3 Employee Listening Strategies to Reach Deskless Workers

July 31, 2023

The statistics are staggering. Deskless workers make up 80 percent of the global working population, representing 2.7 billion workers. And research is telling us that we can’t ignore the needs of this important population.   

According to one study, more than one-third of deskless and frontline workers are considering leaving their current job in the next six months, for a whole host of reasons. This is a whopping 999 million employees! This represents a risk of epic proportions, especially when you consider the tangible and intangible costs of that amount of turnover.     

There are so many factors impacting deskless workers’ decisions to leave their current roles – burnout is chief among them. Communications certainly can’t fix everything, but I believe that we as communicators have an obligation to do SOMETHING.   

We have the power to help employees feel seen, heard and valued. Wherever you are in your journey, we recommend starting by listening to your deskless and frontline workers. Here are three steps you can take to ensure your people feel heard.     

1. Use Surveys to Gauge Your Population 

The deskless worker experience is completely different from what some of us consider a “normal” office experience. That’s why it’s so important to begin by designing your research activities to match their reality, starting with surveys.     

Surveys can be a great way to gather relevant data from your deskless employees, but you must begin by carefully considering the sample size needed to reach a representative portion of your deskless workforce.   

Deskless work environments typically produce lower response rates, so you’ll need to work that much harder to drive participation. Here are a few approaches you can try: 

  • Create incentives: Even something as simple as a pizza party for the department with the highest response rate can be enough to improve survey participation.   
  • Offer pen and paper copies: While it may sound antiquated, it’s a completely reasonable approach in some deskless environments and can make a difference! Reducing friction is key.
  • Bring the survey to them: Set up shared workstations for survey completion or ask managers to walk around with a tablet, inviting employees to complete it.  
  • Make it mobile-friendly – and accessible: If you plan to rely on employees to complete the survey on their mobile devices, be sure to test it there first. It’s hard work building, running and analyzing an employee survey – don’t let details like a poor mobile experience negatively impact your response rate! Put up QR codes in the breakrooms, common areas and beyond to make it much easier to remember to take the survey.   

Last, but CERTAINLY not least – make absolutely certain that any topic area you’re surveying employees about is one that you’re actually prepared to address. There is nothing worse than asking for feedback, employees taking the time to share it, and then they don’t see anything change. If you can't or won't be able to act upon the feedback from that question, don't ask the question. That experience is far more likely to breed DIS-engagement than if you never asked for employees’ feedback in the first place.   

Our research team often says there’s no such thing as survey fatigue – there’s simply fatigue from employees sharing their feedback and seeing no action taken. Trust me, employees will never grow tired of sharing feedback on almost any subject if they see that it makes a difference in their experience.   

Learn how to drive meaningful change with employee surveys

 2. Provide Brave Spaces with Focus Groups  

Surveys are great, but the absolute BEST way to connect with and understand the needs and preferences of your deskless workers is via focus groups.   

There’s no better way to truly understand their experience than sitting across a table, face-to-face, in their actual work environment. Throughout my career, I’ve led focus groups in warehouses, transportation centers and even an air traffic control center. I’ve led focus groups with nurses at 3 a.m. to hear the night shift perspective. And I can attest that these kinds of conversations can truly transform your communications efforts.   

 Companies are often very reluctant to pull deskless workers from their frontline role for a focus group discussion, or a union may raise concerns. But it’s worth fighting for since it’s such a central element of any effective listening strategy. Simply put, it’s an absolute must-have. Here are a few key considerations and tips for focus groups:     

Focus group size:  

  • Our research team often recommends hosting no more than 5-8 focus group sessions total, no matter the organization size.
  • Each group should be comprised of roughly 10-12 participants, but you should shoot to invite around 15-20 to account for the day-of drop-off.  
  • Smaller group strategy: If pulling together groups this size is simply not feasible in your organization, you can also consider an even smaller group strategy – talking to groups of 2-3 employees at a time, pulled quickly into a break room during line shifts. These smaller, quicker discussions often work particularly well in fast-paced, production-focused environments like manufacturing and healthcare.     

In the focus groups, it’s critical to create a psychologically safe environment for employees to feel comfortable sharing productive feedback. To do that, make sure that no employee is in a group with their direct manager.

We typically recommend completely separating managers from frontline workers, hosting separate groups to account for their different experiences and so they can share amongst peers.  And whatever you do, ensure that no one from HR or leadership is in the room!   

To keep things productive and to truly provide that safe space, a professional third-party facilitator (like Brilliant Ink!) is ideal. Hiring an outside focus group facilitator is an investment you won’t regret. A skilled and experienced leader prevents focus groups from becoming an unproductive airing of grievances.   

Read 5 Ways to Foster Psychological Safety at Work

3. Plan to Collect Ongoing Feedback  

While intermittent touchpoints like surveys and focus groups are central to your listening strategy, ongoing feedback loops throughout the year are also crucial. Consider using:  

  • Employee councils: You can hand-pick employees who were vocal or especially helpful in the focus groups to form a standing feedback committee you check in with periodically to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening across the organization.  
  • Pulse surveys: Surveying a portion of your deskless population once per quarter can ensure you’re getting fresh and timely feedback without overburdening any one employee group.  
  • Experiment to find what works! Don’t be afraid to consider an old-fashioned paper/pencil suggestion box or simple feedback kiosks in break rooms.   

Making small adjustments on an ongoing basis is far more effective than only gathering input once per year and spending months sifting through it, planning and implementing change. We always prefer a more agile approach of listening, improving and listening some more.     

You’ve Got This!  

You know your organization best – so take the time to be thoughtful when crafting a personalized listening strategy for your deskless workers. When done right, it can have an immediate impact.  
As internal communicators, We are the ones to help companies get this right. We have the skills and the expertise to help. Engaging frontline workers can make a huge difference in retention and in turn, the overall health of your business. You can make a difference when you take the time to listen, share what you’ve learned with the right stakeholders, and craft an approach to respond. You’ve got this – and if you’d like a partner, we’re here to help.  

Download White Paper - Numbers to Stories: Data Visualization for Internal Communications

For more bite-sized brilliance, subscribe to our monthly employee engagement newsletter, the Inkwell, and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitterand Pinterest!   

Ann Melinger

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