How to keep deskless workers engaged and reduce turnover 

keeping deskless workers engaged and reducing turnover
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Deskless workers are quitting in droves. More than half of such employees leave their roles less than 12 months after joining, leaving HR managers scrambling to refill positions.[1]

Staff without the luxury of going remote are driving a turnover crisis, leading to a “revolving door culture” and talent shortages for companies nationwide.

Whether frontline or back-office, these members of your team might feel:

  • Unappreciated by their supervisors

  • Out of the loop with their team

  • Restricted in their roles

  • Lacking tools and technology

Reasons for deskless worker turnover vary across businesses. However, there are steps to take to keep your in-house team happy, motivated, and confident, such as investing in employee upskilling through regular skills testing

Below, we look at why the deskless turnover crisis is such a big issue and how to combat its root causes.

What is a deskless worker?

Deskless workers are employees with no fixed office or working area. Staff without desks have limited contact with company management and often zero access to email or the firm’s intranet.

You can find non-desk employees in almost every niche in every industry. If they work without a desk or access to an office, they fit this definition.

industries that employ deskless workers

Around 37% of US workers are deskless, supplying frontline support, emergency care, customer contact, and manual labor. 

What do deskless workers do?

Deskless employees work in:

  • Retail stores

  • Assembly lines

  • Hospital triages

  • Restaurants 

  • Logistics

  • Agriculture

  • Manufacturing

  • Construction

We all rely on desk-free workers to build, assemble, and sell our products. Deskless teams work with the public, with heavy machinery, and frequently act as the face of a business.

However, despite their importance, no-desk talent is more at risk of job turnover than office staff.

High turnover: The issue plaguing deskless workforces

Around 37% of the deskless workforce is considering leaving their roles in the next six months. They’re highly prone to the “revolving door effect.”

As soon as one deskless hire joins a business, another one leaves.

The data quoted shows almost half of Generation Z deskless workers are on the cusp of quitting. Comparatively, it’s 24% of Baby Boomers and 35% of Millennials.

In contrast, further studies show around 26% of all Generation Z employees intend to leave their jobs in the next year. It’s clear that Gen Z’s desk-free workers feel less enthusiastic about staying on.

Statistics showing how likely it is Gen Z employees will change jobs within 12 months

Source

HR managers now have to prioritize strategies for hiring Gen Z recruits and effectively retaining them. Such high turnovers give recruiting managers the exhausting, cyclical challenge of keeping workforces running.

This crisis isn’t unique to any industry, but some deskfree workforces suffer more than others.

Data samples from December 2022 show the difference between hiring and firing rates across three largely mobile workforces (construction, leisure and hospitality, and transportation) over the course of a month. 

Here’s a quick breakdown:

Industry

No. of hires (Nov-Dec 22)

No. of separations (Nov-Dec 22)

Construction

357,000+

324,000+

Leisure and Hospitality

1.1 million+

1.04 million+

Transportation

336,000+

319,000+

This data shows more hires than fires, but the gap is still uncomfortably close. Comparing hire to fire, US construction firms kept under 10% of their workforce between November and December 2022.

Let’s look at why the deskless exodus has reached such a crisis point.

Why are so many deskless workers leaving?

Although no-desk workers’ personal needs vary, they’re leaving jobs because they feel underappreciated, restricted, and/or have limited career prospects.

However, research shows it is more than these three triggers that give rise to the exodus nationwide.

Livelihood, stability, community, and culture are four core needs of frontline employees some managers don’t meet, potentially fuelling people to leave their firms.[2]

Here’s how these core needs look in a simple hierarchy:

Hierarchy of frontline workerrs core needs

Now let’s look at the key issues fueling the turnover and where you fit in.

Turnover triggers in brief

Reason for leaving

Explanation

Lack of communication and guidance

There’s not enough clarity and support to help people do their jobs

Inconsistency in guidance

Roles, shifts and feedback are constantly changing, causing frustration

Poor technological support

The tools people need to do their jobs are inadequate or simply not available

Zero career prospects

Employees have no progression routes within the company

Few training and upskilling options

The firm does little to train up and make smarter use of its staff’s talents

Lack of closeness with company culture

There’s little effort to make desk-free workers feel involved with news or events

Zero flexibility

Management is “stiff” on requests for flexible work schedules or deadlines for deskfree staff

Lack of communication and guidance

Clarity from managers is even more important for deskless teams because they often work independently and autonomously, whether on the shop floor or the assembly line. Regular communication with middle management is rare in these situations, leading to expectations of self-sufficiency.

