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Deskless Apps Come of Age to Serve Frontline Workers

December 13, 2021 Digital Workplace
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By Sarah Fister Gale

For years, workforce technology vendors have been transforming the way people work, embracing a mobile-first mentality that makes it easy for workers to engage with colleagues, complete tasks and access company information from their phones, PCs or laptops.

But this upswell of innovation largely left deskless and frontline workers behind. That created a huge gap in the marketplace.

Up to 70% of the global workforce are frontline employees, according to the National Bureau Of Economic Research. These cashiers, waitstaff, nurses, plant workers, drivers, janitors and every other role that isn’t tied to a desk are still largely left to their own digital devices. While they may have access to a computer in the break room or a central terminal, chances are they never use them to engage with the company unless they absolutely have to.

“Deskless workers are much less likely to log into portals and roam around looking for company information,” said Josh Bersin, HR technology analyst and CEO of the Josh Bersin Company.

The Technology Tide Is Shifting for Frontline Workers

It’s not just due to lack of access. Many technology vendors have tried to adapt their platforms for deskless teams, but it hasn’t been a good fit.

“Deskless workers don’t use computers the way office workers do,” Bersin said. “They aren’t authoring documents, or sending emails or participating in Zoom calls.”

Instead, their work is shaped by customer interactions, equipment handling and field tasks. “They are concerned about alerts, compliance, scheduling and store management,” he said.

Existing workforce apps don’t address these issues, and even if they do, they are often so full of information and buttons and menu items that it puts off workers who only have a few minutes to engage. Instead, many deskless workers create their own organic solutions, creating chat groups with colleagues to swap shifts and share tips, or calling their managers’ cellphones to ask for help or lodge a concern.

It’s a missed opportunity for companies to create more engaging employee experiences, said Suzie Robinson, a consultant for Clearbox Consulting, which recently published an employee apps report on the topic. She did note this trend is finally beginning to shift.

“Over the last few years we’ve seen a lot of products focus on the deskless worker,” she said.

Related Article: Employee Apps Emerge to Engage Frontline Workers

Employee Apps for Frontline Workers

The first generation of these apps garnered little fanfare. But as vendors figure out what deskless workers need from a company app and what they don’t, the solutions are getting more streamlined and customized to their needs. The latest tools tend to fall into four categories, according to Robinson:

  1. Communication apps like Staffbase and Speakap that allow workers and employers to communicate, interact and react to content.
  2. Operations apps like Legion that make it easy for deskless workers to track their schedules, swap shifts and complete employment paperwork.
  3. HR and people engagement apps like Nudge and Staffconnect for onboarding and performance management.
  4. Digital workplace tools like Simpplr that function as a gateway to the company intranet and can be customized to the needs of specific teams and roles.

The right deskless apps don’t just address employee needs. They can enhance performance and connect employees to the business, rather than just to their peers. “These apps find gaps in the flow of work and fill them in an elegant way,” Robinson said.

She pointed to Actimo, which administrators use to provide just-in-time training to deskless workers. It can track who has completed training as part of their performance management program, and can trigger access to content over a period of time to prevent new hires from feeling overwhelmed, Robinson said.

Another example is Greenroad, a fleet management app that uses geolocation technology to track drivers and automatically log accident reports. The app helped Stagecoach Group, which runs 9,300 buses in the UK, reduce driver safety risk by , and reduce fuel consumption by 4%.

Related Article: Employee Experience Is Key to Digital Workplace Evolution

Will Frontline Workers Use It?

All of these tools can add value, but only if they align with the company culture and the workflow. If employees are forbidden from using their phones on the job, even the best app will go unused, said Carrie Basham Marshall, CEO of Talk Social to Me.

“Frontline workers don’t have a lot of free time to spend on apps,” she said. In some cases, workers may not have cell phones, may not speak English, or may not be comfortable using text messaging or emails to interact with employers.

To avoid investing in tools that will see little use, Marshall urged HR to work with IT, communications and the actual employees who use the apps to figure out how and if an app will add value, and what changes need to be made in the workflow to make that happen. That could mean giving phones to those who don’t have them, or adding 10 minutes to every shift so workers have time to check the app, or hosting the technology on terminals that employees already use on the job rather than asking them to download an app to their phones.

“They need to be built into the culture and the workflow if you want people to use them,” she said.

Deskless apps are poised to become the next big thing in workforce technology. But as with all technology investments, the solutions have to fit specific problems, Robinson added.

“Think about what employees need before you start looking at tools," she said. "That way you won’t get distracted by features that no one will ever use.”


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