A retail worker uses the Zebra Workforce Connect app on her mobile computer
By Rob Armstrong | February 03, 2022

What’s the Difference Between Zebra Workforce Connect and Microsoft Teams Walkie Talkie?

I knew that as soon as we announced the availability of Microsoft Teams Walkie Talkie on major Zebra Android™ mobile devices last month there would be a lot of excitement about the opportunity, but also a lot of questions, especially related to what this means for our Workforce Connect solution.

In short, Teams Walkie Talkie is a good first step for customers who are simply replacing very basic analog radios (or actual walkie talkies) with push-to-talk (PTT) functionality on a purpose-built mobile device. But as workflows become more dynamic, workforces become more agile, and interactions between workers, work groups, and customers become more complex, many customers may find that simple PTT functionality isn’t enough. That’s why we continue to invest in research and development (R&D), marketing, and more related to Workforce Connect – and why customers should continue to invest in Workforce Connect, too.

It's critical that front-line workers have all the tools they need to do their jobs – on their mobile devices, not exclusively at desks or workstations. And Workforce Connect is the software platform that provides many of those tools.

In fact, 2021 was one of our most successful years ever for the Workforce Connect portfolio because of the increased value it’s bringing to customers every day.

Some of the world’s largest retailers, warehouse operators, transportation and logistics providers and healthcare providers rely on Workforce Connect to help keep their front-line teams connected, and 99% of Workforce Connect users are highly mobile front-line workers. They have all been running full steam for over two years, and there’s no sign that things will let up anytime soon. As consumers, we’ve elevated the on-demand economy to a whole new level. And as companies, we’re going to be spending months, if not years, catching up. So, if there were ever a time to rethink and expand the technology toolsets used by those on the front lines, it would be now.

We are starting to clearly see what works and what doesn’t – and we must do everything we can to find a solution to those things we know aren’t working as well as they should. For example, if store associates picking curbside orders can’t talk to the seafood, meat or deli department without physically walking over there or both parties standing at a wall-mounted phone, you have a communication and collaboration problem that needs to be solved immediately.

Alex Fryer, whose job as the Workforce Connect Product Manager is to intimately understand the collaboration and communication needs of users, recently told me he agrees 100%. He has been listening to your concerns about the challenges front-line teams are facing and thought it would be good for us to talk about the recent Microsoft announcement and more. Workforce Connect is an important piece of our Zebra software-as-a-service (SaaS) suite and we remain committed and proud of how it’s helping front-line workers, both as a standalone solution and in conjunction with Teams Walkie Talkie. We also wanted to explain the most important considerations and lessons learned around front-line worker enablement based on the many conversations we’ve had with Workforce Connect customers.

Rob: Some customers are wondering if they still need Workforce Connect now that they will have Teams Walkie Talkie on their Zebra devices – and even some consumer devices. Is there a need for both apps, in your opinion?

Alex: Absolutely. As you mentioned in your introduction, Workforce Connect has seen tremendous growth in adoption over the past 18+ months. Ultimately, this is the result of growing recognition that front-line workers are not appropriately enabled, most notably when it comes to the tools at their disposal to collaborate and communicate. As an industry of technology vendors, we need to empower front-line workers!

Microsoft has seen this too, per their launch of the Walkie Talkie offering. So, to answer your question, there is absolutely a place for both. Zebra is committed to investing and growing our Workforce Connect solution, in addition to the partnership with Microsoft to ensure integration of our respective platforms where it makes sense.

Rob: So, even if workers have Teams Walkie Talkie on their devices, organizations should really be looking at how they can layer on Workforce Connect?

Alex: Ultimately, we need to start with the needs and use cases of our customers. As mentioned, Workforce Connect is a solution that, at its core, has been built for the front-line worker since its inception years ago. We are working closely with Microsoft to build integrations where possible to ensure our customers can leverage an investment in Teams and Workforce Connect. And as Zebra, we’re focused on optimizing the front-line worker experience.

Rob: Maybe it would help if you explain some of the things workers can do with Workforce Connect that they can’t do with Teams Walkie Talkie alone.

Alex: Certainly. I believe telling the story through a front-line worker’s eyes is the best way to answer this question versus giving you a list of feature differences. So, let’s use a grocery scenario since I know your brother-in-law is a manager at a grocery store. Grocery associates often need to work in different departments throughout their shifts. Remember, these associates are using shared devices – they have to be able to pick up any mobile computer and log in to pull up their apps, tasks, contacts, etc. Workforce Connect offers dynamic role selection, which enables IT or an operations manager to set up user profiles for many different roles, departments, and tasks on the same device.  This means that all a worker needs to do is select their assigned role on any device, and they immediately access the information they need to work in that role.

