Deskless Employees vs. Remote Employees: Defining the Divide
During my time here at theEMPLOYEEapp, my education into the world of the deskless, frontline, and remote employees has been nothing short of astonishing. Over 80% of the world’s workforce doesn’t sit behind a desk or in an office. They are your delivery drivers, nurses, factory line workers, and others who have braved their roles amidst the pandemic. Their cause has unfortunately been overshadowed by the remote employee, the displaced office worker who has become the focus of so many in Internal Communication and HR Communication.
Over the last year, there have been countless studies, articles, and focus groups on the wellness and adaptability of remote workers. While the plight of the newly remote workforce (like yours truly) has been widely covered, the fron worker has all but been forgotten. Why? For one, what we have come to think of the definition of deskless and remote employees during this pandemic is incorrect and have become intertwined as one. However, understanding the core tenets and separation of the global workforce has never been more important than it is today.
Who Are Deskless and Remote Employees?
As I mentioned, joining theEMPLOYEEapp helped me understand the difference between deskless and remote employees. But I didn’t always. I recall during my first interview, I was asked, “who do you think a deskless worker is?” My response was “someone who is at home, working remote, logged in, and basically anyone not in an office day-to-day.”
It was a logical answer, but far from the correct one. The truth is, the deskless worker is not a remote worker. The deskless worker is often called a “frontline worker” — they are dock workers, warehouse employees, baristas, nurses and doctors. Anyone who does not sit behind a desk or use a computer to do their job is a deskless worker. And they have vastly different challenges than remote workers do.
Challenges in the Remote Workplace
Understanding what’s going on with your deskless workforce is just as critical as understanding the needs of your remote workforce. The struggles that your frontline workers are facing are many and understated. Their health, safety, and that of their families and loved ones is on the line each day. They are venturing into this world fully aware of the dangers to themselves and to colleagues on their shift. This is taking a toll on them physically and emotionally. So, the need to watch out for signs of burnout and fatigue are critical. But that is just the beginning. Because Deskless Workers don’t have computer access, rarely have company email addresses, and can’t access the Intranet, companies struggle to directly communicate with them. This results in lower engagement, inconsistent messages being cascaded through the organization, potential for safety incidents, and a disconnect between frontline teams and corporate.
Now imagine all of those challenges during a crisis. During the peak of the pandemic in mid-2020, organizations had to communicate that some of their staff would be furloughed and others would remain on the job. Without a way to directly communicate or target information to frontline teams, this divided workforces. Those who were furloughed felt they were not as valuable as those who were still working. And those who kept working felt as though they were expendable to the company.
Reaching The Deskless Workforce
But many of our clients already had a comms channel in place that allowed them to reach their deskless teams, target communication, and reach employees regardless of location or employment status. Healthcare companies like Avera Health were able to change paper systems to digital ones during the pandemic to increase safety measures in their hospitals. United Health Services used their app to continue communications to furloughed workers so they knew why they were furloughed, what was going on, and when they would be back at work. BNSF Logistics used their app to continue culture-driving and engagement initiatives like L&D programs using their app.
Are your newly remote employees facing challenges, burnout, and disengagement? Yes. Absolutely. And that’s important to address. But they still have computers and email and ways of communicating. They are still in the safety of their homes. But why are we seeing the market saturated with advice for re-engaging and supporting just remote workers? Understanding the challenges faced by deskless workers should be a priority for Communications, HR, and C-level leadership alike. Their voices need to be heard and recognized, in the same volume as that of a remote worker. Strengthening the lines of communication to this critical employee group literally can save lives.
Taking action to support this workforce is an activity that must take place now. Are you extending wellness and mental health benefits to these workers? Are you actively communicating with them when they are furloughed? Is your leadership team taking an active role in addressing your ENTIRE workforce? Or is your primary communication focus still on the remote worker?
Let’s Improve Internal Comms for Deskless and Remote Employees Together
We advocate for our clients to complete an annual internal communications audit to identify the gaps in their communication strategy and learn how to better engage their entire workforce. The audit often reveals communications gaps that weren’t obvious. It may show you just how few channels you have for reaching frontline workers.
Many companies rely on signage and printed materials in break rooms, but furloughed workers can’t see these. And you can’t measure who has seen a poster, making them ineffective for crisis communications. Organizations also heavily rely on email communications. Most deskless workers lack access to any email communications from their employer. For those that do have email access, the information is often latent. And with email open rates hovering at ~20%, one in five people receiving a critical message isn’t going to cut it. A mobile app solution provides immediate alerts, notifications, and top-down communications that can cascade to specific groups, shifts, or work groups in real-time.
The future of the global workforce has been forever changed as a result of this pandemic. The pandemic has forced us to refocus on work-life balance, the future of the office, and how to make work safer. However, the focus in this transition time must be on your remote employees. They have been through a lot, and continue to show up to work and face those challenges daily. Support them, listen to them, and above all, level the playing field in your employee communications and engagement with these workers. Include them, prioritize them, and celebrate everything they do for your company.