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Rescuing our deskless workforce from digital poverty

Software
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/TechnoVectors)

The plight of poverty has been addressed for decades - from Geldoff to Rashford, just in living memory. But in a digital age, we’re seeing poverty of a different kind manifest itself. That of the deskless workforce, who have been underserved and neglected by the businesses that rely on them. So much so that we’re now on a burning platform for change. 

The madness of technology

The numbers tell the story. The 2.7b workers around the world who do not sit behind a desk to do their jobs represent the largest collective group of employees - around 80 percent of the world’s workforce. Furthermore, they make up a large percentage of individuals in essential industries that keep our economy running in sectors such as healthcare, agriculture, construction, retail, manufacturing, and transportation.

Despite the fact that these workers represent such a significant and critical portion of the global workforce, to date, many of the technological solutions to progress businesses have been designed solely for the use of deskbound workers. As a result, the deskless have suffered from tools that are not fit for purpose or manual paper-based processes that exist because of legacy or the lack of a better option. In an era of remote-based work and ubiquitous consumer technology, it needs to be addressed.

A ticking time bomb

A year ago we were applauding healthcare workers. Today, we have new admiration for haulage drivers. Come December, we’ll be thankful for those in agriculture for our Christmas dinner. Yet years of neglect is taking its toll with many deskless employees now walking rather than talking. For instance, the care sector is facing its worst staffing crisis in history, with thousands of vulnerable people going without care as a result. Some 78 percent of providers who responded to this exclusive survey, said recruiting carers is the hardest it has ever been. Many describe being at "breaking point". Unfortunately, this is one example of many.

Deskless employees' well-being is at an all-time low and anxiety at an all-time high. According to this study, 43 percent of deskless employees have felt pressure to take shifts that they didn't want and 37 percent thought that asking for a scheduling change would be viewed negatively by their management - factors leading to a poor work-life balance and a high burnout rate. It’s the equivalent of a financier being asked to work on a Fisher Price children's computer and being pressed to deliver results regardless. The pressure perpetuates and the cycle of frustration and failure repeats until something gives. This is why the plight of the deskless is a ticking time bomb.

The dark operations of the organization

It's not the fault of the deskless workers. They are digitally disconnected with pen-and-paper checklists, disparate spreadsheets and siloed legacy systems creating black holes of insight and control. This is leaving businesses blind to risks and in danger of missing opportunities -  something known as the dark operations of the organization. Yet these are everyday issues that can be easily addressed with the right culture, approach and investment.

Shining a light on these dark operations has a dual benefit. It not only provides the business with insights and detail to improve and increase efficiencies, but it will also provide the deskless with tools, information and techniques that are fit for purpose. This will help them in their work and lead to better rates of retention, productivity and performance. What’s not to like?

How do you eat an elephant?

Part of the issue is that this challenge is so big and the deskless workforce so vast that it is difficult to know where to begin. Which is where the adage around ‘how you eat an elephant’ comes in. Step one is to recognize that paperwork and spreadsheets are not scalable for an organization that needs a single point of truth. Digitization is the essential next step toward a single view. Even with digital data sources, however, there's scope for further integration.

An organization might have narrow legacy technology in place such as staff rostering or audit tools, but these are often inflexible, limited in scope and disconnected from broader platforms. Businesses need to find ways to bring different data streams under one digital roof not only to simplify analysis but to connect an organization’s most integral assets — its people, buildings and equipment. Imagine, for example, the efficiency gains if cleaning activity was prompted by footfall data from a smart building system rather than an immovable daily schedule. Similarly, costly engineer visits could be avoided if an automated monitoring system picks up a fault with a fridge and a local staff member is guided through some initial diagnostic and safety checks in case there's a simple fix.

Real-time agility

The problem with many incumbent reporting mechanisms is that they are purely retrospective. Dark operations deprive businesses of the actionable insight they need to drive future improvement. Forward-looking businesses should be asking what they can do to empower deskless employees, with analytics driving better decisions at all levels?

Leaders need to be able to see what's working and what's not — not in the next set of monthly reports but right now. Real-time management visibility is vital. The key questions (who, what, where, when and how) can be answered if it is made easy for employees to log their activity with sensor networks leveraged for continuous monitoring. Businesses must capture this front-line activity — not with paperwork that's damaged, lost, late or falsified - but with digital tools that not only capture the key information, but that also augment and add value to employees. However, digital initiatives of this kind may fail if employees are not consulted, engaged and trained during the deployment of new working practices, so it's vital to establish a detailed onboarding plan at an early stage. 

Recovery rests on the dekless

The rise of intelligent operations — combining smart people, smart buildings and smart assets — aggregates detailed digital feedback from the front line. It adds crucial context around the work being done, facilitating trend analysis and the opportunity to adjust standard practices in pursuit of continuous improvement.

In short, it’s time for software developers to bring all they’ve learned catering to consumers and desk-bound workers, and use it to help deskless workers, too. It won’t be easy. But how we recover economically from the pandemic - and how quickly - rests on better equipping this huge workforce properly, effectively and efficiently.

Kit Kyte, CEO, Checkit

In 2021, Kit was appointed CEO of Checkit and embarked on a mission to enable more connected, efficient and productive frontline workforces.