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7 challenges facing deskless workplaces and how tech can help

Every workplace has its challenges but employers that rely heavily on shift-based (‘deskless’) workers face unique hurdles.


A compelling employee experience (EX), which covers every touchpoint an employee has with their employer, can act as a powerful talent retention and attraction magnet. In 2023, technology plays a key role in shaping the EX. Indeed, The Josh Bersin Company indicates that technology forms the foundation upon which the EX is built: security and access, support systems, insights and talent apps, communication tools, and more.

From onboarding and learning through to all aspects of workforce management (rosters, time & attendance), the right tech tools can forge stronger connections between work team members and improve productivity, customer service and other critical business metrics.

A key outcome of workforce management technology is the automation of manual, time-consuming processes. Automation can improve compliance, reduce workloads and provide access to valuable data insights – all of which can in turn improve the EX, not to mention business performance.

In this blog, we’ll examine some of the unique people-related challenges facing deskless workplaces, and how the right tech tools can help overcome those challenges.

A neglected workforce segment

Deskless workers comprise 80% of the global working population, equivalent to 2.7 billion people. The following industries rely heavily on deskless workers:

Industry Global employees
Agriculture 858 million
Retail 497 million
Manufacturing 427 million
Construction/real estate 265 million
Education 226 million
Transportation/logistics 189 million
Healthcare 148 million
Restaurants/hospitality 122 million


However, in terms of technology, deskless workers have been left behind. The needs and wants of deskbound, white-collar workers have traditionally taken precedence. Indeed, research from Emergence shows that just 1% of software venture funding is going towards technology for deskless workers. They are indeed “the workforce that Silicon Valley forgot”.

Thankfully, the tide is turning. The same report shows that 82% of global survey respondents are planning to increase spending on deskless technology. Transportation (100%), manufacturing (91%) and retail (83%) are the three leading industries, but all industries show an average planned increase of 31%.

Why is this the case? What are some common workforce management challenges these sectors are looking to overcome?

HR challenges in deskless workplaces

Below we outline 7 key people-related issues facing employers of deskless workers – and how tech can help.

1.      Compliance

Compliance has become the hottest word in workforce management. Yes, you read that right. A combination of factors, including extremely complex industrial environments, ongoing scrutiny from regulators, and costly cases of employee underpayments have all conspired to bump compliance up the priority list for HR professionals and executive leadership teams.

Compliance helps businesses and individuals stay out of trouble and meet certain standards. It therefore has a major impact on building employee trust in their employer – a key element of the EX. However, poor record-keeping, incorrect time and attendance inputs from workers, missing deadlines, misinterpreting entitlements in Awards and Agreements, and miscalculating pay can all result in costly compliance breaches and brand damage.

There’s a renewed focus on how well-integrated technology solutions – specifically Payroll and Time & Attendance and Award Interpretation software – can help mitigate the risk of non-compliance. Ensuring you have the right people with the right qualifications in the right place at the right time – and receiving the right pay – is only possible with technology.


2.      Manual workload for HR/managers

There never seems to be enough resources to devote to all the tasks that fall to HR to manage. Research from The Josh Bersin Company indicates that HR professionals spend 41% of their time on “transactional activities” such as screening and hiring candidates, onboarding new staff, performance management, and ensuring compliance training is completed.

Add to that list the many tasks associated with workforce management: creating rosters, scrambling to find talent to fill in for unplanned absences, tracking time & attendance and feeding that data through to payroll, approving leave, keeping employees up-to-date with the latest company and team news, and more. This time could be more effectively spent on strategic initiatives like workforce planning, improving engagement and strengthening culture.

A lack of resources often highlights the need to automate processes – otherwise managers and HR professionals face what’s known as “administrative overwhelm”.

All Humanforce solutions will help you deliver an enriching employee journey for your shift-based workforce, while automating tasks for managers and HR teams. Our Roster & Scheduling solution, for example, automatically takes into consideration staff work preferences, leave, availability and qualifications to create cost-effective and demand-driven rosters. Templates streamline manual rostering processes, while managers can make changes on-the-go via the mobile app. The shift offer and shift bidding facilities ensure unplanned absences can be covered easily, without adding to the admin burden of managers.


