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The Ultimate Guide to Deskless Employee Communication

Everything you need to create an effective employee communication strategy for your deskless workforce.

The deskless workforce. A powerful group.

They comprise 80% of the workforce, and yet they have been more or less forgotten when it comes to helping organizations grow and thrive. But what top brands have known for decades is this: ignoring the power of your frontline staff is the biggest mistake that organizations can make.

Whether you’re in retail, foodservice, manufacturing, hospitality, or any other predominantly deskless industry, your workforce is the most important asset in creating a profitable, stable business that can adapt to the changing world.

The most important way to invest in your workforce? Communication. Effective employee communication can boost
engagement, increase revenue, reduce turnover, improve workplace safety, and much more. It can culturally inspire your workforce and empower your teams to do their absolute best… if it’s done right.

And, believe us, it’s not always easy to get it right. But we’re here to help. This guide has everything you need to create an effective employee communication strategy for your frontline and deskless workforce.

So, let’s get started.

What is employee communication? 

There’s no shame in starting from the very beginning – especially when it comes to deskless employee communication, which is a relatively new concept… at least in its current form. 

At its most basic, employee communication (or, corporate communication or internal communication) refers to the way that information flows within an organization. Traditionally, this flow was almost exclusively top-down, with communication coming from head office to managers to employees.

The relationship between head office and its employees dates back to the 1800s, with forward-looking companies quickly recognizing the relationship between employee engagement and a steady flow of two-way communication. But things get really interesting from the 1960s onward, with deskbound employees enjoying a steady stream of new innovations: computers, fax machines, email, the internet, not to mention the technology boom of the 2000s and beyond. 

But while technology for deskbound workers continued to evolve, the communication channels for frontline and deskless employees more or less stayed in the ‘90s, with email, intranet sites, paper surveys, and bulletin boards remaining the preferred methods to engage with the largest workforce in the world.  

And that’s a problem, because the deskless workforce presents a number of unique challenges that need to be addressed through communication.

What makes communicating with deskless workforces unique?

You can’t communicate with your deskless workforce the same way you would a deskbound team. Here’s why.

They’re distributed and disconnected

Some deskless workers are on the frontline, working in retail, foodservice, or hospitality in small teams dispersed across the country (or the globe). They might have little to no connection to other locations, or even direct coworkers that work different shifts without overlap. Other deskless workforces are even more distributed and disconnected, particularly employees that don’t operate in a location at all (think delivery workers and other supply chain or logistics employees that are on the road, working solo). These workers are particularly at risk for disengagement and fractured communication. 

A heightened need for real-time info

If the COVID-19 pandemic showed us one thing, it’s that deskless employees need to be agile and responsive. Even when your organization isn’t navigating such uncertain times, your workforce still benefits from real-time communications that allow them to react to sudden changes to promotions or strategies, not to mention valuable insights from other locations or even unexpected safety protocol changes.  

No access to technology

Employee communications have almost entirely moved online. For deskbound employees, that means email, Slack, and any of the countless other office communications platforms that have emerged over the past couple decades. For deskless employees, communication has stayed slightly more analog – verbal updates from management, memos on the bulletin boards, or a poster in the break room. Technology has stayed a bit more dormant for this workforce, with communication shared via intranet sites and email that employees can’t even really access during work hours, if at all. In fact,one research study found that 45% of non-desk workers have no access to their company intranet at work, and 83% don’t have a company email address.  

More SOPs

Frontline and deskless industries – especially manufacturing, facilities management, retail and foodservice – tend to have more standard operating processes in place that need to be followed by employees. Think opening and closing procedures, food-handling protocols, machinery handling, workplace safety processes, and so on. It’s crucial that these teams have up-to-date information on these processes at all times – and are able to access it quickly and efficiently.

A lack of community

A distributed deskless workforce makes it incredibly difficult for your employees to feel like they’re part of a larger community, working toward a common goal. In fact, according to The Deskless Report, 42% of frontline workers don’t feel connected to coworkers outside their location. This fragmentation is even greater in franchise locations, where communication with head office is even more fractured. This lack of community can be detrimental to morale and lead to huge turnover costs if not properly addressed. 