Regardless of how motivated and self-sufficient a deskless worker is, little to no guidance leaves some hires feeling lost or frequently thinking on their feet. It’s a stressful, frustrating mindset.

Very little (or low-detail) manager feedback leads to anxiety and low-quality work. Disciplining employees on the back of this (when they’ve asked for help) only adds to the frustration.

Perhaps surprisingly, up to 75% of deskless workers don’t even trust their supervisors to communicate openly.

Inconsistency in guidance

Mobile workforces demand consistency in guidance and feedback. If they are working solo, they need to know instructions are relevant, up-to-date, and don’t conflict with any previous advice.

Inconsistency causes resentment, whether through unpredictable shift patterns or irrelevant feedback points.

Sudden changes to guidance prove similarly frustrating. Non-desk staff feel powerless in this scenario, especially when they follow company guidance to the letter.

Following inconsistent guidelines and feedback leads to communication breakdowns between staffers and managers – and between departments. 

Products and services face delays and inconsistent quality in output, and, inevitably, the workers leave feeling burned out and unappreciated.

Poor technological support

Although they’re not sitting in offices, many deskless workers frequently use portable hardware, apps, and in-house records to complete tasks. 

Reasons why so many deskless workers are leaving

For example, nurses need access to patient details, retail staff need Point of Sale (POS) receipts, and logistics drivers need GPS tracking – without these tools, their work and morale suffer.

Up to 75% of deskless workers use technology as a necessity. Despite this, 60% of the same survey pool say they’re dissatisfied with the standards they receive.

Managers failing to provide relevant technology or tools to their desk-free crews cause work quality to suffer and employees to feel powerless, and resentful.

Zero career prospects in-house

Over 70% of desk-free staff apply to career advancement programs. The vast majority of people you hire want to learn and develop in-house.

However, 41% of people say they need support to advance. Consider how many Gen Z workers are leaving these roles – the younger the employee, the less likely they’ll stay in a “means to an end” position.

Failure to support non-desk careers leads to:

1. A stagnant workforce

2. Employees with nowhere to go

3. Consistently high turnover

Few training and upskilling options

The more roles and responsibilities a deskless worker has, the more training they need. In many cases, you’d hire staff already skilled for such positions (or test them on their interpersonal skills if it’s a customer-facing role).

If a desk-free worker finds their role needs specialist skills or knowledge and doesn’t receive training, anxiety sets in. A lack of deskless workforce training support breeds insecurity and unpreparedness.

Staffers then leave businesses because they lack confidence and burn out. This gets worse if managers fail to listen to concerns.

Lack of closeness with company culture

Deskless workers often feel isolated from the rest of their organization due to the nature of their roles. Construction specialists, logistics drivers, and traveling engineers often work solo for several days a week.

This leaves many of these employees missing out on the interactions they’d typically expect in an office or working closely with HQ. It’s not a phenomenon affecting all field or desk-free crew, but it’s a common cause of turnover.

There are a number of ways to remedy this cultural isolation. Prioritize accessibility for deskless personnel (e.g. corporate news, developments, and cultural moments) all the same.

Zero flexibility

The pandemic’s home-working boom resulted in 58% of US workers working remotely. However, not all non-desk workers have this opportunity.

Employees without desks demand flexibility not on a work-from-home basis but in their shift patterns, available tasks, tools, and career pathways.

“Working stiffness” restricts downtime and affects personal lives negatively, making it difficult to keep a healthy work/life balance. That leads to resentment, frustration, and, ultimately, resignations.

However, there is a need to be reasonable. Workers must remember what managers expect from them, and as management, your boundaries are golden.

What can HR professionals do about it? 8 tips for reducing turnover in your deskless workforce

Thankfully, there are a few ways for HR and recruitment to combat low retention rates in deskless workforces and fight against The Great Resignation.

Here are eight tips to help you get started.

A quick summary

Tip

How?