3.      High employee turnover

It’s no secret that many jobs in deskless workplaces pay either on or slightly above national minimum wage or national living wage. While fair pay is always a critical element of the EX, it’s not the only contributor to employee turnover. Work conditions such as high-risk environments or very physically demanding work can also take a toll. And while ‘The Great Resignation’ of 2022 impacted all industries, it was those industries reliant on deskless workers who were hit the hardest.

According to LinkedIn’s  Hoo report, the average turnover rate for all industries is 10.6%. That same research shows that three of the top five industries with above-average turnover rates rely heavily on deskless workers. See graph below:


In addition, there is a perception – rightly or wrongly – that there is limited scope for learning & development or career progression in many of these industries. When BCG asked in a global survey of deskless workers why they might leave their current job, 41% said ‘lack of career advancement’. Full results below:

There is no ‘quick fix’ for high employee turnover, but addressing those five issues will help. Read more about retaining your top deskless workers in our eBook.

Keen to identify the reasons for turnover in your organisation, as well as spot emerging trends, threats and opportunities? Access to and analysis of relevant data is essential.

Humanforce Workforce Analytics helps HR and business leaders make more informed decisions supported by data-driven evidence. In-built reports covering project costs, tardiness reporting, hours worked to hours rostered ratios, causes of unauthorised timesheets, and more can improve visibility of what’s happening across your business and show where planned and unplanned costs are occurring. Alternatively, a custom dashboard builder can be used to visualise specific, business-critical information, enabling users to spot minor anomalies before they turn into costly issues.


4.      Skills/talent shortages

While skills shortages might have eased in other sectors as the economy has slowed and people have a stronger desire for the safety of a ‘known entity’ as their employer, in deskless workplaces talent shortages are still rampant.

One 2022 study from ManpowerGroup found that 75% of companies globally have reported talent shortages and difficulty hiring – a 16-year high. The same survey found that sectors dependent on deskless workers were the heaviest hit, taking out five of the top seven spots in terms of reporting talent shortages (the exceptions being IT & technology, and banking & finance). See results in the graphs below.

Effective workforce management can ease the impact of skills shortages. For example, more efficient rostering can optimise the use of existing human resources. A study by McKinsey & Company showed that retailers can cut labour costs by up to 12% while improving both customer service and employee satisfaction with demand-based labour scheduling and budgeting. If employers can better predict the number and skill set of employees required every day (or even better, every hour) of the week, then consumers get better service and employees are not overworked.

Of course, technology is also critical to the overall EX – which can in turn act as an effective hook to recruit talent. According to a 2020 study by Emergence, 78% of surveyed deskless workers said technology is an important factor when choosing a job.

The employee journey starts with recruitment and kicks into high gear with onboarding. Humanforce’s Onboarding solution can help streamline and digitise this process, removing the need for time-consuming, paper-based processes and getting employees up to full productivity faster.


5.      Communication and connection

A constant struggle for employers of deskless workers is ensuring they have appropriate communication channels – not just to impart important information but also to build a sense of connection.

A survey by Frost + Sullivan found that in 45% of companies, email is the most commonly used tool among frontline workers, followed by phone and video calls. Only 30% use group chat, and just 22% routinely use team collaboration tools.

A different study by communications agency Tribe found that non-desk employees want more communication from leadership and that the default method in most companies is cascading information through managers. Although 59% of respondents found those communications satisfactory, frontline workers still want to hear directly from the top. This is leading to a sense that their contributions are not appreciated. Indeed, 47% of respondents said they feel connected to their immediate work group and only 10% feel strongly connected to the wider company.

Mobile communication is vital for deskless workers, who may not have easy access to desktop computers and laptops. Being able to send team-wide notifications and one-on-one messages to employees are features of Humanforce’s Mobile App. Employees can also check rosters, bid on shifts and update their personal details via the app, while managers can make changes and approvals on-the-go.


6.      Health and safety

Without your health, you have nothing. COVID-19 demonstrated that sad fact for everyone, but it was especially apparent for deskless workers, many of whom work in the frontline interacting with the general public, working ‘anti-social’ hours, and often undertaking physically demanding work. It takes a toll.

Worker safety should always be a priority, yet according to Workplace from Facebook, just 57% of deskless workers say they have the right tools (benefits, technology) to keep them physically safe at work.

