Hospital nurses. Construction crews. Garbage collectors. Factory workers. Flight attendants. Restaurant servers. An estimated 2.7 billion people work in an environment without regular access to a desk, a mobile phone, or a PC. And yet, shockingly, little technology is being designed for these frontline workers.
Major tech players, investors, and entrepreneurs focused relentlessly on workplace innovation for white-collar workers like themselves for decades. This has brought a revolution in the office for a narrow band of employees while leaving far too many rank-and-file workers behind who’ve never been touched by what Bill Gates calls “the magic of software.”
A blue ocean market for “IT that leaves no one behind”
In 2015, I was part of the team that pioneered Workplace at Facebook, the company’s first SaaS venture. Initially targeting knowledge workers and tech companies, we serendipitously stumbled upon the untapped “frontline tech” market in 2016. This pivot proved strategic, amassing over 10 million paying users from renowned organizations like Starbucks, McDonald’s, Kering, Leroy Merlin, Walmart, Lixil, and Petrobras. Our original underestimation of this market segment proved to be a blessing in disguise as we embraced the competitive void it presented. I witnessed firsthand the rising demand for connectivity among frontline-heavy organizations of all sizes. Moreover, I saw the tangible impact frontline-friendly software had on employee engagement, retention, and productivity.
Tech is on the cusp of a SaaS revolution for the 99%. Because this market is open and ready for disruption, I see an opportunity for savvy software entrepreneurs to build the Microsoft or the Salesforce of the frontline workers’ world.
I see an opportunity for savvy software entrepreneurs to build the Microsoft or the Salesforce of the frontline workers’ world.
Conventional wisdom held that building products for these workers could have been more efficient and impracticable due to the restrictive nature of their working environments and IT budgets. Still, a confluence of trends is changing that mindset. Not only is it becoming clear that tech can improve conditions for these employees, but also there is a mounting sense of urgency that the benefits of SaaS workplace solutions must be extended to those who have been overlooked.
The pandemic brought into stark relief just how vital frontline employees (aka “critical workers”) are for keeping our lives and economy moving in ways that we had taken for granted for far too long. They watched as white-collar employees at the central office received increased workplace flexibility while they continued to grind away.
John Waldmann, the CEO of Homebase, a leader in the frontline tech space, told me, “two-thirds of workers have not and will never work from home. The public conversation and technology investment are way over-indexed to hybrid work, which is your archetypal ‘high class’ problem affecting a limited number of workers. Everyone values flexibility, but for most workers, it means something entirely different — and technology can help.”
A recent Microsoft report on frontline tech noted that 51% of non-management employees don’t feel valued, and more than 57% wish employers were doing more to address physical and mental exhaustion. A recent Beekeeper survey showed that four in 10 frontline workers have quit in the last year, and managers and head office staff don’t know how to fix it.