Prioritize flexibility

Create a realistic, flexible schedule to retain staff for core hours, but remain open to change (within reason)

Offer more benefits

Offer traditional and enhanced in-house upgrades, supporting work-life balance alongside financial rewards

Upskill and develop your employees

Create personal development plans to help people progress in-house

Keep in touch

Regularly coach your workforce and provide opportunities for cross-department contact

Focus on skills for mobility

Test existing employee skills and create a diverse internal talent pool

Promote health and wellbeing

Offer healthcare benefits and check in regularly with your employees

Rethink manager training

Skill-test and train management to offer support to deskless workers

Overhaul your onboarding

Create an onboarding system that both “welcomes” and “inducts”

1. Prioritize flexibility

A flexible working schedule improves morale and assists deskless staff with personal responsibilities (e.g. working parents).

To prepare, test for skills to see if your desk-free employees are ready to work flexibly. For example, test their motivation to see their drive to work autonomously.

Post-testing, consider a core-and-flexible hours model. When do you need your hires the most – and is a flexible schedule outside those hours possible?

Being realistic is key when boosting flexibility. Some deskless roles (such as restaurant workers) aren’t able to work from home. However, flexible hours benefits manual workers, customer personnel who work off-base, and construction crews working to deadlines.

Once you’re ready to go “fully flexible,” set boundaries. Design a process showing workers what supervisors expect and how you’re flexible around such demands.

Then, back this up with an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) or documentation laying everything out in detail. Give hires a chance to reach out if they need help and opportunities to manage their own time (with sign-off from HR).

2. Offer more benefits 

Benefits beyond basic wage increases help to keep your non-desk crew from abandoning ship. Though raises and cash incentives are welcome, low pay isn’t the main reason why deskless people quit.

Alongside cash bonuses, provide:

  • Insurance benefits

  • Healthcare coverage

  • Enhanced sick pay

  • Discounts on leisure and fitness services

  • Extra vacation time

These benefits are “traditional perks.” Many workforces already provide such incentives in-house, and there’s a chance your business is much the same.

That’s why, to engage desk-free workers further, you should provide more benefits in addition to a broader diversity of incentives where possible. 

Non traditional employee benefits

Consider tailoring non-traditional employee benefits to appeal to their work-life balance and to keep your firm competitive.

For example, try offering:

  • Family planning support

  • Financial advice services

  • Therapy sessions

  • Mentorship programs

  • Social events and in-house events

Enhancing the benefits you offer deskless hires isn’t about cajoling. It shows you understand their efforts and truly appreciate them.

The knock-on effect of supporting your employee’s lifestyles is an improvement in both their mental health and their output quality.

3. Develop your employees

The majority of no-desk employees want to learn and develop. As an option, professional development plans (PDPs) help people better realize their career goals and take control of checkpoints along the way.

PDPs help deskfree staffers learn new skills boosting confidence and feelings of accomplishment – and move them across other areas of the business where desired.

For companies, PDPs help to train and keep the best people, and attract exceptional talent interested in personal development.

Meaningful PDPs should build around the specific needs of each employee. Catch-all PDPs appear irrelevant and lazy, which pushes people away.

Beyond PDPs, it’s easy enough to inspire development in team members just by keeping expectations clear. Explicit roadmaps show employees opportunities to develop, when it’ll be possible, and how. 

Removing ambiguity makes opportunities appear all the more feasible and attractive to workers who linger on whether or not to leave.

Managers back expectations up further with genuine case studies from promoted employees, who share their stories with new hires and potential leavers. 

Upskilling, too, helps to boost individual talent and add responsibilities (and value to hires in the firm’s eyes). 

In addition, Gallup finds that 65% of employees place importance on upskilling opportunities when evaluating a potential job, meaning everybody wins.

4. Keep in touch

Those deskless staff who feel isolated from company culture benefit massively from managers simply “touching base” regularly.

Improving corporate closeness means more than just bringing management and desk-free workers together. Develop a plan or system for your deskless employees to keep in touch with other team members, too, to build camaraderie, respect, and improve collaboration.

Retail staffers communicate with warehouse teams effectively through POS apps and mobile devices. Regular meetings between restaurant owners and front-of-house staff help the latter feel valued and give clarity on what they need to do.

Simply showing you listen to and value feedback ensures desk-free workers feel closer to your culture.

Meanwhile, creating a 1:1 coaching system enables all staff to regularly discuss their work and develop closely with a manager with zero peer pressure.

