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Q&A: Keeping Retail Workers Safe & Connected

Insider Perspective: A Conversation with Theatro Labs, Inc.

When it comes to keeping employees and customers safe and healthy, retailers are facing unprecedented challenges. How are businesses responding? Can tech solve some of their most pressing problems, and even point the way forward to new opportunities?

To answer these questions, we turned to Alan Jezek. As the Chief Revenue Officer at Theatro Labs, a leader in connected worker technology, Alan is seeing first-hand how tech is enabling new business models like curbside pickup—and transforming longstanding practices like the daily worker huddle.

(To listen to the full interview, check out our podcast on connected workers.)

A Smarter Frontline Workplace

Kenton Williston: Alan, tell me a little bit about yourself and your role at Theatro.

Alan Jezek: I’m a disruptive technology guy. I get jazzed and excited about disruptive technologies and how to impact business operations. I like to change management aspects of how organizations deploy these technologies and impact into the people side of things.

Theatro was created to support the frontline workforce. We’re a communications platform that connects all frontline workers to each other and to the rest of the enterprise. We provide IoT devices that these frontline workers wear and clip to their belts. And there’s a wired headset that they put inside their ear to communicate back and forth with each other.

The communications take place via the corporations’ Wi-Fi networks, and there are smart-voice capabilities. Imagine Alexa for the business or Siri for the business, with artificial intelligence and voice-to-voice, text-to-voice, or voice-to-text applications. In addition to these IoT devices and the dynamic communication abilities, we have a strong software component to our platform.

Our platform can integrate via APIs into our customers’ back-end systems. An example is getting an alert from their e-commerce system when a shopper is near the store and ready for a curbside pickup.

Another example is integrating with Microsoft Teams, and a Teams user creating a text message that gets converted into a voice message that is left for a specific frontline worker. These IoT devices also have strong location services, and they have a strong analytics layer as well.

Kenton Williston: I know that there are lots of sectors and segments that you serve. What are the most important trends you’re seeing across these sectors?

Alan Jezek: Our heritage is in retail, but we also have customers in hospitality, casinos, and distribution. And currently, in this phase, the words that come to mind are safety, flexibility, and agility. Companies are being forced to adapt to a rapidly changing landscape that’s thrust upon them by this COVID-19 pandemic.

Rescuing the Retail Experience

Kenton Williston: One of the biggest concerns people have about safety and health is the interaction between the associates and the customers. That’s always been an important part of the retail experience. And I’m wondering how you see retailers changing that dynamic and still meeting those customer expectations going forward.

Alan Jezek: We expect that retailers are moving through three phases right now. Phase one is shock, and a knee-jerk reaction—throw bodies at the problem, just do something. Phase two is this resolution that life is not going to go back to normal, and you need to start planning for the future. And then there’s phase three—it’s time to clean up the mess and optimize for the new normal. So, a lot of the essential retailers have transcended from phase one, and they’re in phase two and starting to creep into phase three.

In terms of the customer experience, the ability to innovate and address expectations around frictionless payments and curbside pickup and e-commerce capabilities will be important as well. Overall, the decisions that these retailers make during this time, and how well their store teams execute their strategies and plans for these three phases, could fundamentally change their position in the market and their relationship with their most loyal customers.

The stakes are very high.

Kenton Williston: The future is so incredibly uncertain, so I’m wondering how you see technology and the offerings you have helping folks deal with all this uncertainty.

Alan Jezek: I think we’re going to see many waves of innovation in low-tech and in high-tech. We’ll see new technologies on cleaning surfaces, packaging materials, impacting the supply chain and frontline operations. On the high-tech side, we play a role in two areas. One is closing this communication gap, and providing the ability for all frontline workers to talk to each other. A simple use case that our customers are using us for is just basic reminders and messages around hygiene.

But there are more advanced capabilities around basic coordination and communication that will be important for worker and customer safety. And that is around equipping frontline workers with the ability to respond better to unpredictable and maybe sensitive situations. I’ll give you an example: what are a company’s policies and procedures around angry or potentially sick customers? Another element that I expect to see a lot of innovation around is in the area of location services with IoT devices and analytics.

The benefits of IoT devices connecting people—whether workers or customers—and connecting to objects in the context of a site location will open up many possibilities for real-time requirements around social distancing, safety, and productivity. Imagine real-time monitoring with back-end analytics. We believe this pandemic will be a catalyst for a new set of analytics capabilities around customer and workforce interaction, and we expect a lot of innovation in this area.

