Updated: May 31, 2022
Too often deskless workers are seen as expendable costs that can be minimized in order to increase company profits. This is a mistake. As humans, deskless workers need to be treated with the same dignity and respect that deskbound employees receive. Too often, these valuable members of the workforce are ignored or marginalized, and their potential goes unrealized.
By celebrating and investing in them, you can unlock an immense pool of untapped potential.
Who are deskless workers?
Deskless workers are those who do not have a traditional "desk job." They are often found in industries like manufacturing, healthcare, construction, and retail. In fact, deskless workers make up the majority of the workforce in many countries. They are our "essential workers". It can be argued, as the company's 1st line of defense. And as such, it is even more important that these workers are engaged than their colleagues sitting at desks.
Importance of Engaging Deskless Workers
The term "deskless worker" is not new. However, the importance of engaging this group of workers is only recently becoming more widely recognized. Companies rely on deskless employees to do things like paying high levels of attention to manufacturing and maintenance tasks, delivering exceptional customer or patient care, or finding effective solutions to transportation or construction challenges.
We know employees do not do these things well if they feel stressed, overworked, or underappreciated. The key to unlocking their potential is to understand what motivates them and give them the tools they need to succeed.
Mindsets we have about deskless workers
Deskless workers are the "unsung heroes" of the workforce. They are often taken for granted and their contributions go unnoticed. This is due to a number of traditional mindsets or biases we have about this population, let's take a closer look:
They are "unskilled" or easily replaceable - Historically, many deskless jobs were referred to as “unskilled” because they required no formal educational qualifications or requirements. Calling jobs unskilled led many companies to devalue their worth and accept low-wages, and high turnover as standard. The great resignation is shedding light on the fact that they are often the most knowledgeable about their jobs and have a lot of "tribal knowledge" that can be difficult to replace.
They are "invisible" - Unlike their desk-based counterparts, deskless workers are not always present in the company's physical space. This can make them feel invisible and disconnected from the organization. This is starting to change as well, with companies making a conscious effort to include deskless workers in company-wide communications and events.
They are costs to be managed not assets to be maximized - Often, the labor provided by deskless workers is viewed as an expense that can easily be targeted for cost reductions. This "cost-cutting" mentality has led to a decline in morale and engagement for many deskless workers.
Short-term mindset - Rather than investing in employee development, companies have been focused on increasing efficiency through automation or continuous process improvement; striving for monthly cost reductions that can be heralded at shareholder meetings. It is an easily measurable short-term solution rather than focusing on the more intangible long term investment. Companies have historically measured what is measurable, not what matters.
Interestingly, this focus on automation and efficiency-at-all-costs ultimately led to an interesting flip. The role of deskless workers now often focuses on non-routine problems that machines cannot handle or involves doing things that require uniquely human traits and talents, such as displaying empathy.
We saw this in play during the pandemic - essential workers kept the global economy running, caring for us and our families, and rallying together to solve some of the most complex problems our companies have faced.
What people need their leaders to know
Deskless workers want their leaders and companies to know that they are human beings and should be treated with dignity and respect. Leaders should look for ways to give these workers a voice and listen to them. Here are some common sentiments:
"I want to feel like I am part of something bigger." - Connecting to purpose, belonging to a community, making a difference is important
"My job is so much more than a paycheck." - We care about the company, the product, the customer, the vision, the purpose, and the results
"Know that we are not expendable; we are the backbone of the company." - We have a ton of pride in our work and want you to celebrate what we do well
"I want to know that my opinion matters; give me a voice." - We are experts in our jobs - listen and act on our ideas and feedback
"I am not just one of "the little people"" - I am just as worthy to take up space as you do. I am a capable, hardworking individual who wants to be a part of the solution
We know turnover is important to you - it's important to us too; but we won't stay if we aren't treated right
"Everyone wants to contribute: Trust them. Leaders are everywhere: Find them. Some people are on a mission: celebrate them. Others wish things were different: Listen to them. Everybody matters: Show them." - Bob Chapman, CEO Berry-Wehmiller "Everybody Matters"
What Should Leaders Do?
Establish a shared vision
If you want to keep your deskless workers, start by establishing a shared vision and making sure they are included in the development of that vision. Communicate how their job impacts the vision and values of the company. Ask for feedback on how it is working and where you are falling short to the values.
Invest in the development of employees and leaders.
Set expectations for leaders and develop them accordingly. Help them connect and inspire their people. Accountability is key - hold leaders accountable to be good stewards for the lives of those they touch through their leadership. Creating an environment of trust is essential to bringing out people's gifts and developing a strong team culture.
Democratize development. Increase access to training and development to the deskless workforce. With a mindset of this population being assets to be maximized, invest in solutions like app-enabled wellness or coaching solutions. Leverage micro learning (web- or text-based development) targeted at this demographic.
Make the work fulfilling.
Many deskless workers' jobs could provide a much deeper sense of fulfillment. Companies can strive to continuously improve the design of the work, listening to employees and making changes to make the work more enjoyable and meaningful.
Many jobs may be faced with challenges to adequate pay or benefits, have difficult work schedules, and staffing challenges ( including appropriate absenteeism pools & coverage). Companies need to recognize these systemic challenges that send a significant message about how the company values their essential workers.
Other elements to consider in good job design include ensuring:
Respect and recognition for people's contribution (celebrate the effort, provide promotion and development opportunities, make investments in training & software, improve working conditions, provide wage increases, etc.)
Agency over when, where, how the work gets done (listen to suggestions, and trust people to work independently)
Provide clarity and certainty (sharing information, communications, dashboards, etc. -- things are uncertain and changing a lot - respect that people can handle the truth about what is happening and let them know what is known and what is still up in the air)
Consider the sense of community or shared culture (help build community with colleagues, psychological safety, belonging, support of others)
Resolve problems fairly (consider if there is a process to raise and resolve problems, and share outcomes)
These may not all be easy changes to make in most companies, but the pandemic has shown us all that we can be creative with how we think about flexibility and the kinds of changes we can make to our work. Design the work with the employee. Get their input, be clear on the non-negotiables, and approach the challenge with a "can-try" mentality and you'll be amazed with what you can do together.
By doing these things, you will not only improve employee engagement and productivity - you will also create a more sustainable business model that is less reliant on disengaged "little people" and more focused on the truly powerful human beings who make up your company.