From Travel for London tube staff subjected to a tide of verbal abuse and physical attacks during the pandemic to hospitality workers reporting soaring levels of customer aggression in the wake of Covid, the safety and wellbeing of thousands of deskless workers has hit headlines for all the wrong reasons. Alongside the damaging effects of these harmful experiences on employees, with employers struggling to hire essential front line staff, deskless wellbeing must become a priority to attract and retain vital workers.
There are 2.7 billion deskless workers worldwide, comprising over 80% of the total workforce. Deskless workers are those performing vital, often frontline roles in core industries such as healthcare, retail, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. During COVID, these were the essential workers who took care of us and kept our economy running while most businesses shut down – the healthcare staff, factory workers, grocery store employees, freight and delivery workers, and others that make up the essential workforce. Throughout the pandemic, there was an acknowledgement of these workers’ huge contribution.
However, post-COVID, while there has been much discussion around workplace culture, shifting work patterns and employee expectations, the deskless employee voice has not been heard. While many organisations have made massive shifts concerning remote or hybrid working, flexible hours, and work-from-home ergonomics for deskbound workers, the focus has almost exclusively been on these screen-focused white-collar workers. The office revolution does not encompass the very real issues of poor safety and decreased wellbeing experienced by those who must always work in person, on the frontline – often in some of the most taxing roles.
Closing the deskless technology gap
Throughout the pandemic, and in its wake, there has been a shift in how employers meet radically different employee expectations. Many have invested in new technologies to support this changing work culture, from platforms that enable flexible remote working to digital wellbeing support programs and workforce management tools that streamline HR functions.
However, there has been a stark divide in the way organisations have embraced technology for deskless workers. For example, when organisations were rolling out technology to support office workers at a record pace, a survey conducted at the height of the pandemic found that 65% of deskless workers had not been provided with any additional technology to complete their jobs. Almost 60% of companies have little to no flexible technology solutions for their deskless workers, and just 1% of business software spending focuses on technologies for this group.
In fact, our research found that even the most basic employee experience functions for deskless workers are still performed using inefficient and poorly designed systems. For example, 56% of deskless employees report severely dated methods for time tracking, including paper forms, and punch cards – just one example of how there is a long way to go to improve experiences for these underserved employees. However, when deskless workers face issues of abuse and threat, supporting them to feel safe and supported at work is all-important. Here too, technology can play a transformative role.
Connecting the dots between deskless workers and employee experience
Modern workforce management technologies can enable organisations to create a safe, more productive environment for their frontline staff. Harnessing such technologies can help streamline internal communications and demonstrate support for frontline staff by empowering them to report incidences of abuse in real-time. This means swift responses from managers and the quick deployment of any surrounding support services, with an opportunity to track outcomes and make impactful changes. Crucially, it demonstrates to staff that safety is paramount, that their wellbeing is taken seriously, and that should any incident occur, there is a direct channel to report, and the response is swift and coordinated.
Communicating and getting feedback and support ‘in the moment’ becomes vital to avoid chasms emerging between frontline, deskless workers and their office-based colleagues.
Crucially, technology provides critical data for leadership to better understand their workers’ reality, enabling data-driven decision-making to mitigate and minimise incidences of abuse and improve the employee experience. This can help inform policies and procedures to counter and reduce the threat of abuse while ensuring robust systems are in place to support those who may be subjected to such experiences.
Such systems are not only vital to support deskless employees when they experience safety or wellbeing incidents. The lack of specialised technology for deskless workers is a missed opportunity for businesses to overhaul the entire employee experience and speak to the needs of varied roles. Outdated systems are creating challenges for employers when communicating with, planning for, and managing this large set of their workforce. It is therefore critical to make appropriate investments in technology that leverage data to make it easier to detect when there is a potential problem, capture employee feedback frequently, and enable managers to take action.
Of course, failing to take action based on feedback can impact employees negatively – more so than had you never asked, so any technology-based strategy must be matched by the will to adopt values of openness, responsiveness and adaptability.
A holistic approach to the deskless experience
To create better experiences for vital frontline, deskless workers, companies must invest in engaging, user-friendly and smart technologies that support these workers’ unique needs. By employing consumer-grade technologies, organisations can help employees feel better connected to their employers through regular communications, shifts can be scheduled effectively to reduce overtime and mitigate burnout, while support for on-the-job learning and HR requests can be made simpler in a user-friendly package. These tasks are easy for white-collar workers with corporate emails and systems designed to support their needs but present challenges when you are one of the thousands of workers at a manufacturing plant or a hospital system.
The gap between crucial deskless workers and office-based employees must be closed, and quickly. Just as the public has recognised the massive contribution they make to our lives, employers must respond by ensuring that they harness tools that help deliver safer, more connected and rewarding workplaces, for all.