The Two-Way Radio Hasn’t Gone Out of Style. It’s Just Changed Its Style – and Gained in Value as Collaboration Becomes Essential.

Workers need to be able to make good decisions in a split second, but they can’t always do that on their own. Modern collaboration technologies are helping them reach the right experts fast.

A retail store associate uses a push-to-talk feature in Zebra`s Workforce Connect digital collaboration tool to communicate with a coworker.
by Alex Fryer
October 14, 2021

Eighty-six percent (86%) of organizations say front-line workers need better technology-enabled insights to be able to make good decisions in the moment.

That’s a bit of a head scratcher.

There are dozens of ways to call someone today and even more ways to send a message. It’s a bit dizzying, to be honest. And I have actually found it harder to track down people the more digitally connected I’ve become, mostly because I don’t always know or remember the best way to reach each friend, family member or colleague. I have an entire screen on my personal mobile dedicated to communications apps.

What I need is simplicity, and that’s what front-line workers need too.

Want More Collaboration? Make a More Direct Connection

Though convenient when sitting at a desk, encouraging workers to message colleagues from their mobile computers while moving about is both inefficient and dangerous. They need to keep their heads up at all times, especially if in a store, hospital, factory, or warehouse where so many different people and pieces of machinery are moving at once. Field-based workers also need their eyes up and hands free to be able to safely drive their vehicles, carry equipment, and respond to calls. So, anything that requires them to do more than press a button to get an answer is too complicated.

That’s why two-way push-to-talk (PTT) capabilities are just as popular as they were 25 years ago when Nextel launched the first iDEN service. The walkie-talkie “call” is the simplest of all and perhaps the most familiar way for front-line workers to communicate and collaborate live – the recipe for “good decisions.”

I’m hard pressed to think of a task that is completed solo these days. Everyone needs someone’s input at some point, and front-line workers need others’ guidance and insight frequently. Retail fulfillment and logistics teams can’t do anything in a bubble. Neither can utility crews, construction crews, or public safety officers. And there’s a reason why patients are now assigned a “healthcare team” versus just one doctor. Teamwork makes the dream work.

But the team won’t be able to work well if they can’t communicate in real time. If one person makes the wrong call or doesn’t know what to do in a certain situation, the whole team suffers the consequences.

So, here I am. Advising you to give your front-line workers a “walkie-talkie.” Well, a modern version of it.

A Simple Way to Turn Your Mobile Devices into a Two-Way Radio (and Help Your Workers Start Making Better Decisions)

There are three things you should do right now if your workers are using mobile computers and tablets in any capacity:

1. Choose a collaboration software solution that was built specifically for front-line workers. Some may call it a unified communications solution, but the premise is the same: turn workers’ mobile devices into real-time collaboration tools. Once the software is loaded onto their devices, they will be able to instantly connect via PTT, real-time messaging and more.

2. Think about the user experience when setting up each worker’s profile. By this, I mean managing roles and profiles of users within the collaboration app. Your workers share devices, but they won’t all use them the same way. Communications tools included. So, it’s important to customize the experience to each person’s role and liking. If employees have unique identities set up via SSO or other login structures, you can highly personalize their collaboration experience by ensuring their contacts, settings and messages will automatically load once they login – even if they pick up a different device each day. If your business uses more generic usernames (i.e., “Store Assistant 2”), it is still possible to pre-load key contacts, turn on collaboration features specific to that role and ensure each user is connected to the people and information needed to be productive.

3. Make sure each worker knows how to use PTT and actually uses it. Shout it from the rooftops if you must, or simply repeat over and over again in team meetings, memos, and other communications. Your workers need to a way to speak with one another in real time if you want them to make better decisions and get things done faster individually and as a team.

Think about how many times you’ve said, “it’s just so much easier to pick up the phone and talk it through.” Well, your front-line workers probably say that a hundred times a day, if not more. So, make it possible for them to pick up the phone without having to actually pick up the phone – and make it easier for them to call for help without having to speak to someone.

How do you do that?

Look for a mobility solution (i.e., device + communications software) that enables them to:

use their phone as a walkie-talkie, even when it’s docked on the dashboard, in a holster on their hip, or in their pocket. Solutions such as Zebra Workforce Connect can sync with wireless headsets to facilitate hands-free PTT calls. You can learn more about this in one of my previous posts. I also recommend you choose a collaboration application that enables workers to use voice commands. This will reduce the number of times they have to actually pick up the device and open the app – another efficiency and productivity boost.

