Firstline and Deskless Workers


There’s a quiet revolution occurring in enterprise communications that’s changing the use case. This industry has been all about servicing the knowledge worker. It’s kind of hard to define the knowledge, but he/she gets most of their work done with a phone and computer – or more simply stated with a desk. The other kind of worker didn’t really have a category name until recently. The two most common names are Firstline and Deskless workers.

In other words, there are two kinds of  employees/workers:

  1. Knowledge Workers (AKA information workers use information to take actions. Various work roles that utilize a dedicated computer, and performance requires interpretation or judgement.
  2. Firstline (AKA deskless) workers play a direct role in the production of goods and services. They typically require a degree of mobility, and performance usually entails following established procedures. Their needs vary across industries.

Enterprise communications vendors have always served that second group, but barely. A shared analog phone in the manufacturing area is a good example. Most firstline/deskless employees don’t have a corporate phone number, voicemail box, or email account. Communications are done in person, via physical bulletin boards, and industry specific applications. Common enterprise comms add-ons are paging systems, pagers, and cellular phones. This is what’ changing.

The enabling driver is the smartphone. Just as the PC revolutionized and increased the market in business computing, the smartphone is doing the same. Smartphones are less expensive to acquire and maintain. They are always on and always connected. Smartphones are also platforms that support apps and that are usually self-installed. Smartphones are quite literally a general computing device in the hands of all employees.

For the first time, enterprise-wide communications are not only possible, but feasible.

Smartphones (and tablets and other mobileOS-based devices) are providing the hardware. The general purpose communications software is coming from messaging apps. They are familiar due to popular consumer apps. There are lots of vendors in this space, but it’s Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook that appear to be targeting firstline/deskless use cases the most.  RigCentral Glip is also getting some traction here. Workplace has the familiarity of the Facebook app working in it’s favor — most employees already know how to use it. Teams has a steeper learning curve but has more specialized use cases for both knowledge workers and firstline/deskless workers. RingCentral Glip is attractive to smaller businesses. Almost every UCaaS provider now has a team messaging app, but few are targeting firstline/deskless uses cases.

This newly discovered group of firstline/deskless workers is actually the bigger group of employees – a lot bigger. Several sources suggest that knowledge workers only represent about 20% of the workforce. Industries with the most firstline/deskless workers are agriculture, manufacturing, retail, healthcare, restaurants/hospitality, education, construction/real estate, and transportation and logistics. The vast majority of employees in these sectors are not connected. Even better, they are all investing to improve firstline/deskless workflows.


My research is not a market share report. However, the sector is getting some traction. Last January, both Workplace by Facebook and Slack shared sales data. Both are enterprise-wide communications tools, but Workplace is targeting firstline/deskless use cases and Slack is more focused on knowledge workers. Workplace reported it had 2 million paid subscribers, and Slack reported it had 85k paid users. Yet, we tend to hear a lot more about Slack.

Workplace by Facebook recently profiled its customer Virgin Atlantic (Workplace claims several airline customers) which has 10,000 employees. Evidently 8100 of these employees have Workplace, 6500 use the platform every week, and 7500 access Workplace from a mobile device.

Because the firstline/deskless workers greatly out number the knowledge workers, this transition will likely transform the industry of enterprise communications.

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Dave Michels