The COVID-19 pandemic has given everyone a taste of what it feels like to not work in the office. 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.

On the other hand, deskless workers complete most of their work tasks away from a desk and company headquarters and often lack consistent access to information, communication technology, and their company’s internal systems. Some examples include retail store workers, manufacturing workers, and salespeople. Since deskless workers are typically not located at the corporate headquarters of a company, they are “out of sight and out of mind.” Unfortunately, this often translates to less priority and resources as well as a less positive employee experience than desk-based workers.

I recently sat down with Mara Hesley to discuss the deskless worker. Hesley is an HR research analyst on the SAP SuccessFactors HR Research team, leading the Supporting the Deskless Workforce research program. The purpose of this applied research program is to better understand and improve the employee experience of the deskless workforce.

Q: When we think of the word “deskless,” it seems that there would be many different types of deskless workers with different employee experiences. Is there value in differentiating between the types of deskless workers?

A: Yes, deskless workers vary considerably. Unfortunately, the business, press, and other organizations often treat them as one workforce segment, but the value of differentiating between them can be helpful to better understand their work context and improve their employee experience. Because of this, the HR Research team developed a taxonomy of deskless workers. This taxonomy has three dimensions that create the various profiles of deskless workers.

The first dimension is duration, which can be either short term or long term. Short term is defined as working in a burst of one day or less before returning home, while long-term deskless workers work away from their homes for more than a day at a time.

The second dimension is location, which can be onsite or offsite. Onsite deskless workers work at primarily one place of business, while offsite deskless workers may travel to various locations to complete their jobs.

The third and last dimension is customer interaction, which can be high or low. High customer interaction deskless workers interact with the ultimate consumer of their company’s goods or services, while low customer interaction deskless workers work in roles that are more “back of house” and not customer facing. For example, a retail store employee would fit into the high customer interaction, short-term, onsite profile of the taxonomy, while a manufacturing deskless worker would fit into the low customer interaction, short-term, onsite profile.

Figure 1: Deskless Worker Taxonomy

Tell me more about the Supporting the Deskless Workforce research program. What are some themes that have emerged so far?

This research program has two parts: the qualitative interviews to gather HR’s perspective on managing and engaging their deskless workforce and a global survey, which is currently in data collection, to gather the deskless worker perspective. Themes that emerged from the interviews with HR are a lack of strategy related to deskless workers, persistent challenges in communicating with deskless workers, and issues related to providing deskless workers access to HR technology.

It sounds like many HR professionals mention how difficult it is to consistently communicate with their deskless workers. How is HR responding to this challenge? What can be done in the future?

Yes, that’s correct. When talking with HR, the second-most cited challenge to supporting the deskless workforce was communication and information dissemination. Several HR professionals mentioned that, because of reasons such as cost, security, and IT infrastructure, their deskless workers do not receive a company-issued e-mail address, making communication that much more difficult. Therefore, many of these companies have resorted to using supervisors as the only channel to communicate with their deskless workers.

This lack of an adequate communication channel then contributes to the third-most cited challenge: connectivity to the company culture. Since HR is unable to consistently communicate with deskless workers, this leads to an inability to keep these workers connected to the company culture as a whole.

I do believe this is where technology can play an important role in facilitating communication with and engagement of the deskless workforce. HR technologies that do not require a corporate e-mail address, such as SAP Work Zone for HR, can help companies address these communication and information dissemination challenges. As a result, this can keep deskless workers connected and engaged with the company’s overall organizational culture.

Does HR believe technology is an answer to this challenge? If so, what does the ideal deskless worker technology look like?

Deskless workers make up as much as 80% of the world’s workforce, yet only one percent of software investment is targeted towards solutions for these workers. In our interviews with HR, as much as 59% of HR said yes, they believe technology is the answer to communicating and engaging more effectively with their deskless workforce.

HR claimed that the ideal deskless worker technology would:

  • Be simple, personalized, and engaging to use in the flow of work
  • Provide a secure, unified experience with everything employees need to do their job in one place – including, but not limited to, HR applications
  • Intelligently surface employee-relevant recommendations, insights, and actions
  • Provide cross-departmental guided experiences that simplify complex processes
  • Enable top-down and two-way employee communications, keeping them abreast of strategic programs and processes as well as collaborating and learning from one another

SAP Work Zone for HR works to address these features. The site provides an intuitive digital workplace experience with easy access to relevant business applications and processes, information, and communication in a unified entry point for work – with the employee at the center no matter what device they want to use to access it. It empowers teams and departments to effectively communicate and engage with employees without requiring IT infrastructure or support and extends across the entire organization to streamline processes with customizable, guided experiences that make disparate systems interoperable to present a simple and easy experience for the employee.  Employees can also create communities where they can share knowledge and experiences with rich multimedia and micro-learning capabilities, helping to enrich critical programs such as onboarding and training.

And what’s better, SAP Work Zone for HR does not require a corporate e-mail address. Once an employee logs in they have access to the information they need based on their role – and interests. It is clear HR faces significant hurdles when trying to best support the deskless workforce, but it is clear technology is an integral part of the solution moving forward.

To learn more, join Dr. Autumn Krauss, principal scientist of the SAP SuccessFactors HR Research team, on January 27, 2021, at 11:00 a.m. for the Deskless Workers: The Forgotten Employee Experience LinkedIn Live event, where Dr. Krauss will share more insights and best practices from the Supporting the Deskless Workforce research program.

For more information on SAP Work Zone for HR visit sap.com/hr-workzone. Also, find more resources related to this research program, as well as other active and past research programs, on the SAP SuccessFactors HR Research team’s community page.