-  discreetly sound an alarm with the push of a button. This is important for worker safety. There are different ways to set this up, but we’ve built the Workforce Connect PTT Pro solution to summons help if someone pushes a button on the back of their Zebra mobile computer. If they’ve fallen or there’s an emergency unfolding and they can’t talk in that moment, dispatch can be alerted and then call someone in to help.

locate people. This certainly comes in handy in situations like the one I just described. But it also helps when someone hasn’t checked in for a while and can’t be reached. Maybe they silenced their notifications during a meeting but forgot to increase the volume when they went back into the field. Or perhaps a delivery driver was stuck in traffic in a noisy area and didn’t hear calls or messages coming in. Being able to detect both presence (via the app) and actual physical location (via GPS) will help your team know the person’s okay. (If they’re using a Zebra TC2x device, you’ll even be able to detect when a device is dropped – and a user has potentially fallen. Watch this.)

announce their presence. Wouldn’t it be so helpful if you knew the person you were trying to reach was going to answer when you called? I know it would save me time chasing people. If workers can see that someone is online, offline or in do-not-disturb mode, they can more quickly connect with someone who is actually available to help them with a question or task in that moment.

-  have both private and group chats via secure messaging and PTT channels. Collaboration comes in all forms, and front-line workers need all options. Whether they want to have a 1:1 chat with someone or loop in several colleagues to coordinate actions, they should be able to reach everyone with a quick PTT call or text message (if they’re standing still and able to safely send and read text.) Make sure they can retrieve a pre-defined contact list or pull an ad hoc group call together when needed.

retrieve and collaborate on assigned tasks in real time. Front-line workers should be able to operate as independently as possible. For that to happen, they must know what is expected of them each shift. Look for a collaboration tool that enables supervisors to create, prioritize, then assign tasks to individual associates or groups. Workers can then accept tasks and provide status updates in that same tool.

override or barge in on calls. This isn’t considered rude or invasive when time is of the essence, which it often is when healthcare and public safety professionals are trying to get a grasp on emergency situations. This “interrupt” capability is just a way to ensure priority messages make it to workers who may be on a PTT call with other team members about a less urgent matter.

Once your workers have a single mobility solution (one device + one app on the home screen) that check all these boxes, they will be fully empowered to make better decisions. They may even be more energized to meet your efficiency and productivity goals as they won’t be spinning their wheels trying to chase down someone when they find themselves in need of assistance or a second opinion.

A Shout Out for Two-Way Radios – and a Call to Action (from Your Front-Line Workers)

Humans are social animals. We always have been and always will be. We need to communicate and collaborate to progress and optimally perform. And the two-way radio is a well-recognized tool for communicating and collaborating.

However, with the billions of mobile devices now circulating the world in the hands of front-line workers, it’s your job (and ours) to take its core function – ‘push-to-talk’ – and evolve it to serve our modern needs. Fortunately, improvements in internet connectivity, mobile device performance and software capabilities have led to vast new possibilities, empowering us to consolidate the dozens of different communication mechanisms that exist today into one secure app that can be applied dozens of different ways to keep people connected long into the future.

PTT is an incredibly user-friendly way to communicate, but front-line workers are demanding more. They want to be fully empowered to know who is online/on shift, where a colleague is, how to complete a task or what to tell a customer – and they don’t want to have to dig to get that info. With today’s digital tools, all such information can be gathered in a single application, assuming it can support secure messaging, PTT, SSO, locationing, and more.

So, if you’re struggling to improve your workers decision-making skills or it’s hard to reach the right people in a timely manner, find a different way to connect using the devices at your disposal. Just make sure it’s the right way for each one of your workers. (This guide walks you through the various considerations for individuals working in healthcare, supply chain and field environments.)

Once you do, you and your front-line workers will be able to collaborate on a whole new level – one that’s reminiscent of a simpler time.

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Alex Fryer
Alex Fryer is currently the Intelligent Edge Solutions (IES) Regional Product Manager and responsible for driving the go-to-market in EMEA for Zebra’s IES portfolio.
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