The Ignored, Forgotten, and Misunderstood Deskless Worker 

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Mar 22, 2022

Earlier this year, I attended a conference focused on internal talent marketplaces. The stories from different companies that were prioritizing career development and talent mobility were inspiring, and their initial results were very promising. 

But one of the most successful organizations speaking that day admitted that it hadn’t rolled its marketplace out to the entire workforce, having thus far excluded many lower-level, deskless workers. It was too complicated, the company said, and some leaders thought that a talent marketplace wouldn’t be as valued in those populations of workers.

Now, technically, a talent marketplace essentially matches people to opportunities and potential roles based on their skills, interests, and preferences. It can also connect employees with experiential, on-the-job learning that will give them the chance to learn new skills or practice the ones they are developing. According to SAP, benefits include:

  • Closing the skills gap. People can find projects and build on skills to qualify for new roles and advancement. Additionally, organizations can track which skills are lacking and in-demand to help determine where to invest.
  • Leading on the diversity and inclusion imperative. A talent marketplace can reduce potential bias regarding an employee’s perceived and real skills. This can help uncover hidden talent, break down barriers, and foster diversity and inclusion by providing employees with equal opportunities.
  • Encouraging a growth mindset. When employees know there are accessible and equitable opportunities for career advancement, they’re more likely to seek internal, rather than external, opportunities.

Systems of Inequity

But if not all employees can access or benefit from the marketplace, how can it really uncover potential from within, foster inclusion, and make opportunities more equitable and accessible? Frontline, often deskless, workers also deserve access, but providing that access comes with challenges. According to Gloat, a talent marketplace software solution:

  • There are 2.7 billion frontline workers worldwide, accounting for as much as 80% of the global workforce
  • One-third of frontline employees don’t receive any formal training
  • Only 22% feel connected to their colleagues
  • Only 19% feel listened to and heard

Certainly, technology can help frontline workers network, upskill, and access new career opportunities. But tech alone is not going to address the real issue. Deskless workers are often systematically overlooked by their employers in terms of communications, learning, and collaboration.

Or let’s be more blunt here: Many companies believe in myths and have biases about deskless workers that render them second-class citizens in their own workforce. It’s no wonder that such employees feel forgotten and disconnected. What’s more, even when employers do intend to include deskless workers, they introduce one-size-fits-all solutions that do little to improve the situation. 

Or they make the situation worse. Beyond simply not being a more equitable employer to employees, this disconnect further contributes to societal digital skills and wealth inequalities. 

Myths About Deskless Workers

Before you roll out new tech, it’s important to address issues around mindset and develop better strategies. That begins by dispelling some myths.

  • Myth #1: Deskless workers don’t have access to technology. Except, they do. Smartphones. Which, of course, is why software solutions often include mobile capabilities. 
  • Myth #2: Deskless workers don’t really know how to use technology. Perhaps 20 years ago this was true, but my 85-year-old aunt uses over 10 different apps on her iPhone. 
  • Myth #3: Deskless workers don’t have the capacity to advance or change careers beyond traditional paths, or don’t have the interest. This is perhaps the most pernicious myth of all. I wish I had more empirical evidence to disprove this myth. Instead, I have only stories from the trenches — conversations with plant workers, electrical linemen, food-service workers — that prove otherwise. Most recently, I found the best stories come from my rideshare drivers, who are ambitious, entrepreneurial, and customer-focused. One who was formerly a train engineer is now creating twitch videos and podcasts focused on cool things in Chicago. Another has been working independently to get Microsoft certifications to become a software engineer.  

Creating a More Inclusive Environment

Bottom line: Deskless workers have the ability and drive to grow and advance in their careers. Again, though, you can turn on some talent marketplace tech, but to truly uncover hidden talent, break down barriers, and foster diversity and inclusion by providing employees accessible and equitable opportunities, you need a talent strategy. Here’s what to consider as you develop one for greater talent mobility:

Inspire. Encourage and train managers how to talk about career possibilities. Capture and share success stories from all types of employees that demonstrate real possibilities and the organization’s commitment to everyone. Such stories speak louder than any program overview ever will. 

You’ll also likely need to upgrade your communications approach. This is another area where the deskless worker is often forgotten. In 2018 Tribe, an internal communications agency, reported that 83% of deskless workers don’t have a corporate email address. So make sure you are using all possible channels to ensure messages and stories reach all employees.

Enable. Giving people access to a talent marketplace is about more than providing the ability to log in. Make the marketplace accessible and approachable for everyone by conducting workshops or providing on-demand overviews to ensure employees understand how to make the most of resources and tools available to them. Provide a path forward with a clear understanding of what it will take to get the next job that they want. 

Remove potential barriers. Re-evaluate job requirements. Is a degree really necessary, or would a certification suffice? Do you really need five years of experience? Also re-evaluate job structures to determine if you could add more entry-level jobs, internships, or apprenticeships, especially for roles that are hard to fill. Then provide additional development and training to help those employees get to the next level. 

Prepare employees for future success. Provide training in fundamentals of how to thrive in different work environments and cultures. A company doesn’t have just one culture; it has many. For example, how you communicate, collaborate, and measure success — as well as other rules of engagement — will be quite different if you are moving from a client-facing retail job to an engineering department or corporate office. 

Ultimately, creating an equitable talent marketplace is challenging. But impossible? No. 

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