Communicating with deskless colleagues

Are you responsible for communicating with deskless colleagues?

Do you find understanding the communication needs of frontline colleagues challenging?

The latest Remotely Interested? Research report shares insights on non-desk based colleagues’ communication, HR and leadership needs.

More than 350 colleagues from nine organisations shared their insights to build on the original research carried out in 2019 by Redefining Communications and SocialOptic.

We’re delighted to welcome Catherine Ritchie, a Chartered communications consultant and contractor based in Orkney, Scotland, to share her takeaways from the research for the All Things IC blog. With more than a decade of experience across the private and public sectors, since going self-employed in 2021, she’s been developing and delivering communication strategies for a range of organisations, from start-ups to FTSE 100 businesses, on a predominantly remote basis.

Over to you Catherine.

Black and white headshot photo of Catherine Ritchie to promote her blog article Communicating with deskless colleagues - Remotely interested research

Having supported non-desk based workers in many roles, I was excited to see what the latest Remotely Interested? research would tell us.

The report follows up on the 2019 study, looking at the age-old question of why non-desk based workers – working in industries like manufacturing, retail and healthcare, without being in an office or connecting via a computer – are harder to communicate with.

With about 80% of the workforce being deskless and spending 90% of their time delivering in their role rather than using technology or completing admin, it’s easy to see the risks of getting communication wrong.

So, given reaching this population is often seen as one of our biggest challenges, what are the report’s top takeaways to help us improve?

The pandemic hasn’t had a huge impact

While the pandemic might have revolutionised office culture, even repurposing the ‘remote worker’ title that used to describe deskless communities, there hasn’t been a big shift for non-desk based roles.

As we adjusted to lockdowns, internal communicators proved the value of our expertise. They supported organisations’ crisis responses, including the rollout of technology at pace to help people stay connected.

It’s a fair assumption that increased information and new tech would improve the experience for deskless colleagues.

Yet, while there have been some shifts, it’s not been the game changer you might have expected. This leads us to takeaway number two.

Digital hasn’t solved all our problems. Yet.

In 2015 I helped introduce Yammer (Viva Engage) to address deskless worker communication challenges in an organisation.

Fast forward eight years, and digital hasn’t made the expected impact.

People still prioritise information from their line manager and colleagues, face-to-face channels, word of mouth and noticeboards reigning in deskless populations.

Where technology has made progress, it’s driven by colleagues rather than organisations. It shows a disconnect in creating the right solutions for employee experience.

Unapproved communication methods known as ‘shadow IT’ are on the rise. Almost half of those surveyed used WhatsApp for departmental communication. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear IT experts shudder at the thought.

WhatsApp blurs the lines between personal and professional. It creates huge risks, from security, data protection and confidentiality to bullying, harassment and misconduct. The Information Commissioner’s Office has already reprimanded an NHS board for colleagues sharing patient data using WhatsApp.

Its popularity shows there’s a gap approved apps haven’t hit yet. Organisations still need to work to find solutions for colleagues to stay connected in a user-friendly and secure way.

The importance of knowing your audience

While understanding audiences is at the front of communicators’ minds, the research finds distinct cultures for desk-based and deskless colleagues.

Desk-based colleagues use a written culture built around emails and reports. With face-to-face interaction so important for deskless colleagues, their culture is verbal. They look for quick and brief content.

This doesn’t involve making content more informal, relaxed or writing in plain English. They need a clear, simple narrative that’s easy to repeat and can connect with.

On top of this, there are two types of deskless workers:

  • Factory floor workers who have little interaction with or deal with customers on a need basis e.g. healthcare workers.
  • Shop floor workers who work with customers who choose their brand, e.g. retail workers.

Knowing that deskless colleagues have limited free time, we need to make sure communication strategies take these different cultures into account to meet their needs.

A lack of engagement isn’t the issue

While we need to improve the deskless experience, we’ve also got solid foundations to work from.

Around three-quarters said they have the information they need to do their job well, it’s relevant and their line manager is a good communicator. A bonus considering that supporting line managers is another challenge for many communicators!

Additionally, 83% of people said they feel part of the team, with 71% of people feeling their team is part of the organisation.

If engagement is already there, communicators are starting from a strong position to understand their deskless workforce better.

With a clearly defined purpose for internal comms and a strategy focused on building relationships, developing organisational behaviours and improving channels and content, it’s exciting to think about how much progress we can make.

Remotely interested promotional graphic

The research provides useful insight for internal communicators alongside other recent industry findings like the Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC) IC Index.

Download the 2023 Remotely Interested? report for more insights. You can also download the original research report.

Post author: Dan Holden

First published on the All Things IC blog 12 October 2023.


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