Why HR needs to solve ‘real failures’ around deskless workers

Employers in some industries struggled to keep workers informed as cultures quickly changed during COVID.
By: | April 7, 2021 • 2 min read

HR professionals in a variety of industries—such as manufacturing, retail, transportation, entertainment and hospitality—faced a unique challenge during the pandemic: How do you communicate with employees who don’t sit behind a desk or lack access to a computer or email?

Some struggled and scrambled, trying to figure out how to relay critical changes involving safety protocols, company operations and employee scheduling, says Joe Ross, chief product officer at Workforce Software, a global provider of cloud workforce management solutions.

“The pandemic brought on a bunch of challenges related to the health and safety of shift workers,” Ross says. “One of the major complexities is that almost 60% of companies have little to no flexible technology solutions in place for their deskless workers [who] comprise 80% of the global workforce and almost 100% of all shift workers.”

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According to a 2018 report by Tribe, an internal communications agency, 83% of “non-desk employees” don’t have a corporate email address, while 45% lack access to computers or a company intranet when at work. Tribe’s founder and CEO, Elizabeth Baskin, suspects those numbers haven’t changed much in three years.

Over the past year, Ross says, the execution of standard communication processes like telephone trees has been “awkward.” Likewise, COVID forced HR to abandon standard practices like rigid employee schedules and quarterly pulse or employee satisfaction surveys that become quickly outdated, fueling an overall culture shift that puts more control in the hands of employees.

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“The days of command and control, do as you’re told, show up for work and be happy about it—that culture is gone,” he says. So is employee overtime without regard for employee wellness and work/life balance. “Companies will need to start embracing employee self-service when it comes to scheduling and (to) balance employee lives with employer needs.”

Meanwhile, Ross says, “real failures” involving employee communication surfaced during COVID. Some HR leaders tried different ways to communicate with deskless workers without much success. He says HR now has a real opportunity to start leveraging new workforce management tools or software solutions for sudden disruptions like a pandemic.

He points to technology that helps deskless workers feel like their voice is being heard. For instance, employers can gather “in-the-moment sentiment” that provides meaningful insights and then take effective action to improve the employee experience.

“It’s imperative for organizations to really address the weaknesses that have been identified by COVID,” he says. “That will require the idea of sustained agility and agile technologies and strong workforce management tools. But without the right structure in place, manufacturing [and other industries with deskless workers] will continue to struggle to react to the demands of their consumers or the needs of their workforce.”

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Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.