Remote and Disconnected Workforce Communications
A Guide for Reaching, Empowering, and Engaging Deskless Employees
Communicating to a dispersed workforce is a growing challenge for managers and communications teams across industries around the world. As deskless employees make up 80% of the global workforce, it’s critical to be able to effectively communicate to them.
Whether they’re front-line workers, remote and off-site staff, or those working from home, a dispersed workforce runs the risk of becoming disconnected without a thorough communication strategy.
Successfully reaching and connecting with a company’s dispersed workforce will elevate employee engagement, boost morale, and lower staff turnover.
This guide will help you understand the wants and needs of remote and dispersed teams, evaluate your current communication approach, and lay the groundwork for a successful strategy moving forward.
Remote and deskless workers make up a very heterogeneous group. For communications professionals, reaching and activating this broad spectrum of employees is a challenging but rewarding endeavour.
How can communications teams, faced with these diverse internal target audiences, develop effective strategies that will reach each employee?
Truth be told, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. To make our job as communication professionals even tougher, it’s a tricky task to evaluate if you’re communicating effectively to remote and dispersed staff, as this exercise poses its own unique set of challenges.
In my experience over a 17-year career in communication, I’ve witnessed successes and missteps in many diverse organizations’ internal communication strategies. One constant is that there is always a solution that’s right for your particular company or team.
In this guide, I’ll provide strategic, long and short term, and practical and tactical solutions to effectively reach and engage dispersed workforces.
But before I get there, let’s first look at exactly what we mean by remote, dispersed, and disconnected workers, and consider the main challenges of communicating to these audiences.
Deskless Employees and Disconnected Workforces
What is a Deskless Employee?
A deskless employee is one who is producing work, and aligning with this concept, but they don’t spend their working time at a dedicated desk in a specific location. They may be working on the front-line, on-site, in the field, or outside of the company headquarters.
That said, there is certainly a difference between a deskless worker who must provide a service in person, and those who are able to work from anywhere.
For example, an emergency room nurse is deskless but has to work on site at a medical facility. A social media manager can be deskless and can work from anywhere. Deskless employees make up a diverse range of positions across nearly every sector.
Types of Deskless Workers
- Front-line workers
- Health care workers
- Utilities: Energy, Telecommunications, and Sanitation workers
- Law enforcement workers
- Drivers and operators
- Delivery people
- Manufacturing workers
- Hospitality: Cleaning staff, Chefs, Cooks, Bartenders
- Remote workers without a fixed location
Are Deskless Employees and Remote Workers the Same?
In most knowledge-based jobs today, the reality leaders must embrace is that the concept of work is something that you do, not necessarily somewhere that you go. Indeed, your job is a function, not a location. To complete your job, you must put in the work using your skills and knowledge of how to get the job done.
There are exceptions to this, such as those roles that provide hands-on medical care, and essential services which require a worker to provide service in-person.
Remote workers refer to any employee working away from the primary central business location.
Deskless employees can certainly fall into remote workers, but a remote worker could also work behind a desk, just not at the company’s headquarters or local business unit.
Remote and deskless workers of all types make up what’s known as a distributed or dispersed workforce.
Dispersed Workforce Meaning
A dispersed workforce refers to the workers within a company or business unit who are located in several different areas. This could be desk-staff working remotely in various satellite offices or working remotely from home.
Dispersed or distributed workers can also refer to front-line staff, especially those mobile positions who need to travel for work to off-site locations, such as power utility maintenance technicians. When it comes to global team management, a dispersed workforce can be spread geographically and across many time zones.
What Do We Mean by Disconnected Workforce?
Disconnected workers can refer to two groups:
- Those workers who are physically disconnected from their workplace communications: they might not have a company cell phone, email, or access to the intranet. Examples of these types of workers are volunteer staff, short-term contract workers, or certain field workers.
- The other meaning of disconnected worker refers to staff who are feeling left out, disengaged, or isolated from the central pulse of a team or company’s operations. Remote and dispersed staff are at risk of becoming disconnected due to the fact they’re removed from the central place of work of a business.
On-site vs. Dispersed Workforce
Communication teams may wonder how to adapt their communication plans to suit a dispersed workforce. To oversimplify it for a minute, you can approach this audience the same way as traditional office workers.
