Sorry, IT: The frontline will never love Microsoft 365 F1. Here's why.


It’s late on Friday afternoon and I’m Zooming Andrew, a CIO with an all-too-familiar story.

“Any idea of your DAU?” I ask.

He sighs. “Less than 4%.”

Andrew works at an organization with a large proportion of frontline workers. He’s already subscribed to the urgency of bringing them into the 21st century.

But when he talks about the IT involved, his brow furrows like a doctor sharing alarming test results.

He continues. “We have a pretty good core infrastructure,” he says, “and a committed team. But something isn’t sticking.”

Andrew’s company has invested tens of thousands in state-of-the-art technology for their key workers.

It’s slick. It’s packed full of clever features. You can write, crunch numbers, tick off a to-do list.

The problem is… No one’s using it. 

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Digging deeper.

Frontline software is my job. And every month, I hear about five variations of that same story:

An organization wants to communicate better with their frontline. IT joins the conversation and announces they’ve got it covered. Then they extend their MS365 licenses to include key workers. The end.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

No researching endless options. No insincere sales calls. Just taking what’s already working for desk staff, and doing a copy + paste.


Except now – three, six or even 12 months later – they have almost nothing to show for their investment.

Done well, an enterprise-wide software system can lead to positive digital transformation.

But if the final piece of the puzzle goes missing – adoption – well, you’ve wasted a lot of time and money.

The ending of that story won’t change until we acknowledge the underlying problems.

So – why don’t frontline workers jump at the chance of using better technology?

It’s not because they don’t need it. The possible reason(s) are altogether more banal: 

  1. They don’t know how it works. 
  2. It’s too cumbersome for them. 
  3. They’re not even aware it exists. 
Desk workers using Microsoft 365 F1 at a team meeting.

The curse of Microsoft 365. 

When it comes to enterprise software, MS365 is King.

They carved out their monopoly 10 years ago, and no one’s looked back since.

Especially not IT.

These departments invest a lot of time setting up and configuring Microsoft 365. Like many long-term relationships, that leads to an unhealthy co-dependency.

IT love the way they can scale MS365 up or down. That they can outsource maintenance headaches to third-source parties. Another major allure is SSO. Log in once, and a plethora of services sit at your fingertips.

Exchange for email and calendars, Teams, Word, Sharepoint…

But there’s one problem. Just because MS365 is convenient for IT, doesn’t mean the same goes for those using it day-to-day.

Sharepoint is a huge, complex beast that needs to be configured for non-techies to use. Even Teams, designed to be intuitive and user-facing, receives claims of the opposite. ‘Intimidating’, ‘sluggish’ and ‘confusing’ are adjectives which regularly crop up on review sites. One developer even deemed it a ‘Horror Show.’

Where does that leave us? Usually, with desk workers who use two or three tools out of… a possible 31. Or, who cobble together a Franken-selection of tools not included in the suite.

So. Office workers struggle with IT infrastructure that was literally developed with them in mind. But at least they adopt (some of) it?

What about when your main human resource is frontline workers?

Things get a whole lot more tangled.

One size (doesn’t) fit all.

IT solutions for frontline workers are almost always modeled on a desk-based environment.

That means they take some things for granted:

  • Users will have a digital identity.
  • They will be happy to install, embrace and master continuous new additions.
  • Switching between several different tools day-to-day is inevitable, and acceptable. 

All these assumptions? When it comes to the frontline, they’re incorrect.

Frontline workers don’t have a desk. Or a work laptop. Or a work phone. That means they don’t have a way of accessing shared systems.

If they don’t have access to a shared system, they won’t be able to create an account. If they can’t create an account, they won’t have a digital identity.

That makes it near impossible to get information out to the frontline when they need it.

Data-driven dangers.

This leads me to another issue: onboarding and offboarding.

In an environment like Microsoft 365, you would normally do this via a list of account-holders. You can create new users when someone joins; you can remove them when they leave.

But all this is much more problematic in the case of the frontline. A lack of digital identity destroys the “joiners/movers/leavers” process from the get-go.

Key workers in an airport.

Why is this important?