Why employee communication is so important

Employee communication has huge impacts on your bottom line. Here are some of the ways effective employee communication can save or make!) you money. 

Increased operational agility to change quickly

The ability to respond quickly to changing local, national, and global conditions means something a lot different than it did a couple years ago, and the role of employee communications has been a huge differentiator for companies looking to accelerate change to stay relevant (or even just open) during a crisis. 

Less employee turnover

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail and hospitality industries consistently have the highest “quit rate.” Depending on the industry, turnover rates can be as high as 300%. And it goes without saying that high turnovers can take a huge chunk out of your profits. One estimate puts the cost of losing a single retail employee at over $3,000, while this research found the cost of losing a hospitality worker is between $3,000 and $13,000. There are several reasons frontline turnover is such an issue – and salary isn’t really top of the list. Frontline workers want a sense of purpose, clear information, and a company that listens – all of which has traditionally been lacking at frontline organizations, where communication can be somewhat of a broken telephone.

Fewer workplace accidents

Financially –  and this is really a no-brainer – there are a number of reasons why you want to avoid workplace accidents among your frontline workers. There are medical and administrative expenses, as well as loss of labor, but according to the National Safety Council, there’s also time lost by workers indirectly involved: cost of time to investigate and report on injuries, damage to work property and vehicles, and overall productivity loss. All told, the cost of workplace injuries in the U.S. is estimated to be over $170 billion a year. But with a proper communication strategy in place, safety training becomes an ongoing process that keeps deskless and frontline workers engaged and well-informed on protocols and daily tasks. 

Higher profits 

Yes, deskless employee communication boosts engagement, but employee engagement isn’t just about happiness. Deskless workers armed with the right information are more engaged in their job – and are more productive and profitable as a result. In other words, to make more money, you need to give your frontline workers the information they need to make you more money. 

Better CX and guest loyalty

The value of customer retention can’t be overstated, and the cost of losing customers is a serious concern. Better customer experience starts with better employee experience. While some industries (we’re looking at you, retail) have moved into an omnichannel approach, where brick-and-mortar and e-commerce sites work in tandem to provide the best possible customer experience, it’s crucial the organizations ensure that their deskless and frontline workers are keeping up – and a proper communication strategy is the solution. 

Fewer costly mistakes 

In industries like retail, foodservice, and hospitality, mistakes can have an especially huge impact on customer loyalty and revenue – not to mention workplace safety. What makes it even more frustrating is how many mistakes can be easily avoided by standardizing tasks and clearly communicating with your deskless workforce. That means sharing easily digestible information and then finding ways to test retention and identify knowledge gaps on an ongoing basis. It also means leveraging upward feedback to hear directly from your frontline on what’s working – and what’s not – so you can keep processes as regulated as possible. 

More valuable ideas

One of the most profitable benefits of deskless employee communication is that amazing ideas find their way from your workforce back up to head office – and to other locations. After all, if one location discovers an easy way to improve the customer or guest experience through a tweak in a display, or boosts sales through a simple upsell, wouldn’t you want the rest of the company to leverage that learning? 

The psychology of uncertainty

with Dr. Wendi Adair

Fun fact: no one likes a lack of information. From a psychological point of view, a lack of information leads to feelings of uncertainty, which leads to a stress response.

“We are motivated as humans to feel like we have a good sense of what’s going on. A lot of what our brain is doing is trying to figure out what’s going on around us and find ways to feel like we have a sense of control,” explains Wendi Adair, Professor of Organizational Psychology at the University of Waterloo.

That’s where you see disengagement and demotivation kick in. When employees are feeling that uncertainty, they’ll naturally try to distance themselves from it as much as possible. “When there are feelings of uncertainty or ambiguity, we’re motivated to reduce those feelings.”

Reviewing your existing deskless employee communication strategy

Before you can start creating an effective communication strategy, you need to take stock of your existing one. And yes, even if you don’t have a formal strategy in place, you still have communication – or lack thereof – to audit. Here’s what you need to know.

