Retailers, restaurants tap into a powerful resource that’s in their employees’ own pockets

Mobile devices are a mainstay at many restaurants, grocery stores and other retailers where employees use apps for tasks that can include scheduling, training and inventory. Rather than rely on corporate-owned devices, many companies are embracing the practice of letting staffers use their own smartphones on the job. 

The bring-your-own-device approach can be a money-saver for employers, since it cuts down on equipment costs and has the potential to boost employee productivity and retention. Having access to training materials and other information on their own devices lets staffers review these materials as needed, without having to wait for coworkers to finish leafing through a training binder or taking a course on a company computer. Scheduling -- a growing pain point for many hourly employers working with lean staffing levels -- becomes less of a headache when managers can send shift schedules via an app and employees can update their schedules in real time.

Almost 7 in 10 hourly workers think that with the right app, they’d have an easier time picking up shifts, according to a study released earlier this year by WorkJam. The digital workplace platform polled more than 1,000 US-based hourly employees and employers across the retail, hospitality, logistics, healthcare, and banking industries to determine sentiment around BYOD policies.

BYOD gaining acceptance with employers and employees alike

When it comes to accessing schedules and training materials, more than half of hourly millennial workers (57%) said they would prefer to do so on their personal mobile devices.

The prevalence of sophisticated smartphones is one of the key factors driving the growing acceptance of BYOD. More than 80% of Americans own smartphones, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center, which reported this figure at just 35% when it conducted its first survey of smartphone ownership in 2011. 

“Our smartphones are an extension of who we are, and being able to integrate aspects of our work lives into our personal devices creates ease and comfort for employees,” Steven Kramer, co-founder, president and CEO of WorkJam said in a statement.

Having company information and the ability to communicate across their organization always at their fingertips makes employees “feel more a part of the organization that they’re at -- not just the location that they’re at but the bigger organization,” said Joshua Ostrega, co-founder and chief customer office at WorkJam. The digital workplace provider has customers in several industries, ranging from independent restaurants to retail chains including Target and Ulta Beauty.

“All these benefits are...overshadowing the concerns that both sides once had,” he said “And I think that it’s no longer holding back the adoption of the digital workplace and the use of this technology, because there’s just too many benefits.”

Among the companies hoping to reap these benefits is Walmart, which rolled out BYOD in its stores nationwide in October of last year. 

“With BYOD, the moment associates clock in at work, they have tools that enable them to do the best job possible, right in their pockets,” Walmart’s Senior Director of Digital Operations Brock McKeel wrote in a blog post on the retailer’s website.

In addition to restaurants and retailers, some of the vendors who supply them are also jumping into BYOD with mobile applications that provide product information and training. When Coca-Cola launched the new generation of its Freestyle soda fountain, the company released the Freestyle Crew App, which foodservice customers and their staffers can use on their personal devices. 

The app displays product levels in real time, allowing employees to check how much of a certain syrup flavor is left without having to access the machine directly. “App users that have paired their devices with the dispenser can access a full suite of training videos that help with day-to-day operations and maintenance,” said Chris Massett, senior manager of Coca-Cola Freestyle Mobile Applications.

To ensure staffers are using work apps in the appropriate location and in the right ways, security features are a cornerstone of the BYOD movement.

Geofencing, other safeguards address security concerns

For WorkJam, Ostrega said “everything we do has security in mind.” The company takes a two-pronged approach to security by making sure privacy protections are in place for both employers and staffers, and giving employers the ability to restrict access in a number of ways.

One way companies can limit access to certain information and app features is by location. Geolocation enables employees to clock in or complete certain tasks only when they’re on the premises. This feature can help employers ensure they’re complying with labor laws by limiting trainings and other work tasks to a certain location or time frame, Ostrega said. 

“Companies want to make sure that it’s not done outside of work, or if it is that it’s recorded from a compensable time perspective,” he said.

Coca-Cola also uses geolocation for the Freestyle Crew App, to “ensure that crew members only get notifications or task reminders when they are at the store,” Massett said.

Both he and Ostrega stressed that data isn’t stored on employees’ phones, so managers can rescind access to company information the moment an employee leaves the company.

While these types of safeguards are a selling point for employers, the success of BYOD also relies on buy-in from staffers. Companies should be transparent about what data company apps have access to, and what it’s used for. Geolocation requires that workers enable location services on their devices, but Ostrega stressed that “never is there any ability [for employers] to track or access anything in their phone.”

Despite all these benefits and security measures, companies may still encounter some barriers when it comes to rolling out BYOD to their staff. 

Employers need to keep accessibility, productivity in mind

One potential hurdle is access to a device. BYOD only works when an employee has a compatible device, and employers shouldn’t take smartphone access for granted. While smartphone ownership has risen sharply in recent years, the devices are less common among certain populations, including low-income people and those who live in rural areas, according to Pew Research Center data. Smartphone ownership is also less common among people age 65 and older, more than a third of whom own a cellphone but not a smartphone. This is especially important for employers to keep in mind now, as more restaurants and retailers are tapping into an older workforce amid the tight labor market.

For many companies, a viable solution would be to simply offer employees the option of using work apps on their own device or one provided by the company. Providing an alternative to BYOD ensures there are options for staffers who don’t own a compatible device or don’t wish to use their personal device for work.

“Some companies are making both available, because it takes away from the objection. For example, a company will put in in-store devices -- a tablet or a kiosk -- with the exact same functionality,” Ostrega said. 

Massett concurred, saying, “ultimately, the decision to use the app on individual devices or shared devices is for each of our customers to make. The majority of data displayed in the app will continue to also be available on the dispenser.”

Some companies choose to furnish devices for their employees to use while at work. Walmart provides employees the option of checking out a device at the start of a shift, or accessing company apps from their personal devices. The company provides staffers who use their personal devices for work a discount on their monthly phone bills.

Whichever approach employers choose, it’s important to make sure mobile devices contribute to -- rather than hinder -- worker productivity. Having access to their smartphones while at work could present the temptation to text with friends or scroll through Instagram, and Ostrega said employers should set clear expectations about device use at work. 

“It’s up to the managers to make sure employees are using the tools properly and they aren’t sitting on their phones for other things at work,” he said. “But from everything that we’ve been hearing and seeing with our customers, they've been seeing it only as a positive.”

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