The shift to remote work has left millions of people struggling to do their jobs from sofas and kitchen counters, and managers scrambling to keep remote employees happy, motivated, and connected. Along the way, we’re learning a great deal about leading distributed workforces — and also getting a chance to boost productivity and engagement for a crucial but often overlooked segment of the workforce.
I’m talking about deskless workers: vital employees who spend their days stacking shelves, inspecting gauges, and keeping machinery and other essential infrastructure operating smoothly. For too long, these workers — who make up 80 percent of the global workforce — have been left more or less to their own devices, often with little attention from managers, and next to no help from the software innovators and app-builders who’ve sought to make life easier for office-based employees.
Now is the time to give deskless employees the support they deserve. Many of the same insights and strategies we’re relying on to manage remote workers can also help keep deskless employees safe, engaged, and productive — and considering the vital work being done by these essential workers, that will be good for all of us.
Here are five key steps that leaders can take to help their mobile teams during these difficult times.
1. Go Digital
These days, we’re all using digital tools to communicate and collaborate. Leaders should help deskless workers to do the same and give them mobile tech to streamline their workflows, connect with their colleagues, and level up their productivity.
Of course, deskless workers probably won’t have time for Zoom calls while clambering over piping or walking the factory floor. But with smartphones or tablets, mobile employees can stay connected with email, chat-based tools, and photos or videos. Digital tools can also replace paper checklists, offering a more interactive and engaging way for employees to stay focused and productive.
2. Unify Your Team
When possible, get your entire team — including home-office workers and deskless workers — using the same digital hub to communicate and share knowledge. Doing so will break down barriers between your remote, on-site, and deskless teams, and ensure that everyone is speaking the same language and working with the same basic information.
One tip: Look for software tools that work smoothly on both desktops and mobile devices and that allow users to activate or hide features based on their specific use cases. With the ability to customize UX, your deskless teams will be able to create efficient workflows, and your desktop users will be able to access the full breadth of tools they need.
3. Keep Communicating
Once you’ve gotten your whole workforce — both deskbound and deskless — using the same communication and collaboration tools, make sure you use those tools to join the dots between different teams. That means taking the time, as a manager or executive, to actively explain strategic goals and priorities, and ensure workers who might previously have felt outside the loop know exactly what’s expected of them.
It also means encouraging deskless employees to get involved. Your deskless teams can draw on office-bound peers as a source of expertise and guidance, and they can also contribute first-hand expertise of their own to help reshape workflows, anticipate potential problems, and ensure your organization adapts to changing circumstances effectively.
4. Stay Safe
Remote work helps limit desk-bound employees’ exposure to COVID-19, but your frontline workers are still very much in the firing line. Take time to figure out how you’ll keep your deskless workers safe, and be proactive about using communications tech and software to augment your sanitation and safety strategies.
That might mean using mobile devices to coordinate work, communicate, and ensure compliance standards. This will help to support social distancing and provide contact tracing if someone falls ill. It could also mean using digital resources instead of high-touch paper assets such as clipboards, which can easily become vectors for viral transmission.
5. Measure Then Manage
For leaders who’ve been fretting about their remote workers’ productivity, the value of digitally managing deskless teams should be obvious. App-based digitized procedures don’t just help employees stay organized — they also lend themselves to automatically generated reports and updates, perhaps augmented with photos, just-in-time analysis, or even updates received directly from IoT-equipped assets.
That makes digital tech a powerful tool to help managers ensure that deskless teams are getting the job done effectively during these trying times. Combined with better two-way communication, such tools can help improve deskless workers’ productivity, boost accountability, and even help generate more creative solutions to increase efficiency across your organization.
Seize the Opportunity
For too long, many managers have taken an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to their mobile employees. Deskless workers have been neglected when it comes to developing tools and processes capable of improving working conditions and driving productivity. As long as the job’s been getting done, teams have been left largely to their own devices, with paper-based checklists and progress reports left to gather dust in filing cabinets.
As a result, many deskless workers have likely been feeling isolated and undervalued. Now though, the work-from-home revolution is forcing us to take a more engaged approach to managing teams that aren’t physically in the same place. The lessons we’re learning about combining innovative software tools and smart management strategies can also be applied to engage our frontline teams more effectively.
Businesses all over the world are currently reimagining their tech stacks and management strategies to meet the needs of distributed workforces. By including deskless workers in that process, we can leverage this moment to make all our employees more productive — whether or not they normally work behind a desk.