Communications for Deskless Workers

Most management focuses on people who sit at desks and work on computers, either in the office or as remote employees. It’s easy to communicate with them because they are looking at a computer screen, have access to email, and most have a smartphone lying on the desk or in their pocket. Your leaders can send a text, email, video, or internal social media post at will to reach out to employees regularly. 

However, there are an estimated 2.7 billion people globally who don’t work at a desk. The deskless employees work in the field, don’t have access to a computer while on the job, and most don’t have a company email because so many employers rely on other communication forms. Deskless employees may have smartphones but can’t stop and read a text while serving customers or doing their job. Engaging deskless employees isn’t as easy as engaging desk workers. Still, it’s just as important to meet their information needs and keep them engaged to get an engaged workforce’s advantages, including staying union-free.

Who are Deskless Workers?

Deskless workers are employees doing a huge variety of jobs. In fact, they have been called the backbone of the global economy. They are also often forgotten because they get a minimum of communication support from their employers. They are frontline employees working in:

  • Transportation and logistics
  • Construction
  • Restaurants
  • Hotels
  • Other hospitality services
  • Healthcare
  • Agriculture
  • Education
  • Retail
  • Manufacturing 

These workers have traditionally not received the same level of management engagement effort as employees who work at a desk. How do you create a culture of engagement when employees are scattered about in various locations? The importance of employee engagement has been proven in numerous studies. It improves employee retention, increases productivity, creates high workforce morale, and improves customer service. 

If you think about it, deskless workers need to be engaged as fully as desk workers because many of the jobs they hold are in industries with very high and costly turnover rates. For example, year after year, the hospitality sector’s turnover rate hovers around 80 percent or higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Engaging these employees could produce exponential benefits for employers, including significantly reducing employee turnover rates and develop happier employees.

deskless worker

What are the Deskless Worker Needs?

Engagement is increased in a variety of ways, including developing a positive work culture, improving employee-management trust, teamwork, paying attention to employee mental and physical health, regularly showing appreciationemployee training, leadership feedback, and collaboration. All of these factors require effective leadership able to develop positive employee relations. That’s easier to do when employees are at a desk. 

When people are working in the same location, supervisors can do team activities to grow collaborative skills, develop project teams, walk by employee desks, congratulate someone on a job well done, call an office meeting, etc. Unfortunately, surveys have shown that deskless workers are called the “forgotten workforce” for a reason. They are not included in management’s efforts to develop positive employee relations

Workplace conducted a survey of deskless workers and their senior business decision-makers and found:

  • 17 percent never speak to anyone in the head office
  • 14 percent feel connected to the head office
  • 30 percent don’t understand how their work contributes to organizational success
  • 38 percent have shared an idea, and leaders ignored that idea
  • 48 percent believe the managers in the head office understand their role and the value they bring

There is a disconnect, too, between what deskless workers believe and what managers believe. For example, 54 percent of the people surveyed say they have no employee voice, while 83 percent of managers say they give all employees a voice. In another example, 22 percent of employees believe their ideas make up a major portion of conversations with their leaders, while 52 percent of managers believe it. 

Communication Breakdown

All these statistics indicate a communication breakdown exists between management and deskless employees. Yet, these employees are just as valuable to your business as desk workers and have needs like desk workers. They want to feel valued and empowered. They want to feel a sense of belonging as members of the workforce, appreciated by management and can share their ideas and know they are listened to and will get feedback. 

The deskless workers also want to have a strong employee voice. It’s also important to recognize this group of employees is also more likely to collaborate and join a union when disengaged. Think of the micro-unions of retail workers formed over the last few years and the increasing unionization of healthcare workers occurring right now. 

It would seem that the availability of smartphones and tablet computers would mean communication with mobile employees should be simple. Chris Turlica, a member of the Forbes Technology Council, addressed this issue. He points out there are numerous software solutions for people who work at a desk, but just one percent of business software spending is for deskless technologies. 

