Firms Pursue Frontline Workers, Walmart Expands VR Use

Microsoft, Google and Salesforce are now targeting the use of their technologies to an estimated two billion workers who don’t sit behind a desk. Microsoft, with its HoloLens, has been the most aggressive in pursuing so-called frontline or firstline workers who do production, sales and service work. Its chief executive Satya Nadella noted the potential growth in this sector. Walmart now uses virtual reality to assess the skills of an employee and determine if she is ready to move up to middle management.

The New York Times describes how Team Inc., a company that sends workers to maintain and repair industrial sites, adopted Microsoft Teams when its executives realized that almost half its field technicians were using personal email accounts and cell phones to communicate.

Company’s chief information officer, Tracy Terrell said they are now “easing [field technicians] into a version of Microsoft Teams, a messaging platform, designed specifically for firstline workers,” although uptake has been slow. Even so, “some technicians have created group chats, like one for mechanical bolt specialists, to help troubleshoot repairs.”

“There is no question this will work,” said investment bank Stifel analyst Brad Reback. “The speed at which companies decide to roll it out? We’ll see.” Microsoft’s HoloLens, on the other hand, may “take years to develop,” mainly due to the expense. The military inked a $479 million contract for the HoloLens, however, and “the latest version of the device is more tailored to workers,” with better balance so workers can wear it longer.

Microsoft now also lets workers log in with a regular corporate account and password, and has built “applications for key uses,” including Remote Assist, which lets a worker in the field “interact with a specialist somewhere else.” Germany-based ZF, an automotive supplier, is using it for plant maintenance in South Carolina.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Walmart’s use of VR “to gauge a worker’s strengths, weaknesses and potential is significant because it pushes VR evaluation out to a massive hourly workforce and in some cases helps determine who gets raises and who gets demoted.”

“What we’re trying to do is understand the capacity of the individual from a leadership perspective and how they view situations,” said Walmart senior vice president of associate experience Drew Holler. The hope is that “technology will limit bias inherent in many traditional hiring decisions, increase diversity and reduce turnover among its 1.5 million U.S. employees in a tight labor market.” Walmart, which began using VR training last year, added headsets “in the backrooms of all 4,600 U.S. stores to train over a million workers how to stock shelves or use new online pickup machines.”

Deloitte leadership practice head Stacey Philpot noted, “Walmart’s use of VR reflects broader efforts by employers to quickly, but fairly gauge workers’ abilities as jobs change due to automation and other factors.” “It’s really important that companies do a better job of assessing potential,” she said.

At Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, founding director Jeremy Bailenson noted that Walmart “can use the data to identify how certain traits correlate with performance.” But, in Pittsburgh, Walmart human resources market manager Beth Nagel noted that VR is a “touchpoint in our selection process,” not a disqualifier.

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