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When I started building Redspire’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Roadmap last year, I had no idea that a global pandemic would soon be changing the world of work for us all. Nor did I realise that we’d have a brand new challenge to overcome, in making sure our teams are safe and well, mentally and physically, thanks to coronavirus.

Employee health and wellbeing is super important at Redspire and our partners at Microsoft. Straddling technology and Financial Services, we’ve always been mindful that our teams operate in high pressure environments on detail-orientated projects. Prior to Covid-19, many of our consultants were on the road with clients. Lots of us travelled to and from Glasgow, London and other financial hubs to collaborate on solution and software project design and ideation. It can be an intense process bringing these transformation projects to life. So mental health protection and peer support was, and still is, very important to us.

Staying connected during flexible working

As part of our commitment to our employees wellbeing, we tentatively launched new flexible Work from Home policies in 2019. I didn’t realize then, just how meaningful our overarching goal of ‘staying connected’ would be in 2020. Nor did I realise that as a business, we’d taken that leap to flexible working just at the right time to embed the kind of processes that would help us transition to a fully remote team. I’m incredibly glad we did.

Whilst we got slightly ahead of the curve however, it’s important to acknowledge just how challenging working from home has been for many people – not just in our business but across the globe. There’s huge benefits of course.  More family time, reduced commute and staying safe from the virus for example. However, maintaining mentally healthy habits whilst working from home feels like something we need to work hard at, daily. It’s all too easy to fall into habits that blur the lines of work and home. Answering emails over dinner, working alone, not taking breaks and just generally not switching off.

Achieving work life balance 

With that in mind, staying connected has become even more important to Redspire as a business. This takes many forms. Staying connected with each other during our working day. Making time for virtual coffee breaks and collaboration with team mates. Staying connected socially and checking in on each other too. We’ve introduced hobbies groups and a buddy / mentor system, as well as larger group hubs. Managers are embedding new ways to stay connected to direct reports and their teams each week, making sure positive working relationships can continue.

Just as importantly, we’re encouraging our teams to stay connected to their own thoughts and feelings, as well as ensuring they prioritise their downtime to stay connected to friends and family during these tough times. The former we’re helping with, in the shape of mindfulness in the workplace sessions, coupled with mental first aid training and peer accreditations too. We see this as a huge benefit to the individuals taking part but also to our team’s ability to look out for one another in the form of emotional check-ins, encouraging each other to take regular breaks and knowing how to prompt one-to-one conversations if they have concerns about each other.

A health and wellbeing toolkit

When it comes to health and wellbeing, we’re conscious that one size doesn’t fit all. So back in 2019 as I was designing our Health and Wellbeing roadmap, I wanted it to include a wide range of touchpoints for people. After all, we’re all on different journeys. The first step was surveying the teams to make sure everyone’s needs were met. The responses were as diverse as our people are. For example, some people enjoy direct line manager support, whereas some prefer to talk to HR or an external counsellor. Many prefer signposting to resources to self-manage matters.

Holistic Employee Assistance and Support

We’ve also launched a new support package that gives our teams a range of support, in the form of counselling, financial programmes, health and wellbeing, access to CBT and more for their friends and family. There programme is constantly updating with relevant health and wellness webinars, workshops and other resources on how to prioritise your day for example whilst working from home. We’re very keen not to replace a service with a system, however. So the package complements our on-going programmes that are constantly evolving.

Microsoft’s Insights to support

As we head into winter, Microsoft’s Wellbeing insights will help us all get through what’s likely to be a little tricky for us all. We must ensure we stay connected and look out for each other. Personal MyAnalytics – that only users see – will tell individuals if they’re spending too much time working, or not having any quiet, focus days and send them prompts to do so. We’ve already seen our teams take positive action on these prompts in recent months.

Just launched this month, individuals, managers, and leaders will also get insights and recommended actions to achieve a better day, a better week, and a better experience for themselves, their teams, and their organisations. Powered by Microsoft Graph and backed by trusted privacy safeguards, these capabilities put the opportunity for change into the hands of everyone in the organization.

Personally, I’m looking forward to using and learning about the productivity tools, as well options to bring in a level of normality like the virtual commute and tea breaks. I’m also very excited about the partnership with Headspace, making it available directly through Microsoft Teams.

Be kind to each other

Kindness, as I mentioned in my previous blog, is something I am passionate about. It can make the biggest difference to someone who might not be feeling their best. But it’s important to also be kind to yourself. Meditation and mindfulness with tools like Headspace allows people to take a breath and focus on the now.

In these unprecedented times, and given that our whole lives are now ‘at home’, we can feel like we need to be ‘always on.’

Ideally over the coming months, we can bring together our focus on wellbeing with Microsoft’s tools, to balance work and life a little better.

