Last month, Carl Richardson was commuting an hour by subway to his job at the flagship Microsoft Store in New York City with a scarf around his face as a makeshift mask. At work, he sanitized his hands constantly and helped customers from a safe distance to help limit risk from spreading the COVID-19 virus.
When the physical store shut down on March 16 — along with every other Microsoft Store location in the world — Richardson and nearly 2,000 other Store associates quickly pivoted to remote work. A few short weeks later, much of the Store team has shifted into serving customers remotely during an unsettling time.
“I’ve always been super passionate about learning stuff and helping people,” says Richardson, a consumer service adviser who loved the retail energy and customer interactions at the bustling flagship Store location. He’s now grateful to continue working at home, where he hosts live software trainings for thousands of people from the two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment he shares with his wife and three dogs.
“We’re all in this troubling time together, and even though I’m working remotely, I’m still on a mission to develop my skills and train people on how they can use technology to do more,” he says.
The transition to work-from-home environments has been a logistical challenge for many businesses including Microsoft Store, which reaches more than 2 billion customers from 190 global locations via its physical locations and online store. The Store’s goal has always been to support customers wherever they are — families, small businesses, large enterprises — with product advice, customer support, trainings and community events.
With many organizations forced to work remotely during the outbreak, the need for virtual training and support has been greater than ever — a call eagerly answered by Store associates. Nearly 80% chose to work from home in a new Emergency Remote Operations model covering five areas: serving small and medium-sized businesses and education customers; training enterprise customers; selling Surface, Cloud and Microsoft 365; supporting customers of all types; and delivering virtual community workshops.
“Microsoft’s mission, which is at the forefront of why we operate Stores, is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more,” says Scott Pearson, enterprise business development manager for Microsoft Store. “The global disruption has led to a broader platform to live out that mission in the face of a crisis. We’ve got energetic, excited folks with expertise helping businesses and organizations work remotely and transform quickly.”
In the last month, retail employees have virtually trained 65,000 people in government, health care, education and finance on using Microsoft Teams. Demand for the program, called Customer Success Trainings, has surged among customers wanting to transform their remote work environments with the collaboration tool, including medical center Cleveland Clinic, accounting firm Ernst & Young and transportation and logistics company CN (Canadian National Railway).
“As an essential service that keeps the economy moving, CN delivers vital goods to those who need them most. Many of our functions are mission-critical, and decisions need to be made quickly to keep operations fluid and trains rolling,” says Doug MacDonald, CN senior vice president of information and technology.
“When the pandemic hit, the decision to deploy Teams was an easy one. We needed the right collaborative platform that would provide a seamless transition and maintain business continuity in a remote environment. Teams ensures that we can stay connected, remain productive and continue to deliver for the North American economy.” The Montreal-headquartered company was able to set up the tool for more than 3,000 employees in about the span of a week with training by Microsoft Store team members.
Store associates have also helped school districts teach remotely with Microsoft 365 and are rolling out virtual coding workshops for kids. Many associates can deeply relate to customers adapting to new environments, having traded gleaming storefronts for workstations now squeezed around home, spouses, kids and pets.
“Our teams are customer-obsessed,” says Jennifer Luke, senior director of operations, communications and training for Microsoft Store. “It doesn’t matter if the customer is standing in front of you, on the other side of a Teams meeting or chat, or on the other side of a phone line. Our teams are passionate about creating solutions that empower customers to do more.”
Even though Microsoft Store has been serving a variety of customers for years, shifting its large retail staff to remote work was no easy task. It involved setting up new priorities and workflows, assigning employees to activities based on skillset and providing compressed “boot camp” trainings for new skills. Microsoft is continuing to provide regular pay for retail team members, regardless of number of hours worked, with remote workers earning a weekly bonus.
For assistant Store manager Samantha Janiec, who oversees interactions with enterprise customers at the Flagship Store in New York, working in her dining room is a point of pride.
“Even when we can’t physically see our customers, it makes me really proud to work at Microsoft and know that regardless of the situation, we’re still able to provide the same impact and empower as many customers as we can,” she says.
That impact often has long-lasting ripples. Last year, a few teachers at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York, became certified Teams trainers at the Flagship Store, enabling them to train fellow teachers when COVID-19 closed their school. That helped the large public school quickly set up virtual classrooms, student communications and secure video meetings in Teams.
“Our teachers were prepared to run their own workshops for other teachers, so we were ahead of the curve when the outbreak happened,” says Corissa Fontana, an assistant principal at Abraham Lincoln. Store team members are now training other schools across New York City on using software like Teams, Flipgrid and OneNote to help students learn remotely and stay connected.
Store associates include Ethaniel Sinclair, manager of the Microsoft Store in Arlington, Virginia, who feels the importance of serving customers during a difficult time from the confines of his living room desk. Having built a 16-year career in retail, Sinclair normally thrives on in-person interactions and reading facial expressions and body language. He says managing his 21-person team remotely is out of his comfort zone and that he’s learning how to pick up conversational nuances in chat and email.
“I’m uncomfortable with it, but I like being uncomfortable because it means I’m learning something new,” he says. He figures he and his team will be stronger with new skills and closer-knit through video meetings that reveal homes, families and pets, and often segue into happy hour on Fridays.
“We’re all learning on the fly, and we’re very open to feedback,” Sinclair says. “And right now, the world is on pause, and we have a chance to positively impact the world on a larger scale with the work we’re doing.”
By Vanessa Ho