Turlica believes the reason is that technology developers focus on solutions to specific problems that emerge, like consumers wanting efficient and safe food delivery service or the ability to use an app to make appointments with repair technicians. What tech companies don’t understand is what goes into making mobile worker jobs a reality or what mobile workers need to feel empowered, connected, and like they have a voice.

Finding Solutions to Engage Deskless Workers

More mobile apps will likely emerge with regularity, but it’s important to understand that empowering the deskless workforce will take new leadership communication strategies. It’s fine to have Zoom meetings in place of face-to-face in-office meetings, but they have limitations, and some employees even zone out when too many people are involved. In addition, deskless employees work a variety of schedules and are scattered in different locations. This makes it difficult to even hold an online meeting.

Following are some suggestions for engaging your deskless workforce.

  • Utilize a mobile workforce enablement platform that allows SMS texting or in-app message delivery to mobile devices your employees are using to do their job
  • Conduct regular pulse surveys and polls and ask employees questions about topics like whether they feel their ideas are heard or if they understand the value of their work; the answers will guide further action needed
  • Utilize an online communication and training platform that deskless employees can access through an app 24-7
  • Utilize interactive eLearning platforms with training videos to provide regular training opportunities, which is a powerful employee engagement strategy
  • Train leaders in critical communication strategies, like regular messaging, consistent feedback, and empowering conversations; be sure to empower middle managers as links between frontline workers and senior managers
  • Develop a collaboration platform where people can share their experiences
  • Develop a platform where all employees can get organizational news, announcements, important information like videos on health and safety procedures, etc.
  • Choose a mobile platform that best fits your workforce, i.e., wearables for manufacturing workers and phones and tablets for service workers

Combine Technology with Effective Leadership

Many of these solutions are, of course, tech-based. However, technology should be combined with effective leadership communication skills. It’s important to develop positive employee relations with deskless workers by learning what they want and developing a strategy to meet employee needs.

Quinyx surveyed 12,000 global deskless workers and found issues that have a real impact on employee happiness and sense of belonging. For example, half of the workforce has gone to work despite being sick, and two-thirds miss out on social events and personal time because of inflexible scheduling. Four out of five workers said they are contacted by their boss during their off-hours, which disrupts their personal lives. These are the very kind of issues that make it more difficult to stay union-free

Giving employees access to technologies that keep them connected and informed should be coupled with leaders who respect their deskless workers in terms of issues like work-life balance and health and safety. Ensuring these workers are given personal time is extremely important. The Quinyx survey found that 20 percent of global workers prefer a flexible schedule above a raise. Though it’s not always possible in some industries, the technology platforms can ease scheduling issues by making information, leadership communication, and training available when it fits their schedule. It’s one way to prioritize employee engagement and well-being. 

communicating with deskless workers

Creating an Emotional Connection

Ultimately, the conversation concerns improving the employee experience, and that takes an investment in technology and employee and leadership training. The communication technology should provide a high-quality user experience in which the platform is easy to use and has as much intuitiveness built-in as possible. The technology selected should also have the employee use cases in mind. Your leaders should know how to use the communication tools to create an emotional connection with the deskless workers, and that is much easier today thanks to the variety of technologies that make communication interesting. 

The communication and training tools include videos, social tools, chat services, podcasts, voice notes, interactive training programs, and photo sharing, to name a few. In addition to the mobile application, you can add a web interface to ensure your deskless workers have access to the tools most convenient to them at the time they choose access – while working or at home. 

Right Tools for the Workforce

Do your deskless employees have an authentic voice? Probably not based on the statistics coming out of the various surveys. The pandemic forced many companies to rely more heavily on deskless workers to remain financially viable, yet they didn’t invest in technology to close communication gaps. The bottom line is these organizations turned to deskless workers to help them provide solutions. Still, deskless employees are usually the group of workers who aren’t as connected or engaged as the in-facility workers. 

Projections, Inc. can help you develop the right tools for your workforce – in-house and at a desk and deskless. Embracing the entire workforce is imperative in today’s business environment. 

About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is Projections’ CEO and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.