The Challenges of Training Deskless Workers

deskless workersIt’s estimated that “Deskless Workers,” or those employees who don’t have designated working spaces, make up a remarkable 80% of the global workforce. That’s approximately 2.7 billion people!

These invaluable people work predominantly in industries such as Healthcare, Retail, and Manufacturing, as well as in roles such as delivery drivers, cashiers, and across various types of service industries. In other words, they’re people whom our economies rely on to function and whom we interact with nearly daily, if not multiple times a day.

However, training for Deskless Workers has been mediocre, at best. It’s an area of concern that more companies are paying attention to, but up until recently these groups have been slighted when it comes to on-the-job learning.

There are many reasons why companies have struggled to train Deskless Workers, but the biggest challenges are:

1. Communication is often harder. The most cited issue for why it’s difficult to train the Deskless is that access to the company’s communication and technology systems may be limited. They may not have a personal company email address; they may not have an assigned mobile device; they may not be in a role where checking for new information or training is even realistic while working, such as cashiers and retail sales.

It’s also important to remember that “deskless” is not synonymous with “remote.” Yes, deskless workers are also often remote workers, but remote workers are not necessarily deskless.

According to an SAP news article:

Though many employees are now working from home, it is important to acknowledge that remote workers are not the same as deskless ones. Remote workers still have a desk, whether it’s at home or in the office, which gives them access to their company’s communication and internal technology systems.”

If certain employees don’t have a place where they feel tethered to the company, information dissemination will undoubtedly be harder.

The obvious solution to this challenge is a greater reliance on mobile learning. Whether the company’s policy is BYOD, onsite kiosks, or assigned devices, putting mobile technology into people’s hands is the most efficient way to offer training to those who don’t have a desk that they call “home.”

2. Loyalty and purpose run low. Deskless employees tend to feel less loyal to one particular company because they may see their jobs as temporary. They statistically change jobs more often than office employees and may not perceive their current employer as offering long-term benefits and stability worth staying for. These reasons make connectivity to the company culture challenging. And, given the communication issues explained above, L&D and HR may be less able to communicate regularly with deskless workers, which can leave them feeling disconnected, abandoned, and unclear as to the higher purpose of their job and how it serves the greater company purpose.

The solution to this problem is to fix the communication disconnect in Challenge One and then make it systematic to communicate consistently. Deskless workers should receive the same amount of care and attention that office workers receive, as related to clear, concise direction and specific assignments for ongoing training.

3. Turnover runs high. According to research, many industries with large numbers of Deskless workers have exceptionally high turnover rates. As two alarming examples: supermarkets and quick-service restaurants report 100% staff turnover every year.

Why is it so shockingly high? Low job satisfaction and negative work environments rank at the top of the list. BusinessWire reports that “…1 in 3 said that they do not feel appreciated at work,” which leads to dissatisfaction. It’s human nature that people feel better (and want to perform better) when they’re shown appreciation for the hard work they contribute. Further, “…54% of the deskless workforce would consider leaving a job because there was a negative work environment.”

The solution to this challenge is to tackle the first two challenges; (yes, there’s a reason they’re listed in this order) and next to use training to show employees that they and their jobs are valued. Offer training that makes it easier to perform at their best. Don’t leave them floundering or always forced to figure things out on their own. They’re sure to move on as soon as possible. Instead, give people the proper tools to excel with less of a struggle. You’re much more likely to inspire them to commit to staying in the job longer.

4. Focus only on compliance training. Sadly, the majority of organizations focus less on professional development strategies for deskless than desk-based workers. So, spinning off of Challenge Three, please do better than only offering compliance training. If you’re truly to inspire commitment, provide career and personal development options, as well.

Because training opportunities for deskless workers are uncommon and rarely formalized, this is a fantastic strategy for achieving in all of the areas above: more open communication and engagement, greater loyalty and purpose, and reduced employee churn.

Deskless workers typically have little time for training of any kind while on the job, so if all they’re assigned are compliance courses, they’ll have no time left for other types of learning. If possible, allot time for people to complete learning pathways for development, whether toward management roles, expanded skillsets, professional certifications, stronger soft skills, etc.

5. Risks and resentments are real. This last challenge may be the most important to discuss because it can usurp success in any of the previous Challenges. Deskless workers may face higher risks of catching COVID-19 than employees working from their offices and/or homes. This will vary widely across companies, depending on industry and other circumstances, but it’s something that businesses must grapple with in keeping employees safe and satisfied.

Unfortunately, many companies aren’t accommodating the Deskless and are putting people at serious risk:

65% of those polled had to go to work sick (even in the midst of a global pandemic) because they couldn’t afford time off and didn’t have the means to amend their schedules” (BusinessWire).

Beyond the health risks, emotional resentment toward the company for not protecting people’s safety can quickly dominate and demolish any of the above attempts to bring Deskless Workers into the fold.

Training can be a solution to this challenge, if used to educate people on proper health protocols like when to stay home and how to practice social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, and other safety processes on the job. In an ideal world, companies would offer paid sick leave and other benefits to protect workers who can’t “afford time off,” but that may not be feasible for all companies. However, all companies should consider offering health and safely training to mitigate potential issues that could lead to risk, resentment, or worse.