This 1:1 coaching is conducive to ensuring employees feel valued and helping managers identify key development areas and skills in their non-desk teams.

Many deskless operatives show an aptitude for leadership – so test their people management skills and tap into this potential with tailored coaching.

5. Focus on skills for mobility

Skills-based hiring helps HR and recruitment find broader diversity in niche talent and experience. 

No-desk workforces are already diverse, often relying on people with multiple skills, interests, roles, and responsibilities. Hiring based on skills and testing them during development builds stronger, multi-talented teams. 

This additionally leads to higher-quality output, a confident, capable team, and a cohesive sense of culture.

Skills testing and monitoring:

  • Creates roles

  • Maps out your talent pool and where said roles fit

  • Saves money on hiring external workers

You’re effectively “enhancing” your existing staff.

Internal role mobility lets you create exciting opportunities for mobile workforces inside your company. Simply head straight to your internal talent pool before hiring externally for upcoming projects and needs.

Deskless workers feel accomplished and valued when developing skills. TestGorilla assessments, for example, let you tap into innate skills and build upon training that’s already underway.

Skills-based hiring helps you decide if an internal desk-free hire is a good transfer into a new area or specialism with minimal training. You’re reducing turnover by “repurposing” staff into a new position. This helps non-desk workers feel enthused and engaged.

6. Promote health and wellbeing

Up to 70% of deskless frontline workers felt at risk of burning out during the year 2020/21.

Frontline employees believe increasing workloads (56%) and long working hours (52%) are to blame for this effect.

Start counteracting this effect and provide desk-free employees with health benefits on site. Consider:

  • 1:1 counseling

  • Meditative spaces

  • Gym and fitness facilities

  • In-house spa (or partner with a local provider)

Support the health of your deskless workers outside of working hours, too. Focus on discounting priority healthcare, insurance, dental planning, and family care.

Schedule time to coach and connect with your team to:

  • Check how they’re feeling

  • Inquire if you’re able to assist them further

  • Provide an “open door” policy for workers to contact you privately

Healthy, happy deskless specialists want to stay with you, and productivity improves in a more empathetic working environment.

7. Rethink manager training

Many desk-free staffers feel mismanagement causes frustration, and that leads to higher turnover rates. Plenty of these problems occur through poor manager training at the outset.

Better managers foster employee engagement and build more productive, happier deskfree teams. 

To take advantage, set clear goals for managers and deskless workers. Focus on boosting their delegation, managerial confidence, and adaptability skills.

Test for these skills before hiring and before promoting within the company. Using internal mobility principles, transfer and promote people with aptitude and passion for management.

Create clear SOPs for managers to keep deskless employees in the loop, too.

8. Overhaul your onboarding 

It’s easier and more effective to prevent desk-free turnover from rising than it is to keep up with a revolving door. Always ensure your onboarding process warmly welcomes new hires into your culture.

To start, be precise. Show new deskless hires what to expect from their role and your business in detail, but use accessible and enthusiastic language. Genuine enthusiasm shows prospects you’re supportive, welcoming, and that you care about what success looks like.

From here, help hires become part of your culture early. Share resources and contact points should they need support or guidance.

Share internal testimonials and case studies to show how you care for your workforce. Enable your hires to explore facilities, and schedule 1:1 coaching and development from day one – following up regularly.

Remember to keep testing for skills during hiring and beyond onboarding. Assure your hires you care about developing their careers, not just “filling a space.”

Show your deskless workers some love

Deskless workers don’t demand much from you. They need to feel valued and part of a larger team. Most also want access to career development – and they all desire open communication and guidance.

The happier and more supported your deskless workers are, the less likely they are to leave.

By incorporating TestGorilla assessments into your onboarding, development, and coaching, you build an engaged, fulfilled, and happier workforce.

For example, why not test your prospects on how they might fit into your workplace culture?

Sources

1. “Blue Collar Canada: Whitepaper February 2022”. (February, 2022). Express Employment Professionals. Retrieved March 3, 2023. https://www.expresspros.com/uploadedFiles/Corporate/Corporate\_Canada/Content/Documents/Blue-Collar-Whitepaper-2022-Canada.pdf

2. “The Deskless Report”. (2022). Nudge. Retrieved March 3, 2023. https://deskless.nudge.co/report/

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