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IoT Dev Chat Ep. 4: Keeping Retail Workers Safe & Connected

IoT Dev Chat Podcast, computer vision, digital display

When it comes to keeping employees safe and healthy, retailers face unprecedented challenges. How can business help their frontline employees maintain social distancing? How can workers collaborate without face-to-face meetings?

In this podcast, we discuss these questions with Alan Jezek, Chief Revenue Officer at Theatro Labs. With his deep background in connected workers, Alan brings keen insights in to the “new normal” for the retail sector. Join us as we explore the ways technology can help merchants move forward. You will hear:

  • Why IoT networks are critical to new business models like curbside pickup
  • How technology can replace—and upgrade—the daily worker huddle
  • How leading retailers cut deployment time from years to weeks

Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and iHeartRadio, the IoT Dev Chat covers what matters most to engineers and developers. Subscribe now to keep up with the latest in the industry.

Transcript

Kenton Williston: Welcome to the IoT Dev Chat, a production of insight.tech. I’m Kenton Williston, the editor-in-chief of insight.tech and your host for today’s podcast. Let’s get into the conversation. In today’s podcast, we’ll talk about what McKinsey calls, the next normal, who are retailers, restaurants, hospitality, and other industries with frontline workers. We’ll explore ways technology can keep these workers safe and healthy, and how it can do the same for customers who rely on these businesses. But also discuss ways companies are using technology to not only adapt to this next normal, but actually transform their businesses into better workplaces. I’m joined today by Alan Jezek, chief revenue officer of Theatro. Alan, tell me a little bit about yourself and your role at Theatro.

Alan Jezek: Yeah. Hi Kenton. Yeah, so all of my experiences have been in the B2B IT solution space. And I’ve been very fortunate to work with organizations in all industries and in many different parts of the world. Now, personally, for me, I’m a disruptive technology guy. So I get jazzed and excited about disruptive technologies and how to impact business operations. Or specific, I like to change management aspects of how organizations deploy these technologies and impact into the people side of things. So this is something that I’m personally excited about. Theatro was created to support the frontline workforce. I know it’s a technical audience, and I will share a little bit about our layers of innovation. 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 belt. And there’s a wired headset that they put inside their ear to communicate back and forth with each other.

And the communications take place via the corporations’ Wi-Fi networks. 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 customer’s 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: That’s great. So you mentioned curbside pickup, and that’s obviously something that’s become increasingly important with the current COVID crisis. I know from our earlier conversations with Theatro that that’s not the only application for your technologies, that there’s lots of other sectors and segments that you serve. And I’m wondering what some of the most important trends you’re seeing across these sectors. Whether it’s a curbside pickup for a retailer or folks working in an industrial warehouse or other kinds of situations where that constant audio-based connectivity is important.

Alan Jezek: Right. Yeah. So at Theatro, we do serve in a range of industries. And 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. These are the top trends, but this is all predicated on the ability to lead and manage differently. Companies are being forced to adapt to rapidly changing landscape that’s thrust upon them by this COVID-19 pandemic. And in my opinion, one of the most pressing challenges for organizations right now is the inability to lead their team through this period of change.

Kenton Williston: So that’s really interesting to hear. And I’m curious, specifically for a retail sector, what that means in practice. Of course, 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: Let me provide some context on what is happening right now. And it’s important to distinguish between the companies that have been open for a while and companies that are just now reopening. And we’d expect that retailers, they’re moving through three phases right now. And phase one is this shock and knee-jerk reaction, throw bodies at the problem, just do something. And some of the companies have already been in that phase one, some are just now getting into it. 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.

And then some of the other retailers that are just now reopening are in a phase one stage. It will be absolutely critical for them to be able to ... the decisions that they’re making on how they’re going to reopening, their first few weeks of reopening and the decisions and being able to lead their organization and how quickly they can be to phase two will be absolutely critical. Specific to customer needs, safety and hygiene is paramount. Whether it’s an in-store experience or outside of the store experience. And retailers must redefine and protect their brand image, and now safety is a part of that message. It needs to feel safe to be there in the shop. Not just with associates, but also how you’re being protected from other consumers.

Organizations with the safety requirements, how quickly can they respond and react to new changing procedures and new policies. And as we talked about also on the customer experiences, that the ability to innovate and address expectations around frictionless payments and curbside pickup and e-commerce capabilities will be important as well. So 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: Indeed they are. And you said an interesting keyword that has been on my mind a lot lately, which is a planning. And I think that’s one of the most difficult aspects of the situation we’re in right now, which is that 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 and help them achieve a new level of agility so that whatever the future holds, they’ll be able to respond to it quickly.

Alan Jezek: Yeah, Kenton. So I’m excited about what we should be expecting here. 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, and I’ll comment on what we’re doing and some of our customer experiences, is, 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. And simple use cases that our customers are using us for are just the basic reminders and messages around hygiene. To make sure that people are taking actions around these new requirements and that the company is being compliant. But there are more advanced capabilities around just basic coordination and communication that will be important for a 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 company’s policies and procedures around angry or potentially sick customers? How does a retail worker discreetly ask for assistance on handling a sensitive situation without scaring other customers away? So we’re seeing a new set of requirements, a new way to run a facility or a retail store, and communication coordination is absolutely essential for worker and customer safety. And 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. This will not only impact speed of service and improve operating margins, but IoT based analytics will be a critical component for consumer experience and safety. 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.

