In October, 2020, Learning Solutions published a report on the use of mobile technology for deskless and computerless employees, mainly in the hospitality industry. The report covered uses in that segment that included onboarding, language translation, digitization of documents, and workflow management and collaboration. JD Dillon also emphasized the importance of training frontline workers in his October 2020 "In Real Life" column.

In this article, I will summarize some findings from a survey of a broad, global group of deskless workers. In this recent survey, deskless workers are defined as “people who don't do their jobs from behind a desk. Unlike people who work in traditional office settings (or now from home), deskless employees are on their feet or on the move throughout their workday.”

Content, delivery, and frontline workers

This survey, created and conducted by TalentCards, published the responses of 600 frontline workers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. 49% of those workers were employed in healthcare and social assistance, education, and retail, with smaller representation from hospitality, construction, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, and other groups. TalentCards is a mobile learning platform focusing on microlearning and microassessments.

Because the information from the TalentCards survey was less about mobile technology than about content and its delivery, and about the employees themselves, I believe that the results will be of broad use. According to Thanos Papangelis, CEO and founder of TalentCards, in the published press release for the survey, "The reality is that the majority of training software has been developed to suit just a portion of the global workforce—meaning the people who do their jobs from behind a desk, and not those who don't. ... In industries like hospitality, retail, transportation, even healthcare, the nature of these deskless jobs demands that people work alone, or at most with two or three others. It's only natural for these employees to feel disconnected from their company. Our survey revealed that the solution to overcoming this disconnect is training. 63% of deskless workers reported that additional training would help them feel more connected to their company's values or mission. And this is exciting, because it shows us that employees don't view training as this dreaded exercise that they have to endure. Instead, they see it as a valuable point of connection between them and their company."

Key findings

There are some findings that are similar to those in my earlier article that looked most closely at hospitality, namely the importance of training to increasing the engagement and updating of current knowledge of deskless workers. Training specifically designed for mobile employees was also found to be important, as it was for hospitality workers. However, Athena Marousis, lead researcher for the TalentCards survey, noted that, "We know that compliance training is critical for a lot of deskless jobs, perhaps even more critical than it is for office-bound workers. Knowing the right temperature to store food, the maximum weight an elevator can hold, how frequently a machine needs to be replaced—these are serious details. That's why it's not surprising that compliance training is the most common type of training for deskless workers, with 72% of our respondents having received it in the last 12 months. But what may be surprising is that 80% of these workers reported that they prefer shorter, more frequent training sessions over long, one-time events. Regular training has been proven to be more effective for memory retention, which makes it a win for both employees themselves and all of us that depend on these deskless workers."

Workflows and payoffs

Deskless workers enjoy being deskless. When asked if they would switch to a desk job given the same pay and benefits, 64% said no. Reasons given included not enjoying being "chained to a desk," boredom, and lack of exercise. In responding to another question, 24% included avoiding exposure to COVID-19 as the main reason they would switch to a desk job. These responses distinguish deskless workers from employees who work from home or in an office. The workflows are different, and the payoffs are different.

Training mix

The mix of training content, in addition to compliance topics, that deskless workers said they received from their employers in the 12 months since the pandemic started was different from what might have been expected.

  • COVID-19 related training: 70%
  • Hard skills: 60%
  • Soft skills: 41%

The groups in the survey with the highest rates of COVID-19 training were healthcare and social assistance (82%), retail (76%), health and food services (74%), manufacturing (69%), construction (69%), transportation and warehousing (58%), and education (52%). While it is no surprise that there was compliance training and training related to the pandemic, the amount of training and support in hard skills and soft skills for all of these groups also seems less than would likely be the case for employees working from home. This is a combination that would call for some review.

Training delivery and the forgetting curve

Across all groups, 59% reported receiving the majority of their training online. However, 17% report they remember less than half of their training immediately after completing it, and 32% report that after a month they remember less than half.

Mobile workers and disconnection

Only 19% of those who responded say they feel "somewhat" or "very" disconnected because they work away from a central company location. This is another result that should be examined, even though it is related to the reasons many choose mobile jobs. Being disconnected often leads to lower productivity and to turnover. As reported in the earlier article on the hospitality industry, both of these are expensive.

Using mobile devices

26% of those responding said they preferred to receive training by using a tablet or smartphone, but only 6% said they received the majority of their training over a mobile device. Not surprisingly, 35% of people aged 18-24 chose a smartphone or tablet as their most preferred. 74% of those responding said they feel comfortable using their own personal mobile devices for training. At the same time, 78% said they preferred completing training on the job; 30% said they preferred doing the training from home, and 10% preferred training on their break or commute. The preference for doing training while at work, combined with the near-universal ownership of compatible smartphones, creates an opportunity for training delivery that only a very small number of employers have realized.

Some takeaways

The survey results around use of mobile devices are interesting and support three specific courses of action for making mobile learning more a norm than an exception.

First, create mobile performance support applications and job aids that will make the mobile employee’s work simpler, faster, and safer. Even paper checklists can play a part in this. Frontline supervisors can show employees how and why to use such applications. You may find, in fact, that frontline employees have innovated their own checklists and other aids that can be adopted by others

Second, L&D can implement mobile spaced learning to assist in overcoming the forgetting curve. Any resistance to using personal devices may be simpler to overcome than some organizations anticipate, especially if the supervisor can show how this benefits the employee.

Third, introduce the use of collaborative software that runs on smartphones, specifically designed for deskless and computerless workers . This can result in greater feelings of connection and to greater productivity. Just because workers are mobile and without computers does not mean that the idea behind "70-20-10" does not apply! Frontline workers are also knowledge workers, and a properly planned implementation of appropriately selected mobile collaboration software may also provide L&D with a success story that will help efforts to implement this solution more widely.

Download the full report on the survey here.