Despite working on the front line, deskless workers lack the tech they need during the pandemic


There are developer opportunities to create software for the “forgotten workforce,” deskless workers in industries such as healthcare, agriculture, construction, and more.

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Image: iStock/Oranat Taesuwan

Eighty-percent of the global workforce is considered deskless–staff whose work doesn’t necessitate sitting behind a desk in an office all day, but takes them into the field. Emergence, which commissioned “The State of Technology for Deskless Workers,” calls the 2.7 billion non-deskbound employees, “the forgotten workforce.” To see how this important faction of the workforce fares, Emergence surveyed 1,500 deskless workers.

Despite the fact that deskless workers make up a major percentage of essential industries, the proliferation of mobile devices, and heralded innovations, that group continues to be underserved by what the report refers to as “clunky legacy software.” This means critical workers in the industries of healthcare, agriculture, construction, retail, manufacturing, telecommunications, and transportation are not provided with dedicated software, developed specifically for the tasks they do for their jobs daily. 

Nearly everyone is in total agreement that tech makes work less complicated, and often, easier; 70% of workers reported more technology would help them do their jobs better. 

“Clunky” might also refer to the impractical PCs and laptops provided to deskless workers, who need more compact devices with better tech. Only 5.2% were given smartwatches, and 2.4% were given drones. There does appear to be acknowledgement of the need for handier tech, and the report showed 57% were given mobile devices, 33% smartphones and 24% tablets. These tools can be interpreted as a sign of progression on the employers.

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Image: Emergence

But most startling: 14% of respondents assert “their employer hasn’t provided them with any device.”

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Change may be on its way, Emergence said. New business founders are often tech-savvy millennials who challenge the stereotype of an entrepreneur; these are deskless workers who’ve started their own businesses or rose to the ranks to actually implement changes in how the deskless operate in the field.

Since they’re given software designed for another purpose, but which has been repurposed for their jobs, 62% of deskless workers are unsatisfied and call for improvement. The percentage in this understandably disgruntled workforce is notably higher in certain industries that are reliant on technology to complete assignments, such as utility, energy, logistics, retail, and consumer durables.

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Image: Emergence

Respondents reported frustration with slow, lagging software as their primary gripe (44%), with “inefficient” as the second (20%), followed by “broken communication” as third (18%). They cite budget constraints and lack of understanding of the many benefits they’d get from dedicated software. As it is, the report found that 56% were using their own tech, and 33% proactively sought out new technologies themselves.

Emergence’s analysis is that if software was built for each of the essential deskless industries, employers would “find” the budget. They also assert that employees should be allowed to focus on their actual jobs, rather than finding their own solutions to make things work better. The downside of workers finding their own tech to ease their work is that it puts the company infrastructure at a high security risk. 

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Image: Emergence

The pandemic hit the deskless workforce hard because not only were they sent out into the field with whatever tools were available to them, but they subsequently had to adhere to strict ordinances set by local and national governments. It may have been considerably easier for on-site workers to shift to remote work from home than it did for the deskless during the pandemic. But 51% of deskless employees believe that post-pandemic they’ll still be able to keep the new tech they were given during the pandemic.

The report cites seven things employees want from company leaders: communications, onboarding/trading education, operations/logistics, productivity (work-life balance), managing HR/benefits, and professional development were all opportunities that scored more than 87%. These were followed by culture at 74%. Employers need to find the tech to make these “wants” happen to improve communications, provide upskilling, flexibility, and better health benefits.

Technology, the report concluded, boosts productivity, enhances motivations and allows employees to operate at a higher capacity.

“Those of us in deskbound jobs have received these benefits from software for decades,” said Kevin Spain, Emergence general partner, in the report. “It just makes sense that the same should be true when great software is deployed into the deskless world.”

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