach" their drivers.

Erik EkbergErik Ekberg

"You teach them the best way to make the play work, and they get back in the game and do it right the next time," he said.

To date, most UCaaS offerings have targeted back-office knowledge workers and largely overlooked information and service employees, according to experts. But some believe that's now changing, saying UCaaS for frontline workers has the potential to fundamentally transform jobs and businesses.

Phil EdholmPhil Edholm

"I think, over the next five years, we're going to see an incredible explosion in implementations and integrations of these tools," said Phil Edholm, founder and principal analyst at PKE Consulting.

From a vendor perspective, the market opportunity is significant, added Irwin Lazar, president and principal analyst at Metrigy. With frontline workers making up more than 70% of the U.S. workforce, "you're going to see a continual push to figure out, 'How can we sell to them?'" he said. Vendors such as Microsoft, Zoom and Fuze recently introduced dedicated frontline offerings.

What is a frontline worker?

According to Edholm, frontline workers are those that perform process-driven jobs with predefined outcomes, often at specific locations. Delivery drivers, for example, must complete clear, finite tasks at points A, B and C, operating within highly structured workflows.

In contrast, knowledge workers have greater autonomy in how and where they accomplish their objectives. Consider accountants, who manage their own time and largely determine their own workflows, such as when to check email or how to use their digital calendars. Goals, rather than processes, define their roles.

Irwin LazarIrwin Lazar

Frontline UCaaS implementations today

Experts agreed that, while UCaaS adoption is currently expansive among knowledge workers, it is still in its early stages on the front line. "I think the majority of field workers are probably still texting one another or picking up the phone and calling," Lazar said.

I think the majority of field workers are probably still texting one another or picking up the phone and calling.
Irwin LazarMetrigy

He added that he recently witnessed an HVAC technician, who was troubleshooting a thermostat problem, try to collaborate with the back office by texting photos and making phone call after phone call. "As somebody who lives in the collaboration world, it was frustrating to think, 'There has to be a better way,'" he said.

On the other hand, Edholm wrote in a recent PKE Consulting white paper that at least one major cable company has already integrated UCaaS technology into its home installation process. Once an on-site technician has set up and scanned the necessary hardware, the company's workflow app automatically initiates a call to a back-office technician with access to cloud services. Together, the two technicians collaboratively complete the deployment, reducing setup errors by 20% to 30%, accelerating installation and minimizing customer frustration.

Future of frontline UCaaS integrations

Eventually, organizations will embed UCaaS capabilities into frontline business processes in ways that change how work gets done, Edholm predicted. Imagine a shopper goes to a home improvement store with a plumbing question. Rather than speaking with an on-site sales associate, the customer could push a button on a kiosk display and instantly connect with a plumbing expert at another location.

"There are really interesting things you can do differently that change the way the organization operates," Edholm said.

He believes the next stage of frontline UCaaS adoption will also empower employees to directly influence business processes as members of their own small, self-managing teams. For example, a typical workflow management platform, such as ServiceNow, might automatically assign tasks to individual technicians today. But, in the future, a UCaaS integration could let a field service team meet virtually each morning to dynamically divvy up their collective assignments based on factors such as expertise and geographic preference.

"If I'm really good at whole-house equipment replacement jobs, I might sign up for three of those. And maybe Bob takes the ones up north because he wants to have lunch with his son in that area," Edholm said.

According to his research, small teams that self-organize and enjoy greater autonomy by using UCaaS for frontline workers could increase their productivity by up to 40%. "It's going to be significant," he said.

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