Deskless Workers: A Guide for Effective Employee Engagement

In a traditional office setting, keeping everyone engaged is challenging enough. But what about the 3 billion+ workers who don't spend their days sitting at a desk?

In this article, we'll show you how to engage and empower deskless employees to create a more productive and positive workplace.

What is a deskless worker?

A deskless worker is someone who isn't tethered to a desk or desktop for their day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. Instead, they spend most of their day on the move or performing physical tasks. Or, they do their jobs remotely without a designated desk or office space (e.g., a digital nomad).

Common examples of deskless workers include:

  • Manufacturing workers
  • Construction workers
  • Retail associates
  • Healthcare professionals
  • Field sales reps
  • Truck drivers
  • Hospitality staff
  • Restaurant servers
  • Dock workers
  • Transportation workers
  • Gig workers (e.g., for events)

While the term 'deskless workers' has historically referred to blue collar workers, the digital age has expanded this definition past the transportation and manufacturing industries.

Deskless = few opportunities to interact

Deskless work is characterized by a mobile environment. An example of a company with a massive deskless workforce is Amazon. Out of the company's 1.5 million+ employees, more than 900,000 work in warehouses, fulfillment centers, retail locations, and out in the field.

Many deskless employees never intersect. Given the different locations, shifts, and work styles of deskless employees, it's challenging for them to interact with coworkers or their direct managers. This means it's a lot more challenging for them to share a collective goal, bond over shared experiences, or feel included in company culture.

When a significant percentage of your workforce doesn't have a shared understanding of your brand or culture, employee retention and engagement plummet. This helps explain Amazon's 150% annual turnover rate (which is double the industry average). Every year, Amazon's eye-opening employee attrition costs shareholders ~$8 billion.

Amazon is just one example of a worldwide trend, though. According to Gallup's Global Indicator for Employee Engagement, only 32% of the US workforce and 23% of the global workforce are engaged.

This means that the vast majority of all employees don't feel committed to their company's goals or connected to its culture.

What makes communication among deskless employees difficult?

Deskless employee engagement requires a different approach from traditional office workers. Significant differences in how and when they work, coupled with limited opportunities for face-to-face interaction, make it a lot more challenging to communicate with deskless workers.

Here are four reasons why:

Different schedules

Most deskless workers work in shifts. This makes it difficult for them to communicate with their coworkers, supervisors, or the entire team. It's not uncommon for some employees to never meet all their colleagues face-to-face.

Scheduling differences also mean they'll need information at different times than your office employees, so communications channels like email or Slack that would otherwise help won't work as well.

Feelings of disconnect

No matter the size or type of company you run, a certain level of disconnect is practically guaranteed. Scheduling, time zone, and priority differences make it tough for these employees to form a community, even with their closest colleagues.

  • Many frontline employees feel disconnected from their company's culture because customers are their number-one priority.
  • Remote workers typically face issues with geography, time zone differences, limited access to company resources, and the ability to form a bond with their other team members.
  • Blue collar workers struggle with expressing their opinions due to a hierarchical communication structure.
  • Night shift workers have minimal direct communication with their in-office colleagues and go relatively unknown.
  • Disposable or temporary workers don't have time to form long-lasting relationships.

Some employees opt for these jobs because of this — they prefer to get in, do their work, and get out. But, on a macro level, the numbers don't lie. Companywide disengagement is bad for business.

High demand for real-time communication

For frontline workers in industries such as retail, hospitality, or healthcare, communication typically happens on the spot (e.g., a conversation with a customer or an emergency situation). The same goes for anyone working on warehouse, factory, or shop floors.

The time-sensitive nature of certain roles means you need instant, two-way communication between employees. Deskless workers don't have the luxury of pulling crucial information from their computer. They can check messages on their mobile devices, but reliability depends on how quickly they can get a response.

Outdated tech

Your deskless employees might not have access to the same software and tech your in-office employees do. Even if they do, it might not be designed for them.

To effectively manage communication between your deskless team members and their managers, you need a platform designed to handle the nuances of a deskless workforce — shift and location tracking and real-time photo sharing, for example.

Why communication is important for deskless workers

Deskless employees make up roughy 80% of the global workforce. That means 4 in 5 members of the world's working population has greater difficulty accessing important information and communicating.

There are untold benefits to having engaged employees — their job satisfaction, safety, and, ultimately, your bottom line.

