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The era of the deskless workforce

How the deskless workforce is tapping into the digital transformation trend with digital work instructions

By Mark Speyers

Deskless workers have been receiving quite some attention as of late, and rightly so. 80% of the workforce is deskless, but until now they’ve been largely missing from the digital transformation strategy. Desk workers use CRM packages and ERP systems. Deskless workers have pen and paper. Of the $300B that companies spend yearly on software, only $3B supports the deskless workforce. This year promises a radical break with all that. This year will be the year of the deskless workforce.


Technology for the deskless workforce

Deskless workforce is hit hardest by ageing and labor shortage

The deskless workforce is anyone who’s not primarily sitting behind a desk when working. This covers a wide spectrum and we find deskless workers in education, construction, hospitality, manufacturing, field services, etc. In this article we will focus primarily on deskless workers in manufacturing and field services, as this is our own area of expertise.

At the beginning of the 21st century, factory relocation and robotization relegated the deskless workforce to a supporting role. This is reflected in how companies allocate software investments. In September this year, venture capitalist firm Emergence Capital estimated that a mere 1% of total enterprise software investments are supporting deskless workers.

Although they constitute 80% of the total workforce, deskless workers are extremely neglected. Unsurprisingly, this is also how they feel. In a recent survey by APPrise, only 56% of deskless workers reported feeling connected and engaged by their employers and a stunning 27% said they feel underappreciated.

Fact: Deskless workforce oriented enterprises raised over 3.2 billion dollars in 2017

This is problematic, because, in the US alone, 500,000 skilled labor vacancies cannot be filled. The aging population is exacerbating the skilled labor shortage, as this number will rise to 2 million within a decade. Per the report of Emergence Capital, 91% of respondents in manufacturing industries plan to increase their budget for software investments for deskless workers. Faced with high employee turnover and a severe shortage, employee experience is listed as the second reason (23%) why companies choose to invest in deskless technology, following productivity (33%).

Source: Emergence Capital

Deskless technology: software & hardware requirements

Three technological advancements have changed the game entirely for deskless workers: cloud computing, 4G, and the continuous miniaturization of computing devices in the form of smartphones, tablets and smart glasses. Yes, smartphones and tablets have been around for almost a decade now, but it took a while before they gained a firm foothold in companies.

Deskless workers are by definition non-stationary workers without a desk, which is a serious constraint. PCs and laptops are naturally no-go’s, as they are stationary devices. Tablets and smart glasses are mobile devices. You can use them anytime, anywhere (except in water), which is a necessary requirement if they are to be used while working.

Since their introduction, wearables have matured significantly and can now be fully relied upon in daily operations. Smart glasses, once banned from shop floors, have been deployed by many blue-chip companies such as AGCO and Pfizer. With suppliers like Realwear, Vuzix, X and Iristick, the continuous innovation of smart glasses is guaranteed.

Yet, tablets and smart glasses would be unable to thrive in an industrial context if not for cloud computing and 4G. Cloud computing has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until the introduction of SaaS as a business model that things really took off. Gartner expects SaaS revenues to almost double in the next four years, with an increase of 22% in 2018 alone. SaaS is promising because it made software deployment extremely easy. Developers worldwide have built secure web applications, hosted in the cloud, with a suite of mobile applications that you can install in a couple of simple clicks. It’s just so easy.

Software for (field) technicians and operators: a primer

Enterprise communication platforms: A first generation of products targeted HR departments. Deskless workers are notoriously off the grid within companies. With many deskless workers not even having an e-mail address, they have largely been excluded from internal communication, from instant messaging to receiving the company’s internal newsletters. Slack, for example, famously democratized instant messaging for the entire workforce.

E-learning platforms: E-learning platforms were pulled along in the slipstream of communication platforms. Many industries require their workforce to have completed courses and to obtain certificates. As paperwork exploded, digital platforms offered a more efficient solution for monitoring the competencies of their staff.

Execution platforms: A third generation of products are genuine productivity tools: execution platforms. Just like a sales representative needs a CRM and an engineer cannot function without CAD/CAM, deskless workers benefit from execution platforms. In a nutshell, execution platforms assist deskless workers in doing a better job. They can start workflows when they need to and enter data digitally, virtually effortlessly. Proceedix offers such a platform. Our clients have reported substantial improvements in execution time, quality assurance, and compliance and traceability.

Retain skilled labor and increase productivity

In 2019 investments for the deskless workforce will accelerate. Our ageing workforce is creating a great need for skilled labor, which is reflected in Emergence Capital’s survey results. Deskless technology has in the meantime reached cruising speed and offers robust solutions.

The shortage of skilled labor is forcing companies to rethink their digital strategies and invest in people they’ve thus far neglected. Deskless technology will benefit your recruiting strategies and improve the productivity of your deskless workers.

Incorporating deskless workers in your digital transformation plan will prove to be a very effective HR strategy. You’ll more easily attract and retain skilled labor. In all our implementations we saw firsthand that operators and technicians greatly appreciate the introduction of deskless workforce software, tablets, and smart glasses. They felt more involved, as they became stakeholders in a process that is very important to them.

Using these kinds of tools can help you make the difference. It signals that as a company, you care about your deskless workers and are willing to invest in tools that allow them to reach their full potential. It will give you an edge over your competitors and allow you to more easily attract top-talent as deskless workers.

Manufacturing leaders identify productivity gains as the biggest benefit of deskless worker-focused software. Nobody bats an eye when desk workers get yet another software system to marginally increase their productivity. Now it’s time to shift focus to the low-hanging fruit within a company: the deskless worker. Their exclusion from digital tools forms a huge reservoir of untapped potential. 2019 will be the year when we start tapping into that reservoir.

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