This is especially valuable in meat and seafood, where it’s common to cross-train employees. Wages and training costs for these associates are often the highest in the store, making it most cost-effective for retailers to train them in both departments. With Workforce Connect, they can switch between the two departments throughout the day as necessary; no need to make customers wait.

Another key use case is within buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) operations, which are growing exponentially. In some countries around the world, over 80% of the population is now using BOPIS. When BOPIS gets busy, people from all departments are called over to help out. With Workforce Connect, workers need only press a button to see and start fulfilling BOPIS orders – and it’s just as easy to switch back to their original department when the rush is over.

This handy feature also means stores need just one communal set of devices for all workers to share, rather than having one set of devices for BOPIS, another set for meat, another for dairy, and so on. This saves retailers a lot of money over a per-user pricing model, and yet they can still see any individual employee’s productivity if they need to. This drives accountability – always important in retail.

Rob: Do you have to give workers both Teams Walkie Talkie and Workforce Connect to gain these benefits and capabilities? Or could they just use Workforce Connect if they wanted, if they haven’t already deployed Teams to the front lines?

Alex: Good question. Workforce Connect has been around since 2014 and can certainly hold its own as a standalone solution. It offers the same PTT capabilities as Teams Walkie Talkie, so customers aren’t losing any functionality, while offering several additional features. In fact, Workforce Connect has been used by more than a million mobile workers with very positive feedback, mainly because it is built upon years of customer feedback. Our robust global customer community is constantly advising us on their front-line workers’ needs, and we spend hundreds of hours optimizing and testing Workforce Connect on Zebra devices each month.

Rob: I know that many front-line workers also spend time behind a desk – nurses and doctors, store managers and others in similar roles. Will the experience be disjointed if they’re using Teams on a desktop, but Workforce Connect on their mobile devices?

Alex: Not at all! The changing nature of retail means that front-line workers often need to contact desk workers in the corporate office, and vice versa. And, to your point, those same front-line workers often need to spend some of their time at a desk themselves, so they keep switching between desktop and mobile solutions throughout the day.

So, in just a few months, Teams users will be able to message and collaborate with Workforce Connect users as if they were all using the same solution. It won’t matter if the users are on Teams on a desktop, Teams on a mobile device, Workforce Connect on a mobile device, or a mix of all three. The experience will be seamless, so everyone can use whichever solution works best for them. The calls will go straight through every time, no matter which user interface is used to make or receive those calls. Everyone wins.

Rob: We know asset and inventory locationing is a hot topic right now. But I would imagine being able to locate a co-worker is just as valuable to store associates, hospital workers and even emergency responders and utility technicians in the field who need assistance or must coordinate actions. Do both apps offer people locationing capabilities?

Alex: Both Teams Walkie Talkie and Workforce Connect have push-to-talk (PTT) options, which could certainly be helpful. But Workforce Connect actually gives users the ability to see the location of other users within the application. This is incredibly valuable in giant workplaces like superstores, warehouses or large hospitals where it’s just not practical for managers to have to go looking for the right person when they need to talk to someone. It’s also helpful in the field if you need to see where a delivery driver or lineman is located. And let’s not forget that counts double in emergency situations, where people need to be accounted for fast. If someone isn’t responding, Workforce Connect empowers you to actually find that person through its indoor (Wi-Fi) and outdoor (GPS) locationing capabilities.

Rob: So, there are both efficiency and safety benefits of adding Workforce Connect

Alex: Yes. As I mentioned, the locationing capabilities help managers quickly and easily find the best person to help with a situation. That covers efficiency, but locationing is even more important in an emergency situation. For example, imagine a warehouse catches on fire and an evacuation is ordered. Locationing can help managers and emergency personnel identify all workers' locations to ensure everyone is safe and accounted for.

Alternatively, say an employee notices a small fire in a far corner of that same warehouse. The employee uses Workforce Connect to make an emergency call to the right person. Even if that person is on an active call at that moment, Workforce Connect will override all of them to ensure the alert gets through immediately. Similarly, Workforce Connect also offers users a duress button that, when pressed, instantly alerts management and emergency personnel to an urgent situation like if someone has fallen down and needs help asap.

Rob: Is that duress button part of the “drop detection” feature? Or is there another way the app knows if someone has potentially fallen down?

Alex: That’s a good question as “drop detection” is very unique to Workforce Connect. If the app senses the user’s device hitting the ground or taking some other abrupt impact, it will automatically notify the user that a drop was detected and ask if they were okay. If they say yes, maybe they just dropped the device, then the alert is cancelled and they are taken back to the previous app screen. But if they don’t respond in a certain period of time or they hit the button confirming they have fallen, then a manager or other emergency responder is alerted and communication lines are immediately opened. If the person is lucid, they can explain what happened and be reassured that help is on the way. If the worker isn’t responding, then emergency response teams can still locate that person using the locationing function of Workforce Connect. The feature is fully supported on the Zebra TC21, TC21-HC, TC26 and TC26-HC mobile computers today.

