If the pandemic has made us completely rethink the way we work, that we — the swath of workers at home in pajamas popping into meetings on Zoom — leaves out a massive chunk of the workforce that continues to show up for work in-person, every time. As knowledge workers explore the intricacies of the virtual office, frontline workers from a cross-section of critical industries still lack the basic tools they need to do simple tasks like switching shifts, asking HR a question or seeing when their next paycheck arrives.
“This workforce can’t be overlooked, there is a business imperative right now…[and] there is a really exciting opportunity to create more paths to the middle class,” Anthill co-founder and CEO Muriel Clauson told TechCrunch.
Clauson and Anthill co-founder and CTO Young-Jae Kim met in a PhD program for industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Georgia. Through their shared academic research interests, they identified what Clauson described as a “massive gap” in the communication between frontline, deskless workers and their employers — a gap that workers frequently fall into, to everyone’s detriment:
[There are] 2.7 billion people globally, who never sit at computers to do their jobs. So they never worked from home over the pandemic and they never will because they can’t actually do their job that way. So most often folks think of manufacturing, distribution — basically anybody who’s out there working with their hands on the field on the floor.
These folks do not use software, and especially work software, they just in general do not and the reason being is they’re not sitting at computers, they’re not going to use something on a desktop. They’re probably not using email [and] they probably don’t even have an email address. And they’re also increasingly not downloading or using apps on their phone — or they don’t even have a phone that you can use an app on.
For employers who manage an in-person workforce, attrition is a huge issue. Many workers aren’t necessarily fluent in the language of their workplace and face other barriers to connecting at work, creating turnover issues when they’re not able to communicate effectively. Anthill, which pitched on the Startup Battlefield stage at Disrupt, offers a non-app way for employers to communicate with workers — and vice versa — through text messages, the one sure-fire platform that reaches everybody and doesn’t let anyone fall through the cracks.
“We knew as researchers if we wanted these folks to talk to us and stay in our studies we had to text them,” Clauson said. “And so we are super bullish on technology that meets people where they are, works within the fiber of how they already work and live their lives, and doesn’t force them to learn a new suite of technologies.”
The idea is to give workers a way to access any information they could need — pay schedules, contact with a manager, taking a sick day — all through text message. And a way on the employer side to automate as much of that as makes sense, all while offering a full portal of resources without forcing people to download apps or jump through hoops that not everyone can manage.
In the interest of making access to those resources more equitable, Anthill automatically translates its services into more than 100 languages — a feature that could also help employers retain workers who might be alienated by the lingua franca of the workplace.
“A lot of us have family members who have not been able to participate in benefit adoption or knowing how to have any kind of outside of work community through their employer around all those critical things like tax season and schedules and just the basics — because language was a barrier,” Clauson said.
“There’s a lot of folks who can work in English, but that doesn’t mean it’s their preferred language and it doesn’t mean that’s going to be the language that they can most successfully navigate their ability to work.”
Anthill plans to focus on a handful of core industries out of the gate, including manufacturing, distribution (think Amazon warehouses) and agriculture. Kim and Clauson also see opportunities for connecting deskless workers with employers in retail and healthcare, but observe that those areas have a bit more tech already than some other sectors.
“We really focused on individual-level needs [and] what they actually need is communication,” Kim told TechCrunch. “Those workers, they actually need very simple things, but they need the answer right away,” Kim told TechCrunch. While some employers have gone the route of using chatbots and apps, Anthill lets managers save recent answers to commonly asked questions and personalize the resources in a way that more tech-focused solutions might overlook.
It’s probably difficult for knowledge workers or big tech companies to imagine, but Clauson says that the two modes of communication that Anthill replaces most frequently are AM radio followed by an old-fashioned corkboard.
“We do try to stay focused within industry verticals. So we’re very focused right now on manufacturing workers inside of plants or distribution workers in distribution centers or truck drivers,” Clauson said. “That’s where we saw the biggest pain points and that’s where we’re focused first.”
Anthill first opened in alpha in late 2020, with paid pilots and a beta version of the product the following year. The company launched a full version of the platform in 2022 and currently operates in over 300 job sites in the U.S., with global contracts in the pipeline slated for 2023.
According to the company, large employers trying out Anthill often do a test run with a single distribution center or a cluster of regional sites and scale up from there. They can buy Anthill on a per-user, per-month basis, making it relatively straightforward to scale the platform up and out if it’s a good fit. The services are opt-in, not required, but Kim and Clauson have observed swift adoption that travels by word of mouth, starting with the first worker who has a necessary question answered successfully.
“It’s a really fun problem to solve — we get to work with I think the most overlooked, under-appreciated population of the workforce that has an increasingly important voice,” Clauson said.