There are certainly some specific and unique considerations, such as the channel mix (we’ll get to that) and tone of voice, but the fundamentals of successful workplace communications remain the same.
Let’s have a look at a concrete example of the day-to-day working experience that clearly differentiates on-site from dispersed workers: workplace rituals.
Maintaining Workplace Rituals
Rituals are a big part of life at work. The morning coffee. Lunch with a colleague. Water cooler chats. These are all small practices that are evolving through the shift to more remote and deskless work.
Remote employees, working away from the workplace for a long period of time, face the challenge of only being able to interact with their colleagues through telecom and digital channels. Online coffee breaks or other light-hearted moments can potentially replace the workplace rituals in these cases.
Front-line staff, along with many other types of dispersed workers, have unique and diverse working considerations:
- Shift work: Day shifts, night shift, and rotating schedules
- Travel for site work and customer/client visits
- Team often works opposite hours complicating team and all-hands meetings
Here, there is more fluctuation – or even disruption – which may hinder a sense of team spirit or connection. This can be a major challenge for communications teams when trying to reach dispersed workers. It also highlights my earlier point that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for effective communications for these types of remote individuals and deskless teams.
Some of the challenges of managing remote and dispersed employees lies in ensuring that these workers remain engaged and connected. A disconnected workforce runs the risk of feeling isolated and removed from the heartbeat of the organization.
The Main Challenges of Communicating with a Remote and Deskless Workforce
Before tackling the strategic considerations and practicalities on how to best communicate with dispersed workers, let’s first address the specific challenges that come with remote and dispersed workforce communications.
Not One-to-Many But Many-to-Many
Traditional top-down workplace communication, whereby the CEO delivers a singular message to the entire staff, and expects that sole piece of communication to be widely seen, understood, and acted upon, is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. This is what’s referred to as a one-to-many communication.
Since the rise of social media, we have moved solidly into the era of many-to-many communications.
The way we communicate as a society has changed fundamentally. On social networks, everyone can give their opinion on everything, and people trust individual, peer-to-peer endorsements over company-steered communications.
This has led to those platforms becoming the arbiter of what brands can be trusted and what brands can be(come) successful. Further, the ease of finding information through digital platforms reverberates to the way messages are found and digested within companies and organizations
Now take this concept back to internal communications within a company and you’ll see that this is a huge opportunity in the advancement of communications with remote and deskless employees. Thanks to social networks and digital platforms, we can now more effectively reach diverse audiences with targeted messaging, even if these audiences never set foot in the company’s headquarters or central business unit.
Are You Ready for Many-to-Many?
Many-to-many communications imply using technology where workers are able to not only receive, but also actively participate in the communications that the company is issuing.
The move towards a kind of social intranet, or a communication platform that promotes interaction, can help encourage dialogue and participation. See it as a sort of a democratization of communications.
The caveat: a lot of brands or organizations are not yet ready, culture-wise, to embrace that type of openness and innovation.
Communication managers need to look inward and ask a few thought-provoking questions:
What makes us uncomfortable about the change? What makes us queasy about the company not wanting this type of dialogue on our social intranet? What is our threshold for difficult questions and viewpoints from employees that challenge the status quo?
Two-way conversations are something that we are so used to now, and could work well for many organizations. However, first a temperature check is needed to gauge the leadership’s threshold: are they willing to enter into (direct) dialogue with their employees?
The price of admission to social media is participation. If that’s not a price that they’re willing to pay, then you have to examine whether or not social media is the right tool for your internal communications.
Understanding the Wants and Needs of a Dispersed Staff
Think about all the types of positions in your company. There may be workers behind their computer their entire shift, reliably reading emails and workplace communications. There could be others working off-site, perhaps with limited access to their emails or other messaging. Or others who don’t have a work computer or mobile phone at all.
Dispersed staff have unique needs when it comes to how they receive information. As communication managers, we cannot make assumptions on whether every employee takes in information in the same way.
Let’s look at an example. At a utility, say an electricity service provider, about 30% of employees could be field employees. Repairing things, on the go, attending to customers. It’s really difficult for someone who is constantly outside and on the road to find the time to have regular standups with their manager or supervisor who can cascade important business messages. It’s hard to get news from the intranet in a timely manner.
