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Workers use the Bridgit app at a Toronto construction site. Photo: Jennifer Roberts

Serial entrepreneur Brett Patrontasch had a keen interest in finding a better way to wrangle millennial employees. When his first business, a student painting company, swelled to over 200 contractors, keeping track of them proved to be a nightmare.

So he launched his current company, Shyft Mobile, a messaging app for front-line workers in the service industry. Shyft aggregates communications between employees looking to swap shifts, creating a single home for previously scattershot texts, Facebook messages and emails.

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None of those platforms were specifically built to serve the needs of shift workers. “They end up experiencing a lot of issues,” says 29-year-old Patrontasch. If a store worker doesn’t know enough of his or her co-workers—or if they’re not friends on Facebook—then the opportunity for extra shifts can be missed. “It’s like the Wild West and we’re trying to corral those lost souls.”

The next generation of messaging tools takes email and other communication tools and blends them together in a single place that’s customized by industry. Among them are Bridgit for the construction industry and Bazinga, a social network messaging app for condo dwellers. What they all have in common are customizations that tailor the platform to the industry—and boost productivity along the way.

MORE BRIDGIT: How to Keep Construction Projects On Time and Budget »

Shyft, for example, sends out a notification when a shift is posted or filled, offering peace of mind to employees and managers. Launched this past fall, the app has over 6,000 registered Canadian users at retailers like Gap, Forever 21, American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch. In November, the company reported that 7.5% of all Starbucks locations in North America have used Shyft.

For its part, Bridgit offers a much-needed update to the punch list—the inventory of jobs that need to be completed on a construction site—says co-founder Mallorie Brody. The app streamlines the reporting and communication process between subcontractors, general contractors and developers, and greatly reduces time spent on drudge work like data entry, she says. More than 60 construction companies and developers in the United States and Canada are now using Bridgit.

On many job sites, contractors take photos with their phone, then upload the pictures to their desktop computer and then manually enter data about the project into a spreadsheet. It’s an unwieldy and time-consuming process, says Brody.

MORE PROJECT MANAGEMENT: What Large Clients Care More About than Money »

Simplifying communication between frontline workers and managers can make a dramatic difference in the real world. One Toronto developer saved $500,000 thanks to streamlined communications that allowed the company to hit key deadlines, says Brody. “In construction, any day you’re late is a massive cost because that’s a day your crew is on-site, you have equipment on-site and the costs, as they accumulate, are massive.”

Entrepreneurs in this burgeoning market regard the messaging platform Slack as a bit of an object lesson. Dubbed the “email killer” by tech workers, the desktop and mobile app lets co-workers communicate in real time and also archives comments, which cuts back on the messages that land in your inbox. Revenues by the end of 2015 are expected to amount to $45 million.

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“What Slack is doing for enterprise, for information workers, is what we want to bring to the front line, to shift workers,” says Patrontasch. “We want to own the entire shift ecosystem.”

Reproducing Slack’s functionality within the service industry isn’t exactly a straightforward process. The key to success lies in developing apps that first appeal to the people who will actually use them the most—the front-line workers. It’s why Coffee Mobile, the company Patrontasch founded before Shyft, flopped. That app sent out push messages—about company news, training information and special offers—from head office to a network of salespeople. Getting corporate employees to sign up was easy but few on the front line actually used it.

MORE SALES COMMUNICATION: 5 Ways to Improve Your Sales Meeting »

“The way we were going about it was top-down, and that was going to be a very slow, lethargic process even if we were having some success,” says Patrontasch. “The way to build a much faster, much more successful business was really to focus on user-up distribution.”

Similarly, Bridgit was designed with the general contractor in mind. “We had to think about all the stakeholders, but it started with the general contractors because they’re the ones in charge of tracking this list of 10,000 items on a project,” says Brody.

The company needed to think through not just who would be using the app, but also the workflow, to ensure it was intuitive to use. “There are so many people on-site and the roles are always changing. More than anything, it was a design challenge rather than a technical one.”

This article is from the January 2016 issue of Canadian BusinessSubscribe now!

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Does your company use Slack, Shyft Mobile, BridgIt or another “email killer”? What tools do you use to communicate with employees? Let us know by commenting below.

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