Well, frontline industries have some of the highest staff turnover rates in the UK. On the flipside, there has been a recent surge of job openings to fill the need caused by Covid-19. So, there is a near-constant flux of people joining, moving and leaving.

Key workers need instant access to data when they start a new role. Administrators need to quickly update access privileges as workers’ roles change. But crucially, there needs to be a mechanism to deactivate accounts when they leave.

The alternative would cause any IT staff member sleepless nights… Widespread access to company and client data – after the key worker has moved on.

Where does that leave us?

If only it was as easy as giving frontline workers a slimmed-down version of O365, in the form of Microsoft 365 F1. With a few added bells and whistles, perhaps. But this approach is almost certain to fail.

There tends to be a degree of disconnect between IT and the rest of the business. A lack of understanding of how frontline roles are actually performed.

The IT team don’t have, or don’t ask for, more context.
But context is exactly what you need to find a decent technology solution for the frontline.

Construction frontline worker using Microsoft 365 F1.

Here are five non-negotiable steps to take in finding alternatives to Microsoft Office 365 F1. Each one is useful in its own right.

Tackle them all together and you’ll see great results. 

Looking for a Microsoft Office 365 F1 alternative? Here’s what to consider.

1. Designed for the frontline – not transferred to them.

Standard office tool suites are highly generic. A document processor, a spreadsheet, a file management system… Developers optimized these tools for desk-based workers alone. The assumptions built into them just don’t hold true for frontline employees. 

Key workers perform radically different tasks, with different competencies, in different physical environments.

Their ‘norm’ is record-keeping on paper and announcements pinned on boards. They don’t need Excel; they need rota information, pay slips, risk assessments.

Frontline digital tools should be designed from the ground up – not imported from the office.

2. The system has to be *actually* mobile-first.

Savvy web designers moved to ‘mobile-first’ quite a few years back. and then a host of apps followed in their wake. But office tools? Cut-down versions of document processors and spreadsheets are…. frankly, a bit sad on a mobile phone.

Yes, you can use them – but as a last resort. What would a mobile-first digital tool for frontline workers look like? Well, there are lots of options, but consider this.

Your target audience mightn’t be super-confident using a document processor. But she has come to expect the ease-of-use offered by consumer apps such as Facebook, Uber, Google Maps.

The bar is high for a social-media style interface.

3. Integrated functionality. Always.

Digital tools for the frontline need to address multiple tasks. But these should come as a single, integrated system. Because honestly? Frontline workers have enough to do.

Desk-workers accept a degree of switching between apps (despite how much this affects productivity).

In our experience, frontline workers are unlikely to download a legion of work apps. Think about it: it’s their personal device, not a work landline phone. And there are 18 different programs in the slimmed-down MS365 package.

Only by bringing all the required functionality into a single app, can you drive mass adoption.

4. Look for streamlined onboarding.

The entire onboarding/offboarding process needs to be carefully considered. The technical side needs to involve password-less authentication for logging into the system.

For example, this might be the frontline worker owning an identifiable mobile device, or using biometric identifiers such as a fingerprint to open an app.

On the organizational side, you need solid processes to make sure new account holders have access to the right information and permissions.

A medical frontline worker.

5. The frontline need a seat at the table.

Procurement and IT have to recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for frontline workers. At any early stage of requirements analysis, bring a frontline representative into the conversation. They should have a say in the design and decision-making as full partners.

One, only they know what they really need. And two, the sooner you involve them in planning for new IT, the more likely they are to feel ownership.

Lastly, any system will be useless if adoption doesn’t happen within the first few weeks. A strategic rollout plan will ensure the frontline feel excited: before, during and after implementation.

And finally…

I get it. Generic office suites like Microsoft 365 Office F1 are seductive in their convenience. The software is powerful, widely-used and accessible. It’s hard to say no to this level of ease. Plus, extending an already-adopted system seems like a safe bet.

But the uncomfortable reality is, they will never be enough on their own. And it’s smarter to cut your losses than continue to invest in an expensive system that doesn’t drive the results you need. If the frontline haven’t picked it up quickly, it’s unlikely they ever will.

Blink helps you leverage your investment by extending the capabilities of Microsoft 365 F1 for firstline workers.

If you have any questions about adopting a tool that was actually built for the frontline, let’s talk

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