Editorial

What is a deskless worker? (and why it matters for business leaders)

The cashier at your local grocery store. The person who makes your toilet paper. The driver who just delivered your 12,347th online order. The technician who makes sure your internet connection works.
Lawrence Barker
4 Minutes
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The cashier at your local grocery store. The person who makes your toilet paper. The driver who just delivered your 12,347th online order. The technician who makes sure your internet connection works. The people who make sure you can get fresh produce at your local grocery store. Basically, all the people who make life as you know it possible. 


What do they have in common?


They are deskless workers, part of a group of nearly 3 billion people around the globe. Despite their large numbers, they’ve been massively underserved by technology and by their employers over the past few decades. That’s all changing, and the impact it’s having on businesses is huge. 


If you haven’t kept up, you’re probably asking yourself questions like “Why can’t I find candidates for all these open jobs?” or “Why are all my employees leaving?”. It probably feels like you’re losing the war for talent. 


Read on to find out more about the makeup of this critical part of the world’s workforce and to see how paying more attention to deskless workers can have a dramatic effect on your organization.

What is a deskless worker?

Deskless workers are employees whose core job responsibilities take place away from a desk and a computer. 


Deskless workers don’t typically work at your company’s headquarters, but they also aren’t “remote workers” in the popular sense. That’s an important clarification, because while the COVID-19 pandemic has driven a big increase in the number of people working away from company offices, “remote workers” usually still refers to employees who sit in front of a computer all day.

 

A graph showing a significant rise in Google searches for remote workers at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic


Here’s a simple way to think about it: Deskless workers are basically the opposite of ‘office workers’ and ‘knowledge workers.’ 


They may still do complicated tasks that require advanced education and skills, but deskless workers are often on-the-go, working with their hands, or interacting directly with your customers. 

Understanding the typical deskless employee’s experience

Do you know how many deskless employees work in your organization?


While it might seem like a simple question, it’s not uncommon for HR or operations professionals to have a hard time answering it.  This simple question underscores the reality that many companies aren’t focusing enough attention on the experience of their deskless employees. 


Studies have shown that around 80% of the global workforce can be considered deskless. As that includes a majority of the world’s workforce and covers many different industries, it can be difficult to describe the experience of a ‘typical’ deskless worker (which is why it’s important for every company to survey and listen to their own deskless employees). 


While a detailed picture is hard to paint, many studies have been done on deskless employees in recent years, which means it’s possible to identify broad trends to better understand the general experience of deskless workers:



It’s not a pretty picture, is it?


Add up all of these factors together — along with the impact of COVID, which had a strong impact on deskless roles in healthcare, retail, and logistics — and it really shouldn’t be surprising that we’re experiencing the great resignation across many industries which have large deskless worker populations.

Impact stories of investing in deskless workers

While it’s not always easy to engage deskless workers, it’s worth the effort. 


Many organizations are waking up to the fact that deskless workers are a vital piece of their success. These companies are making strategic investments in technology, HR or operations personnel, and training, and they’re seeing positive impacts across the board. Impacts like more ROI from existing investments, higher levels of involvement in company benefit plans, less turnover, and more employee satisfaction. 


Here are a few short stories showing what that looks like 

Lack of benefit and service adoption

One of our customers at Anthill offered many services to support employees, including unique health benefits and a transportation service. These programs were costly for the company, but they wanted to take care of their employees. Unfortunately, adoption of these services was super low.


The problem? 


Although the company had sent out emails about the services, their deskless workers didn’t use email. Once the company shifted and made info available via text messages, adoption quickly rose and they started seeing value from their investments.

Death by a thousand paper cuts

While employers are often looking for huge problems to fix, we’ve learned that the best opportunities for improvement are often smaller in nature. For example:


  • Adjusting the thermostat. On a hot summer day, conditions inside a factory became unbearable. Management didn’t want to turn on the A/C because it was expensive. Workers were on the verge of staging a walkout, but then text messages started pouring in with complaints.

    These were escalated to senior leadership, who quickly decided to lower the thermostat. This avoided the walkout, kept production going, and kept their employees safe.


  • Fired or No-showed? We’ve seen several situations where employees didn’t show up to work because schedules weren’t communicated clearly. This led to management thinking they were “no call, no shows” (which there was a clear policy against), causing employees to think they’d been fired without cause.

    This huge disconnect caused stress for employees and work for HR and management teams, but the root issue was a communication problem. Once these companies adapted their approach to make schedule info available via text, the problems disappeared.


These seemingly small changes both had outsized impacts on the companies implementing them and on their employees. And there are many, many more stories like this.


They all illustrate this one important point: as organizations find ways to include deskless workers in conversations about how to work better together, benefits multiply at both the employee and company levels. 



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