How to run an internal communications audit

An internal communications audit is a review of how well your organization and its leaders distribute and collect information to and from your workforce and how well the current setup aligns with your overall strategy. This audit is especially crucial for organizations with deskless and frontline employees, who spend very little face-to-face time with management and don’t have regular access to computers, so a specialized strategy is crucial. A communications audit will ensure you identify the right way to share information. 

Download the full guide to get a printable worksheet to use when running your audit!

1. Create an audit team

If you don’t have a dedicated internal communications team to run the audit, put together an ad-hoc team composed of delegates from operations, HR, and marketing. You may also want to include someone to represent the frontline employees to provide additional perspective. 

2. Set goals

Audits work best when they focus on improving specific aspects of your internal communications. The narrower and more measurable the goals are, the greater the chance your audit will succeed. Develop your goals by asking questions about how information is shared with your frontline or deskless workforce:  

  • What information is shared with my frontline? 
  • What formats and channels are used to share information?
  • Who is sharing information with my frontline?
  • Who might want to communicate with them?
  • Are my communications being read? How easy are they to find, read, and remember?
  • Do I have a way of measuring the impact of my employee communications?
  • Is the information being shared having an impact on workplace safety and consistency of execution?
  • Are our communications effectively driving profits and revenue?
  • Is the information being shared having an impact on turnover rates and employee morale?
  • Are our communications boosting productivity?
  • Are we sharing the information employees need to do their job better and more efficiently?
  • Are we collecting ideas and best practices?

3. Collect information and insights

Collecting the intel for your communications audit is a multi-stage process. The steps can be done in any order, but we recommend collecting your information in the following stages:

Metrics review

Workforce insights are a critical step in any communication strategy and are extremely informative in your internal communication audit. Raw numbers can be used to either support or challenge the anecdotal feedback you’ll be collecting later. Depending on what types of communication technology and tools you already have set up, these numbers can come from multiple areas:

  • Email/newsletter readership and engagement rates
  • Information retention test results
  • Employee survey completion rates
  • Metrics on employee ideas and suggestions
  • Employee turnover rates
Communication tools review

An internal communications tool is a method, product, or software that you use to send and receive messages to and from your team. The tools you use should make your communication strategy more effective and streamlined – but they can do the opposite. As you review your tech stack, answer the following:

  • What tools or platforms are we using to communicate with our frontline?
  • Who manages those tools?
  • Whose decision was it to use those tools? What was the objective behind this decision?
  • How often are these tools used to send internal communications? To whom?
  • How well do these communications fulfill their objectives?
Anecdotal information

Numbers can tell you a lot, but the human side can tell you just as much, if not more. It’s important to interview both sides of the conversation: executive management and the workers. When talking to management, get their perspective on what they prioritize, how they think the company should be communicating, and what they think the gaps are. When you do get to talk with frontline workers, don’t ask leading questions. Balance quantitative and qualitative responses  and give respondents an opportunity to free-write their answers.

  • Do you feel in-the-know and up-to-date?
  • How much do you know of what’s going on in the company?
  • Who would you go to with an idea or with feedback?

4. Analyze the intel

Once you’ve harvested your information, you can analyze the data to uncover weaknesses in your internal communications strategy and look for signs your communication is broken (check out our sidebar for warning signs). Compile your findings into key insights, then go back to your audit goals to see what conclusions you can derive. From there, you’ll develop a list of recommendations to share with stakeholders and start to prepare a plan of action. Here are a few examples of recommendations you might bring back to the organization based on your audit findings: 

  • Choose a new communication tool or platform to make communication simple and easy.
  • Create a monthly or quarterly communication calendar to ensure your communications are targeted around a core goal or objective.
  • Identify the metrics you want to track and how you’ll track them.
  • If you don’t have one, create a dedicated communications lead who will work with various stakeholders to create and share information.

Remember, you don’t have to overhaul your entire internal communications system all at once. You can improve one component at a time, focusing on the area that will deliver the most value to the organization and its employees.

Building out an effective strategy 

Once you’ve identified your organization’s communication problems, it’s time to address them with a new strategy better suited to your workforce. These steps will help you get started.

Download the full guide to learn more!