How to engage deskless workers by welcoming them into the digital age

Deskless workers make up 80% of the workforce, but are often left out or forgotten by the plethora of HR engagement strategies. Here’s how to fix that.

Petru Tinca • 
How to engage deskless workers

Deskless workers are loosely defined as employees who don’t have a designated workspace. They make up about 80% of the workforce in industries such as farming, healthcare, retail, hospitality, transportation, tourism, and manufacturing.

Digital workforce engagement strategies tend to favour office-based workers

Since the start of the digital revolution, HR strategists and people managers have been increasingly occupied with the novel problems and exciting opportunities presented by the digital age.

Employee engagement strategies have become increasingly digital and reliant on regular and easy access to an internet connected workstation or mobile device.

This has been great for digital workers, but not so great for deskless workers who just don’t enjoy that consistent level of day-to-day access to an internet-connected workstation. Just before the pandemic one report indicated that 83% of workers didn’t have an email address and 45% didn’t have access to the company intranet.

Despite their critical roles, highlighted in no uncertain terms during the pandemic, deskless workers frequently miss out on the resources, recognition, and communications that their digitally empowered office-bound counterparts enjoy. Here are several strategies to effectively engage and support this essential deskless workforce segment.

1.  Leverage mobile technology, but ensure it’s widely accessible

Since deskless workers typically don’t have access to workstations throughout their shifts, mobile technology is a vital tool for engagement. Intranet access, real-time updates, scheduling, task management, engagement surveys, new hire orientation, etc. can be delivered to desk-less workers via mobile apps, effectively bringing them into the digital age. However, HR managers cannot blindly depend on mobile communications to engage the deskless workforce.

While most young adults between 18 and 24 have smartphones (98%), smartphone ownership drops to 92% when considering the entire working population, with only 86% using their smartphone to go online. Also, only 38% of people update their smartphones every 2 years.

Leveraging mobile technology will significantly increase your ability to engage your desk-less workforce, however, some digitally shy outliers will fall between the cracks and will need to be reached another way. For example, digital workstations and shared mobile devices may need to be made available on-site to increase accessibility for deskless workers to acceptable levels.

But by measuring uptake and analysing and addressing barriers to access you can optimise your deskless worker mobile engagement strategy.

2.  Make flexible scheduling central to your worker engagement strategy

Deskless workers may never be able to enjoy the flexibility of office-based digital workers who, by virtue of their jobs being digital and/or back office, have greater intrinsic freedom around working location or schedule.

It follows then that in a BCG study of deskless workers, 50% of them cited a lack of flexibility as the main reason they might leave their jobs in the short term.

By designing more shifts that consider deskless workers’ lifestyles, people managers can boost deskless worker engagement. For example, care homes might offer 2-shift, 3-shift, variable-shift, or split-shift work patterns which can help care workers better manage childcare or other care commitments. And it is now possible to offer much greater shift flexibility to deskless workers using AI-powered auto-scheduling software.

3.  Automate and digitise staff orientation and training

84% of deskless workers say that they don’t get enough direct communication from their supervisors, which can reduce productivity and engagement.

This problem can be alleviated to some degree by bringing the deskless worker management process into the digital age. This involves using micro-learning and HR software that enables complex learning to be delivered digitally without the need for a physical trainer or supervisor in a self-paced way, meaning desk-top workers can learn flexibly via mobile or at a time when they can access a workstation.

4.  Reach out to lone workers with mobile-first digital communication

Research tells us that many deskless workers, particularly those in logistics (50%) and retail (45%), don’t feel valued by their employers. This is especially understandable in the case of haulage which can be extremely solitary work.

A mobile-first communications strategy will help to prioritise deskless workers, especially those who work alone, and make them feel more valued. Mobile-first communications strategies involve all email communications being sent out as instant summary push notifications to deskless workers’ mobile phones, so they are on the pulse, inviting them to read the full digital briefings on the intranet when convenient.

It’s also important to incorporate two-way communication into the deskless worker engagement model, by making it easy for desk-less workers to rank, rate, comment, or feedback on issues either reactively or proactively. This kind of mobile-first strategy can help your deskless workers feel valued and listened to.

Engaging deskless workers, who form the backbone of many industries, is crucial for overall organisational success. By leveraging mobile technology, fostering open communication, providing flexible scheduling, automating training, and implementing a mobile-first communication strategy, companies can create a supportive and engaging environment for these valuable employees. Addressing the unique challenges faced by deskless workers and ensuring they feel valued and included can lead to increased job satisfaction, higher productivity, and improved retention rates. As the workplace continues to evolve, prioritising the engagement of deskless workers will be key to building a resilient and motivated workforce.