Connectivity for the Disconnected

Kenton Williston: The folks that I work with are all remote now. And tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams and all the rest have been incredibly helpful. But obviously frontline workers who are not in front of a PC all day don’t have those same kinds of tools available to them. What does it really mean to have that connectivity and communication and collaboration for folks who are not in front of a device all day?

Alan Jezek: With many frontline teams the responsibility rests on the facility or the store manager to communicate critical messages via a huddle—that’s an in-person meeting. And that’s an absolute challenge now, with social distancing requirements. We believe that connecting everyone all the time, regardless of when their shift starts, with the ability to effectively communicate and leave messages for each other, is a first step in closing these gaps.

Kenton Williston: Could you give me an example of how you’re seeing your customers use this technology? And maybe some of the highlights of what they’re doing really well?

Alan Jezek: One of our customer examples is around leadership, and being very engaged at the corporate level. For the last five weeks, one of our customers has had their CEO send out a live message to their 28,000 frontline associates every Monday to address the changes from the previous week, and what actions their leadership team has planned for the coming week.

Employees love this level of communication and transparency, and are now asking to hear this type of engagement from their leadership even after the crisis has passed. Hopefully this will become a part of the new normal. If a CEO can leave a voice message in a platform using our managers application, and that can be distributed to 28,000 employees, regardless of when their shifts start, imagine possibilities for other workers who don’t work inside that facility.

This capability exists for other corporate leadership members and field management teams. Instead of passing the message top down, one level at a time, and delivering the message in a physical huddle or bulletin board, now you’re equipping the organization to either text a message that is converted into voice, or leave a voice refile message that gets distributed to thousands of employees throughout the enterprise.

An Opportunity to Innovate

Kenton Williston: It’s easy in times like this to get fixated on solving the problems that are being presented to us. But this also feels like an opportunity to do something different, and really innovate. I’m wondering if there are opportunities you’re seeing in that regard.

Alan Jezek: Simply put, we have seen the equivalent of three years of store operations evolution in the span of the last six weeks. Retailers are now expected to offer curbside pickup, where a few months ago this was something only a handful of service-first retailers were offering. As everyone is scrambling to offer curbside pickup capabilities, it’s becoming very apparent to them that their wireless network will need to extend into the parking lot to do it right.

We expect that COVID-19 is going to change the way leading retailers view the parking lot and their plans for frictionless services. One major home-improvement retailer had been considering how to offer curbside pickup for the last three years. And yet they were able to roll it out over 2,000 locations within a week when forced to do so by COVID-19.

The results of leaning in and doing something quickly versus always planning to do something and remaining in a status quo situation, it’s given many retailers the confidence that in the future they can move faster and take more risk once the pandemic has passed. We hope this aggressive attitude towards retail innovation is one of the lessons that survives in this new normal.

Kenton Williston: It seems to me that these technologies could also do a lot to enhance the relationships between staff members. While we’re being, have been, and will probably continue to be pushed physically apart, some of these technologies might actually be able to draw us somewhat closer together. Would you agree with that?

Alan Jezek: We’re social animals. In our personal lives we are now witnessing the positive benefits of social media. We’re wired to stay connected, and it’s even more important in a time of stress and pressure that we remain connected with each other.

And I expect we’ll see more innovation in the consumer and the enterprise space on this topic. Every person has a chance to reach out and connect with others, and it forms a one-team culture at the store or the facility.

The Price of Innovation

Kenton Williston: Of course a lot of companies in the spaces you serve are struggling with tight budgets. I imagine there are a lot of difficult conversations happening about how to justify a big tech investment now. How can companies make the business case that this is the right thing for them to do?

Alan Jezek: How can they not? I mean, obviously there has to be alignment to impact and to relevance. This crisis has surfaced that the ability to communicate and coordinate with the majority of your workforce is not just nice to have; it’s now strategic. It’s critical for survival.

The new norm presents many labor challenges—with safety, retention, and onboarding. I would look at it this way: what are the ramifications if you cannot protect your workers? If you cannot ramp up new employees faster? If you cannot retain your employees?

I would also look at—what about protecting your brand? And what happens if, from a consumer point of view, it feels unsafe to do business at your location? And then also, what are the ramifications if you have to close and sanitize a distribution center or store?

This market will accelerate defining the winners and the losers. Each company has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine their brand as a result of the disruption caused by this crisis. In our opinion, your frontline team will play a critical role in that outcome. So, invest in technology for them to do their job well, and it will make a difference.

About the Author

Kenton Williston is the Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech and served as the editor of its predecessor publication, the Embedded Innovator magazine. Kenton received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2000 and has been writing about embedded computing and IoT ever since.

Profile Photo of Kenton Williston