Deskless workers face several challenges — here's how to overcome them

Deskless workers face several challenges — here's how to overcome them

In recent years, a lot of resources have gone into developing and implementing digital tools to foster dispersed workforces, which are organizations that consist of a mixture of on-site and off-site employees. Messaging platforms, teleconferencing applications, and productivity trackers have helped remote workers feel more connected with their place of work and employers feel more assured of their employees' diligence. Still, remote workers are a relatively small portion of the workforce. Overwhelmingly, workers are deskless rather than remote. This article looks at what you can do to accommodate this population.

What are deskless workers?

A deskless worker typically doesn't have a designated workspace for at least 80% of the time they're at work. You might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of employees qualify as deskless, with 80% of the overall workforce falling into the category. That's around 2.7 billion people across many sectors. Here's a list of largely deskless industries and the number of workers within each:

  • Agriculture: 858 million 
  • Construction and real estate: 265 million
  • Education: 226 million
  • Health care: 148 million
  • Retail: 497 million
  • Restaurants and hospitality: 122 million
  • Manufacturing: 427 million 
  • Transportation and logistics: 189 million

Deskless industries feature frontline or essential workers, people who interact directly with the public and are necessary to maintain a functioning society. Many of the industries listed above include professions that many people associate with desk work, such as health care and education, but people in these roles may not spend much time sitting down. Doctors and nurses make rounds, see patients, and perform or assist with procedures. Most teachers are on their feet most of the day, conducting classes or monitoring the premises. 

Advances in technology have helped to make deskless workers more visible and accessible. Smartphones, for example, allow people out in the field to communicate more easily with headquarters, and teleconferencing software makes it possible for physicians, nurse practitioners, and educators to interact with the people they serve.

"The vast majority of employees qualify as deskless, with 80% of the overall workforce falling under the category. That's around 2.7 billion people across many sectors."

How do deskless workers relate to remote workers?

Deskless and remote workers can be part of a dispersed workforce, with the major difference between them being a desk. Remote workers generally work at one, using computers to complete assignments and communicate with others in their organization. 

In contrast, deskless workers don't spend much time, if any, at a desk. Their duties are more hands-on than those of remote workers. Operating a computer isn't normally an option for many deskless workers. Aside from the Smartphone in their pocket and other communication equipment, people such as frontline workers, dock workers, line workers, and drivers have little to no opportunity to sit in front of a screen for any reason.

Common challenges with deskless workers

Having deskless workers, or a dispersed workplace in general, presents numerous challenges to managers and leaders, namely:

  • Communication: In today's workforce, computer technology is the primary means of correspondence and interaction, especially for remote workers. Most deskless workers don't use computers as part of their daily routine, and their jobs often involve hands-on activities that don't normally allow for extended communication with their on-site colleagues. In some industries, especially frontline ones, communication is mainly face-to-face, but that can result in miscommunication or inconsistent messaging as instructions get passed from person to person.
  • Disconnection: Lack of communication can make employees feel disconnected from their organization, especially workers out in the field. Truck drivers, for example, are on their own for much of the day, and their direct interactions typically involve strangers instead of colleagues. That may partly account for the extremely high turnover rate in the trucking industry.
  • Training: Ongoing professional development is essential for building engagement and upskilling a workforce, but deskless workers face numerous obstacles when it comes to training opportunities. For example, many deskless workers don't have access to the technology needed for training. When training is available, deskless workers often lack the time to complete it because of the myriad of hands-on tasks they must do. Also, the generally lower engagement level among deskless workers can affect their motivation.
  • Injuries: By injury, we mean any instance of experiencing physical, psychological, or epidemiological damage. The active nature of deskless work correlates with a higher risk of injury. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, frontline workers were at a much higher risk of getting infected than their non-frontline counterparts. Even in less physically hazardous occupations, such as teaching and medicine, constant movement in relatively congested settings increases the chances of illness and accidents such as slips, falls, and cuts.

Overcoming challenges associated with deskless workers

Given the necessity of deskless work and its inherent challenges, employers would do well to address some common problems these workers face. Here are some ways that you can overcome these challenges:

  • Invest in mobile solutions: Technology is the most obvious solution for overcoming communication challenges with deskless workers. The key is to implement a solution that meshes with the activities of your dispersed workforce. Tools such as group chat and social media aren't feasible for employees out in the field because workers have little opportunity to use them safely. Mobile technology is a better solution for most deskless industries as it allows for direct voice-to-voice interaction without interfering as much with workers' duties.
  • Invest in workers' well-being: Aside from implementing better communication platforms, you can improve the deskless worker experience by investing in their well-being. This could mean introducing flexible scheduling or making it more predictable so workers don't feel they're constantly living around their job. Such a simple measure can help workers feel that their employer cares about them, which promotes goodwill and boosts retention.
  • Provide microlearning opportunities: The idea behind microlearning is that training can be brief and bite-size rather than expansive and time consuming. Instead of an hours-long seminar or conference, training might consist of short informational paragraphs, infographics, audio passages, videos, games, or quizzes. Workers can access microlearning opportunities via mobile apps so they don't feel like they're going out of their way to upskill.
  • Incorporate safety training: Part of the microlearning opportunities you provide should consist of safety training. There are even workplace apps that feed helpful safety information to employees through notifications, assessments, and easy-reference guides, all of which can promote compliance with regulations and proper protocols. 
  • Check in regularly: At least once a week, carve out time to check in with your deskless workers via phone. The calls don't have to be long. They just need to involve sincere expressions of concern for the employee's well-being, advancement, and safety. It's another way to convey that the organization recognizes and appreciates their work.

The shape of the workforce is likely to change in the coming years, and the needs of deskless workers are likely to evolve accordingly. As newer tools and resources become available, it's up to you to incorporate them into your company so that every team member feels connected to the organization.

Tips for managing a changing workforce

Employers can improve engagement and retention by implementing changes to prevent employee burnout.

Whether you're dealing with a traditional work arrangement or a dispersed workforce, managing your team is easier with the help of digital tools.

Compared to generations past, today's young people are more likely to emphasize the importance of work-life balance. Appeal to job seekers by offering a more flexible work environment.

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