Many organisations expanded their wellbeing programs in response to the pandemic, adding a holistic suite of physical and mental health benefits for their employees. Careful rostering can play a key role in health and wellbeing, ensuring employees get appropriate breaks and rest periods, and reducing the risk of accidents thanks to more effective fatigue management (read our blog here).

In 2023, financial wellbeing benefits are also gaining ground – with good reason. Even before the current economic crisis, many shift-based workers were amongst the lowest paid, with childcare, hospitality, manufacturing and retail workers featuring on Indeed’s ’20 lowest paid jobs’ list.

For those employees stressed about finances, PwC research indicates that 76% of surveyed workers would be attracted to another company that cares about their financial wellbeing. Even for employees who said they were not stressed, 57% said they would be attracted to another company that cares about their financial wellbeing. Note the key words here are “financial wellbeing”; it’s not necessarily about more remuneration.

If employers can relieve some of this stress, they can increase staff wellbeing and productivity at work whilst reducing absenteeism and the risk of staff turnover. Research from EY suggests that approximately 20% of employee turnover is attributed to financial stress. Humanforce offers customers early wage access, which enables workers to access their earned wages before pay day. This flexibility helps align income and expenses by giving employees access to a portion of their accrued wages in advance of pay day, with the remaining portion paid at the end of the pay period.


7.      Lack of empowerment and ‘voice’

A central theme of the EX is empowerment. Most employers will be striving to provide the tools – and the freedom – for their employees to feel empowered. This is critical to deskless workers, who may feel they are removed from the executives and senior leaders who make all the decisions on their behalf. Can they choose what shifts they work? Can they bid on the shifts that suit their personal circumstances? Are they empowered to update their own records, apply for leave and communicate with team mates and managers via a mobile device?

Research from Forbes Insights/VMWare indicates that employees are 5x more likely to report increased productivity if they have access to self-service tools that help them do their job more effectively. However, the report from Workplace from Facebook indicates that just 57% of frontline workers have the autonomy to share ideas and new ways of working.

A different study by communications specialists Nudge found that 39% of deskless employees do not feel heard by their organisation; 24% said their organisation asks them for feedback often, and 76% said they’re asked only sometimes – or never. The study also revealed:

  • 52% of deskless workers want to give feedback on problems with the workplace / co-workers, etc.
  • 47% want to give feedback on efficiency / protocol feedback (how to do things better)
  • 35% want to give feedback on health / safety concerns
  • 30% want to give feedback on knowledge gaps
  • 68% said they have opinions on how to make their organisation better or more profitable

Regular manager/employee catch-ups and stay conversations are increasingly being used to identify what’s working, what’s not working, and how things can be improved – all while employees are currently engaged in their work roles (unlike exit interviews which take place too late to make a difference to a departing employee). In addition, employee communication and engagement tools can help. Humanforce, for example, has an easy-to-use Mobile App that gives teams instant access to key information like rosters and shift updates.

It incorporates two key features purpose-built to enhance internal communication:

  • The ‘chat’ function – this allows managers to chat one on one with an employee. Employees can also message other employees directly.
  • The ‘notifications’ function – this enables managers or administrative team members to broadcast information such as team events or staff updates to a larger group of people.

Senior staff can oversee all communications, which enhances visibility over what’s going on in their company while helping employees feel seen and heard. For more tips on listening to the ‘voice’ of deskless workers, read our blog.


Not sure where to start?

The first step for HR and business leaders is to design digital-first experiences to support the ‘moments that matter’ for their deskless workforce. That might be around clocking on and off, or ensuring employees have everything they need on a mobile app so they can stay connected and engaged with their manager and team. Or it might be about providing easier access to benefits that matter, including early access to earned wages. Once these moments are identified, HR can design a well-considered employee journey that delivers unified, digital-first employee experiences.

How Humanforce can help

Humanforce is a leading provider of shift-based workforce management solutions that simplify onboarding, scheduling, time and attendance, pay, employee engagement, and communication. Customers in more than 23 countries use Humanforce to optimise costs, realise compliance confidence, empower their team, and drive growth. Humanforce was founded in Sydney in 2002, and today has offices in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore.

For more information on how Humanforce can automate and simplify your workforce management processes, contact us or schedule a demo.