Kenton Williston: And that’s great. And I have to say, the thought of having this constant connectivity has been something that’s been incredibly important to me personally. So the folks that I work with, of course, they’re all remote now. And tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams and all the rest have been just incredibly helpful. And I’ve even got a nine-year-old daughter, so she’s been attending her classes remotely. And it’s funny, I think she’s on more video calls than I am right now, which is amazing. So these tools have just been incredibly, incredibly valuable to folks like me who are usually office workers who are now working from home. But obviously, frontline workers who are not in front of a PC all day, who don’t have those same kinds of tools available to them. So why don’t you tell me a little bit more about you? What does it really mean to have that connectivity and communications and collaborations for folks who are not in front of a device all day?

Alan Jezek: Yeah, it’s a big challenge. I mean, since most frontline employees do not have email, voicemail or access to collaboration or chat apps that most professional employees take for granted, there’s a huge communications gap. There’s a significant communications gap that exists for frontline workers. 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. And there are other challenges in ramping up new employees to knowledge-based systems or co-worker experts. So 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 it is they’re doing really well that our listeners could learn from?

Alan Jezek: One of our customer example is around leadership and being very engaged at the corporate level. For the last five weeks, one of our customers is having their CEO send out a live message to their 28,000 frontline associates every Monday to address the change 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 into a platform using our managers application, and that can be distributed to 28,000 employees, regardless of when their shift starts, imagine possibilities of other workers that 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.

Kenton Williston: That’s really cool. And I have to say, it’s easy in times like this to get fixated on solving the problems that are being presented to us. But this also really feels like an opportunity to take a step back and think about this as an opportunity to do something different and really innovate. And I’m wondering if there’s opportunities you’re seeing in that regard.

Alan Jezek: Yeah. 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 within just ... 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 just had a national retail customer make the decision in the last two weeks during this crisis to roll out communication abilities chain-wide, and then turn around and make the decision to spend an extra $5 million to provide broad wireless coverage in their parking lots so they could aggressively pursue a new parking lot services such as curbside pickup, curbside upselling, and even curbside returns.

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: Yeah. Totally agree. And that’s very exciting to see. And I’m wondering, you’ve talked about this a little bit already, but in addition to the customer-facing experience, it seems to me that these technologies could also do a lot to enhance the relationships between staff. Whether it’s the frontline workers, amongst themselves, the relationship between the frontline workers and the back-end office folks. And I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that, because it almost seems to me like 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, ironically, somewhat closer together. Would you agree with that?

Alan Jezek: Oh, absolutely, Kenton. And you already mentioned it in the reference, what you’re seeing in your own family, with your daughter. 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. It seems ironic with social distancing, but once everyone can communicate with each other, we do see a very positive culture impact. Every person has a chance to reach and connect with each other, and it forms a one team culture at the store or the facility. People are able to help each other, they’re able to lean in, they’re able to pull together. It’s a huge impact that we’re seeing.

Kenton Williston: That’s really great. But I do have to ask, of course, a lot of companies in the spaces you serve are struggling with tight budgets. And to your earlier point, there’s always a lot ... traditionally, been a lot of hesitation. Plan, plan, plan and be very, very careful about proceeding forward. So I imagine there’s a lot of difficult conversations happening now about how to justify a big tech investment now. So how can our listeners make the business case that this is the right thing for them to do?

Alan Jezek: Yeah. And how can they not? I mean, obviously there has to be alignment to the impact and to relevance. This crisis has surfaced that the ability to communicate and coordinate with the majority of your workforce is not a nice to have, it’s now strategic. It’s critical for survival. In some of our customer engagements, we’re seeing that this is the one of very few, if not the only one initiative that’s being prioritized, and also accelerated at the C-level. And there’s urgent time of need to coordinate and communicate with the majority of your workforce. 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 employee faster? If you cannot retain your employees? Right now, there is a bidding war that’s occurring for frontline workers in certain cities amongst retailers, distribution and manufacturing facilities that are currently operating at high volumes.

So taking care of the employee and focusing in on retention and addressing some of the culture and productivity and safety issues is really becoming very important to them right now. 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? So a lot of the discussions that are happening at senior levels around what initiatives to prioritize is focused in on these areas of taking care of the employees, addressing brand investment, brand image, and also looking at operational risk. What happens if there’s certain illnesses or shut down in this new normal environment.

Kenton Williston: Totally makes sense. And I see we’re running close to the end of our time together. So I’d love to give you an opportunity to share any closing thoughts you have for our audience.

Alan Jezek: Yeah, I appreciate it, Kenton. 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. We see this as a chance of a lifetime to innovate and transform aggressively.

Kenton Williston: Wonderful. Well, thank you for joining us, Alan. And where can our listeners find you online?

Alan Jezek: Yeah. Go out to our homepage, it is theatro.com, like theater but with RO, theatro.com. Thank you, Kenton.

Kenton Williston: And thanks so much to our audience for listening. As always, if you enjoyed listening today, please make sure to support us by subscribing and rating us on your favorite podcast app. And if you want to chat more about retail technology, make sure to tweet us at insight.tech. This has been the IoT Dev Chat podcast. Join us next time for more conversations with industry leaders, the forefront of IoT design.

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.

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