Rob: From the years of experience gained engaging with customers and deploying Workforce Connect projects, has there been particular learnings when it comes to how a front-line worker interacts with the solution?

Alex: Absolutely, and I would raise three key aspects on usability.

First is performance. We all know the frustration of using a consumer chat or voice application. Network problems, poor audio quality, app freezing etc. Imagine as a front-line worker! It’s just not acceptable. We have gained a significant understanding of how to meet our customers’ expectations, and more importantly their front-line worker expectations, when it comes to performance of our solution.

Second is interaction with the application. What I mean here is how much does the front-line worker need to “fiddle” or interact with the software to do what they need to do? Front-line workers are using our application to do their jobs, so we strive to make that experience as simple and seamless as possible. From a feature perspective, this is where our Voice Commands add huge value. Instead of entering the application to speak to an employee, through a Voice Command a user can initiate a PTT call to a colleague. We have big investment plans in this area with Workforce Connect, so watch this space!

The last thing to pay attention to is language. It’s sometimes easy to forget that just 13% of the world speaks English. This is no different for front-line workers. We have heard such great feedback from our customers who appreciate that we support 13 languages in the Workforce Connect solution.

Rob: That’s a good point. Just goes to show – never say never, especially with a solution that helps workers communicate and work together better. Operational models and technology needs are changing every day, especially on the front lines.

Alex: I think that’s a key point to stress right now. Someone may say “our workers don’t need to make or receive phone calls beyond PTT or Teams right now” or “they don’t need to know the location or status of their colleagues.” But how do you know? Have you asked workers directly? You might think certain “solutions” are working, but they might be creating problems you’re not even aware of. I know it’s rare for IT and other technology decision-makers to have regular conversations with front-line workers unless there’s a major issue. But even small issues can have a big impact. If they can’t get the information they need on time, or they can’t alert the right people to a situation, that’s going to affect both worker productivity and business outcomes.

Rob: That’s another good point. We know from recent vision studies Zebra has conducted around retail, healthcare and the pharmaceutical supply chain that people are paying more attention to how businesses are performing. And by performing, I mean meeting their needs. Are they prioritizing customer and worker needs? Are they investing in technologies that make work and life easier for everyone? We have high expectations of companies as both customers and employees. There isn’t a lot of tolerance for issues right now. If we’re not happy with the quality or speed of goods and services, we go elsewhere. And workers have shown they aren’t afraid to find a new job if they don’t feel fully supported.

Alex: And that’s exactly why Workforce Connect is so valuable right now. Workforce Connect helps workers at all levels communicate and work with each other quickly and easily. That’s something that customers can sense throughout the shopping experience.

A popular line of jackets is fully stocked because an electronics employee walking by earlier noticed they were out and called a clothing associate to replenish. A customer who calls a store to place a deli order is immediately transferred to the on-duty deli worker’s mobile device, without an annoying wait. A manager who can’t find the on-duty plumbing associate uses locationing to find her, sees she is in the wrong department and calls her back before a customer sees an unstaffed department. The seafood associate helps a customer in the short-staffed meat department because he can easily access meat procedures on the same device he was using in seafood.

Workforce Connect’s advanced functionalities can either stand on their own or complement Teams Walkie Talkie to offer customers and front-line workers a truly optimal experience.

Rob: In other words, Workforce Connect will be needed to meet our customers’ current and future needs, including those business requirements that may not be apparent yet. And because Workforce Connect is fully interoperable with Microsoft Teams, front-line workers will still be able to interact with Teams if they want.

Alex: Exactly. It’s truly the best of both worlds.


Related Reads:

Healthcare, Warehouse and Distribution, Transportation and Logistics, Retail, Hospitality,
Rob Armstrong
Rob Armstrong

Robert (Rob) Armstrong became Chief Marketing Officer, Zebra Technologies in March 2023. Rob has nearly 20 years of experience in the B2B technology sector and joined Zebra in 2014. 

Throughout his career, he has held various go-to-market leadership roles, most recently serving as Zebra’s Senior Vice President of Integrated Marketing & Channels. In this role, Rob oversaw go-to-market strategy and downstream marketing execution for the full Zebra portfolio, inclusive of customer segment, product, and digital marketing; channel and brand strategies; media relations; pricing; and analytics. During this time, he led a diverse, high-performing team of marketing and channel professionals to drive preference globally and evolve the perception of the Zebra brand in over 100 countries in collaboration with more than 10,000 partners in Zebra’s growing channel ecosystem. 

Prior to joining Zebra, Rob held various global and regional roles across product development, business development, operations, and marketing at Motorola Solutions, including assignments in Asia Pacific and Europe. Rob has a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and he currently serves as a board member for Bernie’s Book Bank and FIRST Illinois Robotics.

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