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The secret to engaging deskless employees

By Ian Barrow, Senior Employee Experience Consultant – this article first appeared in The HR Director.

2.7 billion employees worldwide are deskless, which is 80 per cent of the global workforce. From nurses and care workers through to retail assistants and construction workers, frontline workers who don’t sit at a desk have valuable, transferable skills – but they rarely get the recognition they deserve.

This has been exacerbated by the move to a hybrid business model for many traditional office-based workers. While many employees are benefiting from a much-improved work-life balance, most deskless workers simply can’t work from home – meaning leaders have to work harder with the  tools in their ‘armoury’ to engage and motivate them.

So, what can organisations do to ensure their whole workforce – including their deskless employees – are bought into the company’s goals and actively want to contribute to its success? The answer may be simpler than you think: give everyone a voice.

Give employees a voice

If organisations want to truly engage and motive their deskless colleagues just as much as their office-based and hybrid employees, they must find out what’s important to them – and then focus on improving these key elements. After all, how can you improve engagement levels when you don’t know what influences the way people think, feel and behave?

For instance, it might be assumed that salary is more important to deskless workers than anything else, when in fact feeling valued, cared about and appreciated might be just as important.

But finding out what deskless workers think comes with its challenges, as they’re rarely sat in front of work computers or around a board table. You can’t simply ask them to complete a poll on their laptop or share their thoughts at the next team meeting. Communicating with deskless workers is also made harder when employees are spread across the country – and in some cases the world – and come from a broad demographic.

Use multiple channels

But the different views and perspectives of deskless workers mustn’t be forgotten about – or, even worse, ignored entirely – just because communicating with them is seen as “too difficult”. Instead, multiple channels must be used to collect feedback.

One-to-ones and focus groups are good ways to gather insights, with leaders inviting deskless colleagues to face-to-face catch-ups and focus group sessions. Although topics for discussion should be prepared in advance, the conversation must also be led by the employees, allowing them to provide honest feedback. Remember, these are listening exercises.

Send out engagement surveys regularly

In addition, it’s important regular surveys become the backbone of the organisation’s engagement strategy. Rather than relying on annual employee feedback, organisations should roll-out short and focused ‘pulse surveys’ to gather employees’ thoughts on a monthly or quarterly basis. These regular surveys help give the organisation a continuous snapshot of the workforce’s opinions and satisfaction levels – including those of deskless workers.

With these surveys best delivered electronically, leaders need to consider how to most effectively get deskless workers to complete them. They must be easily accessed and completed on mobile devices, for example. But even the most tech-savvy deskless workers don’t necessarily have an email address, and especially not an official work one.

In such instances, sending a survey link to them via WhatsApp may be an option, or using a QR code with a unique password for each employee.. Colleagues could even be invited to drop by one of the company’s offices to complete the survey on a workplace computer.

There may be other issues to overcome, such as ensuring the survey questions are available in multiple languages when English isn’t their primary language. The style of the questions may also need to be adjusted according to the demographic of the workforce, ensuring they aren’t seen as either too complicated nor too simplistic.

Analyse your data and create an action plan

Once feedback has been gathered, it must then be analysed and an action plan formulated based on what the workforce says is and isn’t working – so their everyday experiences can be improved. If the feedback identifies issues with line managers, for example, then perhaps the organisation should introduce a training programme for all managers.

Similarly, if many deskless workers are feeling stressed and burned-out, leaders might choose to invest in wellbeing initiatives to support their people’s physical, financial, emotional and social wellbeing. These could include employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and a confidential mental health support line.

Importantly, the organisation must be transparent with employees about what they have and haven’t been able to do – perhaps in the form of a “You said, We did” style of communication. There’s nothing quite like asking for feedback and then ignoring it, to make employee engagement fall through the floor.

Again, it’s crucial to ensure feedback on what has and hasn’t been actioned is given in ways that suit the diversity of the workforce. For instance, some employees may be detail-orientated and enjoy reading about the company’s new learning and development programme in the weekly newsletter, while others might respond better to a poster that uses icons, emojis and minimal words.

It should be remembered that most workforces are complex and neuro-diverse, and so there should never be a ‘one size fits all’ engagement and communications strategy.


Improving the engagement levels of deskless employees boils down to proactively involving them in the company’s plans and initiatives. And this really can be achieved, so long as leaders recognise that reaching deskless workers must involve a multi-channel and multi-style approach.

Companies that strive to improve employee engagement for all workers will reap the rewards in terms of performance, motivation and loyalty.

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