People are busy working, and possibly don’t have access to a computer or even a smartphone. Don’t make the assumption that they are hanging on to every weekly newsletter or that they have time to check all employee communications.
Another example are shift workers. It can be really difficult to get into the same rhythm of communications that usually happens during a day-shift for many organizations. As a lot of employer communication activity happens during conventional 9-to-5 hours, people who do shift work sometimes feel (or are) forgotten.
These are the types of considerations that need to be carefully analyzed. Are you sure you are considering every type of employee in your internal communications strategy?
Addressing the Challenges of Communicating With and Managing Dispersed Workers
Considering the above challenges, a rule for me as a communications leader has always been: pick up on the clues. Get on the floor. Get on-site. Go talk to as many employees in as many roles as you can.
What does a typical shift look like for an employee? Walk a day in their shoes to understand how communications can best serve these types of employees. And find out which channels are most appropriate to reach them.
How to Communicate With Deskless Employees
The best way to communicate with deskless employees is the method that will work well for them. And I know that seems to be a bit of an oversimplified solution. But I do believe that that is true.
I’m not going to prescribe one particular method, because as you know, there are many different industries and many different employee types that we could be talking about here.
Nevertheless, there are some practical and tactical strategies that we can apply generally. Let’s take a look at some of those.
Understand the Why
For me, it all comes back to starting with the why. Why are we communicating?
What do you want your employees to know? What do you want them to do?
How do you want them to respond? How are you going to measure whether or not that communication is successful?
For remote and dispersed workers, the exploration of the why question will take you to all corners of your employees’ duties, locations, and contract types.
It’s hard, but necessary work to then be able to most effectively choose your communication channels.
Supporting Deskless Employees Wherever They Work
Dispersed teams need communication tailored to where they work. That means understanding and considering the day-to-day of each type of employee, and best utilizing communication tools in the different workplaces.
Take an example of communicating to your company’s fleet of drivers or delivery personnel. A delivery driver management software, for example, could be used to integrate communications, creating a one-stop location to reach them.
Or if you’re working with virtual teams, understanding their preferred channels and targeting your communication through those, will definitely increase employee engagement with your messages.
Thinking about the day-to-day, and simplifying communications to where the workers already are – is a great place to start. Internal communication tools are already being used by many employees. Harness the power of those and optimize them for maximum reach and engagement.
Selecting The Best Channels For A Distributed Workforce
Selecting the right channels for your company’s communication depends entirely on the company philosophy, type of workers, and size of the organization.
As mentioned before, the price of admission to social media is participation. If your company isn’t ready, or willing, to engage in that type of candid two-way communication, then perhaps an internal social network shouldn’t be a focus point.
On the other hand, if you have an engaged and energetic, tech-savvy staff, and are still communicating with paper newsletters, then maybe consider diving into a social media style platform.
The first steps in determining the type of channels is to thoroughly analyze the type of employee experiences occurring throughout the employee groups you wish to communicate with.
That starts by analyzing your employees’ various personas, and thinking empathetically to understand their wants and needs.
Persona mapping: Who are you trying to communicate with? Consider the user experience of each group.
Empathy: Again – take a walk in the shoes of the employees. Understand their unique situations.
We need to roll up our sleeves and do the work.
Really get to know your employees, their day-to-day or shift-to-shift experience, and the ways in which they absorb (or should absorb) company messages. This will help in finding the best communication channels that will work for them, that they are actually going to use.
It’s important to consider that we need to tailor the organization’s information to the different employee groups. But don’t stop there: also think about ways that will allow employees to tailor the information themselves. That means that they can choose their own adventure or pick their own categories of information that gets pushed out to them.
Wouldn’t it be great to find a tool that can help employees increase the relevancy of what they get in their inboxes?
Give your employees a choice, like a menu or a suite of options, that they can choose what matters to them in their job. Of course, there will always be certain communications that all employees have to see. But by giving them a certain freedom to choose among the other communication, you’ll lower the chance of information overload, and more effectively direct the workers to the information they want and need to know.
