Closing the Software Equality Gap to Empower Frontline Workers
JFF Ventures invests in startups that offer innovative solutions to closing what it calls the ‘software equality gap.’
This blog is the first in a series about the investment priorities of JFF Ventures.
The impact investing arm of Jobs for the Future, JFF Ventures supports and invests in early-stage companies that are building innovative technologies to drive learning, employment, and economic advancement initiatives that empower workers in low- and middle-wage jobs. We look for unique opportunities to advance solutions that have the potential to drive impact at scale.
Think of the software applications that many workers would say they can’t live without: Microsoft Teams, Google Drive, Bloomberg, Asana, Air—the list goes on. Those and many other high-profile tech tools have reputations for helping people get their work done quickly and efficiently. And yet they were all designed primarily for desk workers, who only account for about one-fifth of the workforce.
Meanwhile, there’s very little software that’s built to meet the needs of the deskless frontline workers who make up 80% of the global workforce. In fact, in a study of 100 IT executives, 39% of the respondents said they didn’t have a software platform for deskless workers, and of the 61% who did, only 13% said their platforms meet the needs of those workers.
At JFF Ventures, we call the discrepancy in access to digital tools the “software equality gap,” and one of our priorities is to invest in startups that are developing innovative solutions that can help close this gap.
The lack of software for frontline and deskless workers leads to inefficiencies. In one study of employers with deskless workforces, 44% of the respondents said their organizations rely on paper-based processes for deskless work at least half of the time. Another study found that 56% of frontline workers had to use their own technology to do their jobs.
So, how can employers best use technology to improve productivity in the field and on the front lines of their operations and support and retain the deskless workforce? Our research shows that frontline workers want access to training tools that enable them to advance in their careers, and they want technologies that improve their on-the-job experience.
Training: Innovative Solutions Drive Market Growth
Drawing on Jobs for the Future’s experience with training and education technologies, we identified a lack of access to learning and development tools as a major pain point for deskless workers.
A recent Boston Consulting Group study found that lack of career advancement opportunities was the most important driver of frontline workers’ desire to leave their jobs. Another study found that some workers would even take a 10% pay cut to get more training. And yet employers are stuck in old patterns: 43% percent of frontline workers responding to a survey by Meta’s Workplace unit said they feel that they have reached the limit of what they can learn at their organizations, while 52% cited a lack of access to technology was a reason they would move to a new job, and 44% said they believe desk-based colleagues have better tech.
But every gap presents an opportunity, and the lucky break here is the fact that frontline workers are ready and able to adapt to new technologies. According to a recent Microsoft report, in a global survey of 9,600 frontline workers, 55% of the respondents said they’ve had to train themselves on new tech while on the job. The report also noted that deskless workers ranked technology third on a list of factors that could lower their stress at work. Moreover, deskless workers are particularly integrated with and even dependent on mobile technology: In a 2021 IDC survey, 42% of non-office workers said couldn’t do their jobs without mobile devices.
Frontline workers need training to be accessible wherever they are and whenever they have time for it. That makes frontline training a market niche that’s ripe for creativity and innovation. Examples include systems that use augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies to enable workers to take part in interactive experiential learning at their own pace. Programs that leverage these technologies are more scalable than training that requires live instructors—either in-person or remote.
Even lower-tech systems that may only make use of audio, text, or video can be effective. The key, again, is to give workers maximum flexibility to engage with content as they choose. Cell-Ed, one of the companies in the JFF Ventures investment portfolio, clearly demonstrates the impact a flexible solution can have. The company’s system offers users three-minute lessons delivered through a range of mobile devices—even flip phones—and it has been shown to enable learners to gain skills 84% faster than they would via other training models.
As more employers get behind new technologies like these, the frontline training market is projected to grow from $19 billion in 2022 to $40 billion by 2027.
Flexibility and Engagement Improve Retention Rates
Deskless workers say tools that give them more flexibility and improve their feelings of engagement and belonging would enhance their on-the-job experience.
A recent Indeed analysis of workforce trends showed that flexibility became more important to workers during the pandemic, while having a sense of purpose and a feeling of achievement became less important.
Technologies that meet that need include shift scheduling tools that give workers some freedom to plan their days. And flexibility—for both employee and employer—is important not only on the job, but also during the job search and hiring process. One of our portfolio companies, WorkTorch, formerly known as QuickHire, offers that flexibility. A hiring platform for the service economy, WorkTorch uses an algorithm to match workers to jobs via a smartphone app. It’s easy to use for both workers who might not find jobs in their field on typical job boards and employers that might not have fully staffed HR departments.
One insidious effect of the software equality gap is that frontline workers might interpret the lack of investment in technology for their roles to mean that employers don’t value them as employees. The survey that served as the basis of the Microsoft report revealed that frontline workers want to feel more valued and connected to their companies’ leadership and culture. Our portfolio company Anthill offers a mobile platform that can help frontline employees feel valued and engaged. Anthill supports two-way 24/7 communication between employee and employer via text message, and it enables deskless workers to access software and other company resources remotely. Anthill reports that employee churn declines at companies that use its system, and 95% of workers at 300 job sites have adopted its app.
At JFF Ventures, we invest in companies like Cell-Ed, WorkTorch, and Anthill because we believe that tech tools that enable deskless workers to pursue the training they need, do their jobs more efficiently, and stay connected to their colleagues and employers are just as important as the tools that people in engineering, finance, or other specialized fields use in their jobs. We’re confident that employers will begin deploying these tools in greater numbers soon.
Frontline and deskless workers need access to training tools… and they also want technologies that improve their on-the-job experience.