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How to communicate with deskless workers

New research by Redefining Communications, reveals why deskless workers have often posed a perplexing challenge for internal communication teams.

New research* reveals that deskless and frontline workers are culturally different to office workers. Could this be the key to unlocking engagement with this hard-to-reach audience?

Deskless workers have often posed a perplexing challenge for internal communication teams. The 2019 State of Sector report by Gallagher identified non-desk-based workers as one of the primary barriers to effective internal communication. However, despite their significance, the priorities of many organisations have often overlooked the communication needs of deskless workers.

Deskless workers in the UK and Ireland were surveyed* about the content and channels of communication they receive. 

Back then, the data told us that only 63% of deskless workers believed they had the information they needed to do their job well. Only 36% believed their manager to be an accurate source of information, and 27% had too little information about their organisation. 

Since our 2019 research, there has been a huge shift in technology for companies with employee apps and tools like Microsoft Teams that are being used more and more. Coupled with the global pandemic, we wanted to find out if anything had changed. Surely, both these factors combined made a difference to how we communicate with those workers who aren’t based at a desk or in the office?

What did we do?
We surveyed more than 350 deskless workers from nine different organisations in the UK and Ireland. This included brands like Speedy Services, Dr. Martens, a home retailer, Noble Foods, and the North East Ambulance Service. We wanted representation from across a range of industries to ensure the research wasn’t biased to one particular type of worker.

Our researchers sat with deskless workers who completed online surveys, which asked them about the channels they use and the content they receive. When asked about content, we had three types: industry, organisation or department/area. We also asked them about the quality of the content, like accuracy and usefulness.

What did we find out?

  • 49% think senior leaders are good communicators
  • 33% are using a company app for organisational content (+16% on 2019)
  • Less team meetings are being held in person and online (compared to 2019)
  • 83% feel part of the team they work in
  • Usage of WhatsApp /text messaging increased from 18% in 2019 to 47% in 2023

Ultimately, have things changed since 2019 following the rise in technology and the post-pandemic world? Were we right?

Our hypothesis of any change to deskless worker communication was a little off. Not much has changed, but the reasons why are becoming clearer.

Here’s why: 

  1. On the job: Deskless workers spend over 90% of their time doing their jobs. As a result, they often lack the time to check emails or engage with technology for communication, as it is not their primary role.
  2. Verbal communicators: Deskless workers are fundamentally verbal communicators, operating in a culture that values spoken interactions. This contrasts sharply with office-based employees, who often rely on written communication. This cultural difference is significant as the language and structure of communication is fundamentally different to those working in an office. 
  3. Technology struggles: Despite the digital evolution in the workplace, technology tools have not made the expected progress in engaging deskless workers. The rise in WhatsApp shows that this population are finding solutions for themselves rather than using anything the organisation provides. These employees prioritise information shared through colleagues and line managers.
  4. Shop floor vs factory floor: In 2019, we identified the different types of deskless workers: Team, Mixed and Solitary. This year, we identified further insight into the different types of deskless workers focusing on ‘factory floor’ or ‘shop floor’ with clear differences around skills, focus for the role and customer interaction. For example, ‘factory workers’ interact with customers who have to use their service, if there are customers at all, and their extra technical knowledge means they are task focussed. While ‘shop floor’ workers are interacting with customers who choose the brand and the brand is important to the worker (more so than the tasks). This has a direct impact on the content and communication they need to feel engaged with the organisation. 

So, does this preference for verbal communication and cultural insights hold the key to unlocking engagement with this hard-to-reach audience? The answer is a resounding yes. By recognising and embracing the verbal communication culture of deskless workers, organisations can bridge the communication gap effectively.

But, this is not about changing communication channels or making content more chatty but in nurturing relationships and understanding the content needed to be engaged. When organisations prioritise verbal communication, they demonstrate their understanding and care for individual workers, fostering a culture of development, flexibility, and opportunity. In this ever-evolving landscape, understanding and adapting to the unique preferences and culture of deskless workers are pivotal to success.

*Redefining Communications with research partners SocialOptic

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