Staying positive in the months ahead

Over the next month, our executive team are looking at some interesting ways to bring our Christmas Party to life virtually. Look out for my next piece on our ideas on supporting teams over Christmas and new year and how we are boosting company morale.

Let’s look out for each other – and ourselves – in the months ahead and nurture positivity and staying connected wherever we can. It’s the only way through tough times.

Connect with Kristine as she shares more on Redspire’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Roadmap over the months ahead. Redspire are currently recruiting, visit the website or connect on LinkedIn to find out more.

As I sit here trying to gather my thoughts around all the things I was lucky enough to learn and experience at my time in Atlanta this year for Microsoft’s Biz Apps Summit, I realised that although this is an internationally promoted and attended conference event in one of the largest economic markets in the US, perhaps not everyone outwith (and even within) the wider tech community will know what the fuss is all about. So, without further ado:

What are Biz Apps and why do they have their own summit?

Biz Apps is the snazzy term that Microsoft uses when they refer to their suite of business applications. Fundamentally, this is the key collaborative software within the Dynamics 365 stack, used by organisations to manage their teams and employees, enhance communication and engagement, improve and streamline sales processes, manage stock, manage and track key accounts and relationships… basically the whole kit and kaboodle involved with the effective running of a modern-day organisation.

The Biz Apps Summit is a globally attended conference that Microsoft hosts every year in the USA for customers and partners. The technology giant typically introduce exciting new features, release their latest offerings and tell everyone all about the new and emerging tech that industry and commerce should be getting excited about. Some sessions are technical and some are business focused, catering to different business strands area of interest and technical know-how. This is only the second summit that Microsoft has put on, so it’s still finding its feet a little compared to some of the other Microsoft conferences that I attend during the year.

Why do I go?

As Redspire Technical Director, I’m one of the key individuals within the business that’s involved in the customer implementation journey from start to finish, including the customisation, configuration and use of biz apps. Attending these conferences, taking part in expert sessions and learning more about what the new and emerging crop of apps can do is absolutely crucial for me in keeping my knowledge as up to date as possible, and it’s also a great way to discover what’s coming on the roadmap. I invariably come home spilling over with ideas about how we can use these new tools to solve current and prospective client’s business pains or create digital-first business practices that wow their customers. This is especially true for our clients in Banking and Insurance, who are undergoing major digital transformation and are hungry for the latest innovations in AI, predictive analytics and super streamlined workflows. I have LOTS to talk to them about.

biz apps conference screen

Over 1 trillion operations globally run by Microsoft

What rocked?

There was SO much going on at the summit, with more than 200 sessions across the 2 days, so I apologise for missing out heaps of really great sessions. I’ve listed my top 3 (ish) takeaways from the week.

Artificial Intelligence

– I know everyone talks about AI, but it’s generally to extol the virtues of what it’ll be able to do for you in the FUTURE. Instead, Microsoft are weaving the future into their present-day Dynamics 365 offering with 4 levels of AI within the stack (roughly, some would argue the point, but we’ll go with 4 for now). These are;

1. Baked into the product – they’re there for you already, you just need to switch them on
2. Paid for extra apps – as it says on the tin. These involve an extra license cost but give you lots of extra features and capability over and above the baked in tools,
3. Cognitive services – getting slight techy but they’re mini apps that you connect to do specific things like uploading an image and getting it to identify what’s in the photo or pass it a voice recording and get it to transcribe it. It’ll even go as far as to analyse sentiment on whether the people speaking are happy, sad, angry, etc. You don’t need to write code for those, but you do need to be technically minded
4. Azure machine learning – can get very, very technical. Basically, you analyse your information for patterns and either choose a specific algorithm or create your own to work with the data in a way that’ll bring value to your business and allow for future projections.

(For 1, 2 and 3 there were great sessions showing you what you can actually do right now with the technology available)

PowerBI

– There are so many updates to PowerBI, from dramatic front-end visualisations, new data flow engine, paginated reports, certified datasets, all the way through to everything you could need from a security standpoint. The PowerBI sessions were the busiest and the rowdiest (yeah, not really what you expect at a tech conference) but a lot of people were getting very excited about these updates. There were rounds of applause and bouts of whooping and cheering for specific improvements or additions, some of them being fundamentally small changes, but obviously having a monumental impact on a lot of people’s working day. For me, the biggest thing was the user interface’s look and feel updates. This is going to allow customers to truly control and personalise the reporting based on the requirement (whether they are internal reports for teams or external for customers) which will again make a massive difference to the end user.

