During the past year, while most of us have hunkered down at home, frontline workers have done vital work keeping our factories and distribution centers operational, keeping our lights on and our water flowing, and delivering the groceries and e-commerce purchases on which so many of us have come to rely. The deskless workforce doesn’t have the luxury of working remotely, so even as the pandemic has raged on, our frontline teams have kept showing up and working hard to keep our businesses and our economy afloat.
Now it’s time to repay that debt by starting to think more seriously about how we can give frontline workers the tools they need to succeed. Enterprise software vendors already spend huge amounts of time and money coming up with better tools for deskbound workers, but remarkably little research and development (R&D) goes into creating the right tools for frontline and mobile workers. Worse still, many employers fail to invest in these teams, who often have to rely on clipboards and bits of paper to do tasks that should have been digitized years ago.
The stakes are high. Mobile and deskless workers now make up 80% of the global workforce, totaling over 2.7 billion people, but according to a global survey of 1,000 frontline employees carried out by my company, YOOBIC, the vast majority of frontline teams currently feel undervalued and sidelined. Among the key findings uncovered by our research:
- Fewer than 6 in 10 frontline workers currently use smartphones or other mobile devices as part of their jobs, and almost three-quarters still use paper forms, despite 71% saying that better access to digital tools would make them more productive.
- The failure to empower workers with suitable digital tech takes a direct toll on mobile teams’ morale and productivity, with more than a third of frontline employees now saying they feel disconnected from their HQ and over three-quarters saying their sense of engagement would be significantly improved by relatively modest connectivity measures such as mobile access to corporate communications messages.
- The absence of digital tools also impacts career growth, with 40% of frontline employees receiving training no more than once per year and 7 out of 10 employees craving access to mobile learning solutions. That contributes to a sense of stagnation that’s especially trying for younger workers, with over a third of Millennials—who now make up three-quarters of frontline workers—saying they’re unfulfilled in their roles.
Mobile Tech Is the Key to Keeping your Deskless Employees Engaged and Productive
All this points to a troubling pattern: Frontline teams are the engine of our economy, but all too often, they’re sorely underserved by their organizations. Managers frequently lack visibility into the challenges facing mobile workers and are seldom up to speed on the tools that are now available to help frontline teams do their jobs better. The upshot: By not investing in deskless employees and giving them better tools and technologies, enterprises inadvertently allow them to stagnate and fail to empower them for success or help them overcome the challenges they face during their working lives.
That failure doesn’t just harm frontline workers—it also hurts their employers. Research shows that employees are almost five times more likely to perform well when they feel their voices are heard, so the relative isolation of frontline workers is a critical problem for the companies that rely on them. After all, frontline employees don’t just make, distribute, and sell products—they are also the public face of our brands and create the value that differentiates a brand from its competitors. By making frontline workers more productive, organizations could free up their valuable time for more impactful work such as assisting customers, improving quality, or managing critical projects.
How can we overcome this problem? Well, the first step is to acknowledge that it is a problem. Precisely because frontline teams are disconnected, it’s all too easy for managers to ignore the challenges they face and assume that if employees are using wrenches and hard hats to do their jobs, they don’t also need smartphones and tablets.
The reality, of course, is that frontline workers aren’t simply unskilled workers who clunk around hitting things with hammers. They’re actually skilled, well-trained, and often highly educated employees who represent an enormous amount of human capital. Whether they’re delivery drivers, sanitation crews, maintenance engineers, or warehouse workers, they’re a vital part of your organization, and with the right technology, their jobs could be streamlined and made far more efficient.
So instead of simply ignoring your deskless teams, try reaching out to them and finding out what they need to do their jobs better. For mobile workers, it’s more important than ever that digital tools integrate effectively into their workflows and don’t create friction or distract them from the tasks at hand. Don’t simply tell frontline workers that they’ll be getting access to the same software as your deskbound employees; bring them into the procurement process, and ensure you’re giving them tools that genuinely align with their needs.
Reach out to vendors, too. While there’s a paucity of decent enterprise software for mobile crews, a small but growing number of start-ups are now homing in on frontline teams and developing apps and mobile tools that can help unlock their potential. If you start shopping around, you’ll find there are plenty of digital tools that can help you make your mobile teams smarter and better connected.
Invest in the mobile devices and enterprise-grade apps your workers need, and you’ll be well on your way to helping your frontline teams deliver operational excellence. By putting the right tools at frontline workers’ fingertips, our research shows, employers can boost their core revenue-driving activities, improve their retention and recruitment of young workers, and keep these vital employees more engaged as they go about the serious work of creating value for your company and your customers.
Fabrice Haiat is the CEO and cofounder of YOOBIC.