  • Employee retention. In 2022, more than half (52%) said they'd leave their job over tech tools. According to another survey of 8,000+ employees and C-suite execs, 45% plan to leave the frontline altogether. Reliable communication increases transparency from leadership and facilitates a sense of community, increasing employee satisfaction.
  • Profitability. When employee morale improves, productivity, efficiency, and retention follow. Highly engaged workforces are as much as 23% more profitable.
  • Safety. Adequate deskless worker engagement means they can report safety issues and you can share important updates. If they're disengaged or don't have access to the right technology, it's a lot harder to report and mitigate safety hazards.

The role of technology in deskless communication

Although three-quarters of deskless workers spend most of their day using tech, 60% aren't satisfied with it. This doesn't reflect an availability issue — it's simply that they lack...

  • an integrated platform that connects employees, managers, and executives
  • a way to easily access vital information and updates (e.g., product information, new orders, or a safety update)
  • communication opportunities that go beyond traditional methods (e.g., email)
  • integration with the rest of the tech stack

To prevent disengagement among distributed workers, it's your responsibility to take proactive measures to ensure effective employee engagement.

6 ways to improve deskless workforce communication

1. Audit your current internal communication channels and performance

To evaluate your current platform's performance and usability, you'll want to look at team alignment, information deliverability, and engagement levels.

For admins, it should be easy to find this on an analytics dashboard. Look for information like:

  • Email open and click-through rates
  • Read and response times
  • Survey response rates
  • Event registrations
  • Platform engagement levels (e.g., time spent on the app)

You'll also want to survey your team members. Ask them how they feel about the tools they're using and whether they have trouble accessing information.

2. Make critical information easily accessible via mobile technology

1 in 4 deskless workers say a lack of purpose-built tech bogs down their everyday processes. Everything — schedules, product details, HR policies — needs to be available in one place.

Alongside streamlined communication, a central hub for your deskless workforce shortens the time between an employee needing information and receiving it. In some cases, it can cut out the need for a manager's involvement altogether.

3. Create a comprehensive communications plan

The most successful communication plan for deskless workers requires a simple, easy-to-use tool with multiple communication methods.

  • Pop-up notifications let managers share quick updates as employees go about their day. When they clock in, for instance.
  • Group messaging allows team members to chat with each other and pour out their thoughts, questions, or concerns.
  • Formal announcements keep employees informed about company-wide news.
  • One-on-one messaging lets employees communicate privately with their manager or peers in the hierarchy.
  • File sharing makes vital documents and photos accessible and easy to find, all in one location.
  • Scheduling lets you keep track of employee availability, so managers can create fair schedules that work for everyone.
  • Feedback gives workers an anonymous way to share thoughts on company culture and processes.

Managers can lead by example by actively using and promoting the digital platforms designed for communication and engagement. This involves frequently posting updates, acknowledging employee accomplishments, starting group chats, and being receptive to feedback.

4. Set up a rewards and recognition program

It isn't just about communication. It's about the type of communication.

Yes, real-time updates and chat functions are great. But to tackle the engagement problem as a whole (and develop a strong company culture), you need to recognize your employees for their work.

Employee rewards and recognition programs are two-pronged:

  • Manager-to-employee recognition: Cash bonuses, team member shoutouts, and spot awards a manager gives to their deskless employees for going above and beyond.
  • Peer-to-peer recognition: Encourages employees to appreciate each other's work efforts with messages, "cheers!", and peer bonuses

You'll want to give an appropriate award, depending on the significance of the achievement. Read our article on setting up a rewards and recognition program for more guidance.

5. Measure your success from each employee's perspective

Implementation and adoption are the two biggest challenges when it comes to new technology. So, you need tools that integrate with one another and handle every aspect of the employee experience.

In addition to one-on-one virtual check-ins, exit interviews, and deskless worker surveys, use the following metrics:

  • Employee retention levels
  • Absenteeism rates
  • Employee satisfaction scores
  • Task completion times
  • User adoption (for software)

You should also consider setting up a focus group of deskless workers to get direct feedback on the tools you're currently using and how they can be improved.

6. Offer unique lifestyle benefits to enhance compensation

For organizations with a large deskless workforce, offering market rate compensation is the bare minimum. Offering flexible benefits that can impact employees live outside of work is how you stand out from the crowd.

Bonuses, benefits, and team recognition with Compt.

Most companies focus on streamlining their two-way communication and forget the other half of employee engagement. People aren't just productivity workhorses. They're human beings that crave connection and recognition.

With Compt, you can give your deskless workers a sense of community, recognize their hard work, and create peer/manager bonus systems that keep them engaged. With Slack integration, you can easily make true human connection part of your everyday communication and, by extension, your culture. See how it works.

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