Deskless should not mean less employee engagement

There are ways to bridge the digital divide separating office employees from those at the coalface.

Deskless workers, whether on the factory floor, at the manufacturing plant, behind the till or on the road, are the heart of many businesses. Without them, operations would come to a stop. However, because of their physical distance from upper management, deskless employees are often the least engaged section of the workforce, while being directly impacted by an organisation’s biggest weaknesses, such as rigid policies, inconsistent communication and outdated technology.

The CHRO webinar, “Deskless employee engagement, creating meaningful connections with front-line employees”, hosted in partnership with SmartWage, brought together an experienced panel of HR leaders who have bridged the digital divide separating office employees from those at the coalface.

SmartWage head of product and co-founder Caroline van der Merwe kicked off the hour-long webinar by providing an overview of managing equitable communication with desk-based and deskless employees within a South African context.

“Deskless employees make up the bulk of employees in the country. Our favourite workplace tools like Google Meet, Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams are aimed at desk-based workers. There is a lot of innovation taking place to give desk-based employees tools to do their jobs better. However, South African managers are in a tough spot as there is not as much innovation regarding workers who are deskless,” she said.

As a result, managers are using workarounds. For example, with employee self-service systems, managers might impersonate the deskless employee by logging on to the system as that employee to apply for leave, and then logging on as the manager, with their own credentials, to approve leave requests.

Caroline explained that HR has three communication options in a distributed workforce setup.:

  • Middle man approach: Information is shared with managers who are expected to share it with their teams. This approach means that HR has no control over delivery, receipt or consistency of messaging.
  • Onsite device: When information is provided through a kiosk or computer placed in a common area like a canteen and employees are expected to log in to get information or update their details. Although this is a useful self-service tool for employees, it is passive and has a number of limitations.
  • Personal device: This is the quickest and most efficient method to communicate with employees, as 100 percent of employees have a mobile and people look at their devices numerous times a day. The challenge with this option is the hardware, affordability of data and digital literacy levels.

Tsebo Solutions CHRO Elanie Kruger noted that almost 97 percent of the company’s employee base falls into the deskless employee category.

“Most employees are at our client sites. To manage and receive communication from a desk-based employee is easy, however connecting with a deskless employee is more of a challenge. When I joined, we lacked a digitisation strategy and that was our blind spot in terms of the deskless employee experience. Now WhatsApp is a popular method and teams have private groups to communicate with one another,” she said.

According to Elanie, data costs are managed through reverse charging and the medium is also used for recognition campaigns, which links to the company’s values and high-performance culture.

She does, however, caution that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. “You cannot use tech to replace the importance of face-to-face communication. We still want engagement between employee and manager,” she says.

Nando’s HR director Bridget Murphy shared her experience with working with a 90 percent deskless employee base. “Our WhatsApp line was born during the pandemic so we could have immediate contact with Nandocas for emergency communication and safety precautions. It has since evolved to being super sexy,” she says.

This is in addition to the multitude of platforms used by Nandos, which includes a radio station and written communication. Bridget said, “The radio station, called Heatwave, broadcasts in the mornings to restaurants. We have wellness programmes on a Wednesday, and learning and development on a Thursday. There is a DJ for music and employees have an opportunity to choose playlists according to themes as well.”

“We also work with the internal communication and marketing teams to run articles and competitions through the Peri-Vine, which is written communication,” she adds.