No worker left behind: How HR can create better workplaces for deskless workers

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No worker left behind: How HR can create better workplaces for deskless workers

As many as 80 percent of the global workforce are the so-called deskless workers – people who do not work in an office environment and who work in sectors such as retail, hospitality, or healthcare. Without these essential workers, our economies would ground to a halt.

Yet, most of the recent public debate about the future of work has been focused on white-collar workers and hybrid work. But unless the workplaces and wellbeing of deskless workers are taken more seriously, challenges such as the Great Resignation will continue to set companies back.

The bad news is that in November 2021, as many as 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs. One million of these worked in the hospitality industry alone. Moreover, one-third of currently employed deskless workers in the US have expressed their intention to leave their job.

The good news is that the vast majority of these workers – dissatisfied as they may be with the current situation – would consider staying in their positions if their workplace were to improve. 

This means that HR has an opportunity to prevent many of these resignations by stepping in and stepping up its effort to create workplaces that deskless workers will appreciate.

Four steps HR can take to create better workplaces for deskless workers 

So what exactly can HR do to help companies value their deskless workers more? Here are four areas where HR can make a difference: 

Retaining Deskless Workers

#1. Be data-driven: Measure what deskless workers want and act on it

Companies need a constant feedback loop from their employees to improve their job experience (not least because COVID-19 has redefined our relationship with work). And organizations need to be more intentional about capturing deskless employees’ sentiments as well. 

HR should run surveys and regular reports to encourage dialogue over what these employees need most. This will require some investment in the right technology in order to facilitate the collection and analysis of feedback. Any technology used needs to be compatible with the flow of work of deskless workers who don’t sit in front of their computers screens. A good example of this would be running pulse surveys on phones which even deskless workers can have access to.

But once employers start collecting feedback, they must act on it, too! As Mike Morini, CEO of WorkForce says “failing to act on feedback can have a negative impact on employees – more so than if no one had asked for their opinions.”

#2. Be intentional about your deskless workers: Create deskless work strategies

If your organization has deskless workers, you need a deskless work strategy. Hybrid work strategies can indeed help bring deskless and deskbound workers together by, for instance, creating shared digital workspaces that all employees can participate in. But these strategies are largely relevant for white-collar workers.

Your deskless work strategy should thus focus on things that matter to your deskless workers most and directly. 

For instance, you should pay attention to their well-being. Many deskless workers get paid hourly wages. That’s why they cannot take (as much) time off when they need to (unlike many of their deskbound colleagues). In the US, for instance, over 60 percent of polled deskless workers indicated they had to work while sick because they couldn’t afford not to. 

While companies can now use scheduling apps to facilitate shift switching when an employee gets unexpectedly sick, this doesn’t address the problem that many employees show up for work even when feeling unwell, simply because they live paycheck to paycheck. 

That’s why it’s important for companies to consider paid sick leave (if not mandated by the government). Another option is on-demand pay which would allow workers to cash in on their earnings before the pay day, giving them more control over their financial situation. 

Similarly, the deskless work strategy should focus a lot more on the issue of people being overworked and their shifts being understaffed. Businesses should make better use of data analytics. For instance, they can track and map customer traffic, which can then ensure more efficient allocation of employees. 

This is a problem that affects deskless workers more than many deskbound workers. Thus, it can have a detrimental effect on their health and ability to provide great customer service. 

#3. Create an irresistible employee experience and value proposition for deskless workers

Deskless workers are leaving their jobs in droves. Retaining talent in industries such as retail, manufacturing or hospitality is becoming increasingly difficult. Yet, many of these employees would not leave were they satisfied with their workplace. 

Some of the things HR could implement to help deskless workers feel more satisfied and valued include:

  • Improving talent management and development in the flow of work: According to the software solutions company SAP, organizations should consider rolling out mobile-enabled coaching solutions that will help managers engage, develop, and support deskless workers. This could involve micro-learning apps that would allow deskless workers to learn on the go and in the flow of work. These programs should be tailor-made to deskless workers’ tasks as these differ from the rest of the workforce.
  • Increase employee autonomy: According to 97 percent of polled companies, retention could be improved by increasing deskless workers’ autonomy. But only 6 percent of these organizations feel their deskless workforce is ‘very autonomous’. Most deskless workers don’t even have control over their schedule and the processes of claiming holidays. Scheduling or tracking one’s pay are still largely paper-based. HR could introduce deskless-friendly HR solutions that would allow these workers to feel more in control, autonomous and able to give constant feedback. Moreover, and as mentioned above, organizations can provide more autonomy by offering on-demand pay to employees who would appreciate being more in control of their financial situation. 

#4. Communicate with your deskless workers in a way that is convenient for them

Less than 1 percent of all enterprise software spending is allocated to deskless workers. Almost 60 percent of companies have little to no flexible technology solutions in place for their deskless workforce. The same goes for the HR solutions used. These usually do not cater to the needs of deskless workers even if they are supposed to serve them.

This means that most companies and HR departments are unable to effectively communicate with their deskless employees. If companies want to keep their employees engaged, productive and satisfied, they need to find the way to equip them with the right tools to do so.

The nature of the work of deskless employees is such that they cannot sit in front of their computer screens. Many of them consume information from their employers via more traditional formats (e.g. printed materials to be found in communal areas) or via their mobile phones and apps (e.g. Microsoft has introduced a walkie-talkie function on their Teams platform which allows for better communication for frontline workers). 

Companies can’t afford to leave their deskless workers behind

While deskless workers are and will continue to be essential for our economy, not enough attention has been paid to their unique needs. In the age of individualized workplaces, the one-size-fits-all approach is no longer sufficient. And this applies to deskless workers as well. Their demands differ from those working in the traditional office environment and they expect as good a work experience as anyone else (albeit a different one). 

If organizations don’t take their needs seriously, deskless workers will seek better employment elsewhere. And they currently have many options to choose from.

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