PowerApps and Flow (These are two different things, but stick with me)

The Power Platform, PowerApps and Flow really are the future of Microsoft’s biz apps strategy. Essentially, they provide the frameworks, components and workflows, and the power to be able to build all your own tailored and customised business applications. Now, you obviously wouldn’t rebuild CE/CRM or Finance & Ops. Microsoft have an army of developers and are spending hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars per year getting these to where they are now. However, you are provided with the tools to build what you need and implement it quickly and safely using all of the security and resilience that CE/CRM and F&O have built into their foundations. There were lots of updates of new functionality, new connectors, improved ALM and release management, but the main point is that Microsoft say these are the way of the future and have so far put their money where their mouth is through huge time and financial investment. So it’s time to take note and get on board!

In Conclusion

It’s so hard to condense such a detailed and action packed few days down into a mere few words, so I’ll say this:

There are really great things happening with customer service enhancements, omnichannel engagement hub, enhanced integrations with LinkedIn (including Sales Nav), PSA updates, Portals and continually improving marketing functionality that’s going to continue to transform the way that so many commercial teams operate. There are so many other things I want to talk about, especially all the cool stuff happening with HoloLens integrations (D365 guides and product visualisation), but all that’ll have to wait for the next blog.

Overall it was a really eye-opening and a great experience being at the summit. I learned so much through interacting with different people with all sorts of skills and experience, and attending the fantastic information sessions really put into perspective the magnitude of what’s still to come in the future. It’s safe to say I’ve come home with a list as long as my arm of things I need to go and learn more about, most of which I wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to explore without being over in Atlanta for this amazing event.

I’m extremely excited about going back again next year, with the added bonus of getting to see another part of America (BizApps Summit 2020 is in Anaheim California next April).

If you’d like a chat about Microsoft Dynamics 365 and how it can help your organisation achieve absolute digital transformation, get in touch at rick.lyle@redspire.co.uk or connect with me on LinkedIn

Hot off the press from the Microsoft BizApps Summit conference in Atlanta, comes the newly announced and hotly anticipated AI Builder.

The turnkey solution comes as part of further investment into the growing capability within the Power Platform, allowing users to harness the functionality of Microsoft’s already established Artificial Intelligence tools within their own custom-built applications.

The AI builder will become a flagship offering as part of the PowerApps “low code” pledge to “allow everyone, from the professional developer to the frontline worker, to participate in driving better business outcomes by building apps”.

The application of Artificial Intelligence within PowerApps will allow crucial sectors that have more of a requirement for immediate customer feedback, like banking, to better align their digital strategy around the customer journey. Power BI, Microsoft’s Business Intelligence Reporting Platform will leverage this functionality providing for immediate trend analysis and valuable insights into key data metrics within these organisations and another key offering that will benefit from the AI customization functionality will be Microsoft Flow, as part of the successful visual process automation and workflow management tool, with a view to providing a simplified approach to optimising the work-based processes without having the advanced technical knowledge of understanding how AI works.

There will be 4 main components to the studio in the first instance;

Classification – This comes in two forms; Binary Rule-Based Classification of new data for segmentation and task management etc. Go/No-Go, Pass/Fail, Ready/Not Ready for Review and Text Classification using the Natural Language Processing (NLP) functionality to analyse sentiment and routing Customer Requests; i.e. Customer Service or Customer Retention.

Business card reader – This tool will take a photograph or load an image from the local device, scan it to find a business card and extract the information it finds into selected fields.

Form processor – This component takes a photograph or loads an image from the local device, and then processes it to extract text based on a trained AI model. If it detects a form that the AI model is trained for, the form processor extracts the field values, and identifies them.

Object detector – An object detection scan will take place off a photo or image file. On a mobile device, the user is presented with the device’s interface to choose between taking a photo or selecting one already available. When an image is selected, the component automatically performs a scan to identify objects within the image.

One of the early adopters of the innovative preview tool was G&J Pepsi who worked alongside Microsoft as part of the preview availability to develop some in-app AI functionality which allows for a simplified and streamlined process for inventory management where store employees have the ability to take a picture of the shelf and share it with the AI Builder.

AI builder screen

The AI, built within the system can then recognize the types of bottles on the shelf, count them and determine whether or not Pepsi needs to order and deliver another shipment, and then send the request to action all with minimal requirement for any in-system coding.

You can check out the latest phase 2 release notes here for all the upcoming capability enhancements due to land in October 2019, with the AI Builder in preview now.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 is a next-generation business management and digital transformation system that unifies ERP, CRM, and business intelligence into one slick application that can be uniquely tailored to your business needs. Blending people, culture and technology, it feeds all areas of the financial services business from day to day frontline branch operations to boardroom vision and strategy, whilst allowing IT teams to innovate new initiatives instead of problem-solving day to day. For more information on improving the digital transformation strategy to grow alongside your business, get in touch with Redspire today.