Evaluating Communication Reach and Engagement
Being more strategic with what you want your employees to do with the information is sorely missing in a lot of internal communications, leading to poor engagement with the messages issued. Consider taking the following actions to remedy this issue:
- Make the information more relevant, and the open rate of your communications should improve.
- Take the time to do an audit of every channel that you presently use to make sure the information on each channel corresponds to the target audience’s needs. Workers who are not desk-based might react best to posters in the breakroom, or notices posted on a physical bulletin board. Another segment of people might prefer a virtual town hall, a company podcast, a video message, an email summary of what they need to know, a Slack channel, or other digital communications.
- If it’s appropriate, include relevant content on your organization’s social media platforms for those employees who follow you on social media. Check with operations leaders first, to make sure you’re not relying just on social media to communicate critical operational information. Not all employees use social media so you don’t want to disadvantage those who choose not to set up accounts.
- Go through all the channels and look at the pros and the cons. Who does it work really well for? Who is it failing to reach?
Using The Tools Available
There are many tools out there you can use to evaluate your open rates of internal emails that are sent out through internal communications.
Alternatively, a call to action in your email or communication, like asking employees to fill in a survey or sign up for something, allows you to measure reader engagement.
With surveys, the caveat is that you don’t want to over survey your employees as there’s a risk of survey fatigue. Moreover, there can also be some level of cynicism about what happens to surveys. If you’re not prepared to act on what you get from the data, employees may feel like nothing comes from the surveys that they respond to.
Organizations who are communicating in effective ways will know so through the employees’ understanding of changes that are happening.
If you’re hearing the same questions come up – say at your town halls or through the intranet – then perhaps you have an indication that the communications that you are issuing about a particular change, whether it’s a policy or practice, is not hitting the mark.
Strategies to Motivate Dispersed Team Members
Improving internal communication strategies to dispersed teams all comes back to more user experience, more persona mapping, and more situating ourselves in the shoes of the employees.
Sustaining employee motivation across a distributed workforce, from a communications perspective, requires planning and continuous evaluation of the communication strategy.
Communication Strategies to Motivate Remote Workers
As I’ve talked about, communicating to deskless and remote workers is not that much different than with a desked employee. From an employee engagement and motivation perspective, the differences are also rather subtle.
Most importantly, internal communications need to acknowledge a job well done. This means supporting leaders and managers to:
- Keep their fingers on the pulse and know when to show appreciation for great work.
- Share kudos on the intranet. This could be part of a ritual. Once a month, have a round-up of terrific feedback you’ve heard about a team member. The number one thing is that leaders should know what the team is doing and how they have helped a customer, client, patient, donor, etc. complete the task they needed to do. The best feedback is specific and names exactly how an employee’s efforts have helped someone.
- Stay connected and engaged. Be present and engaged with team members. Make sure that you’re available and communicate with your team how best to reach you. When you’re not in a face-to-face situation, leaders have an added responsibility. Keep that virtual door open.
- Say thank you. Remote teams are under incredible pressure to keep the quality of their work high during challenging times. Recently, we have seen many remote workers struggle throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Let them know you are appreciative of their efforts.
Communicating Company Culture to Dispersed Employees
In my experience, I’ve seen that company culture is very local. The culture you experience is going to be dependent on the people you spend the most time with. As such, establishing a company-wide culture among remote and deskless workers, especially those who typically work alone or in small teams, can be rather challenging.
As communication experts, we’re the sense makers of the organization. Our job is to help all employees make sense of what they see happening.
Start with the why, and help employees connect the dots to understand the goals and mission of the organization. Understanding is a key driver of employee pride and motivation.
In my view, when it comes to two-way communication – from managers to teams, and vice versa – there’s a practical and foundational side to it.
I’ll start with the foundational side. Employees need to have some confidence that this two-way communication is actually fruitful or productive.
And from a culture perspective, if you really want to weigh communication, organizations need to have a hard look at themselves, and be willing to embrace what that really means. This can often mean taking criticisms about things that employees are frustrated about.
On the more technical, practical side: how are you providing a platform where employees can have that two-way dialogue?
When your company is ready for going in that space and allowing for some frank and candid dialogue, and willing to take action based on that dialogue…then the employee motivation can see quite a surge!
Evaluate Intranet Effectiveness
We know that successful dispersed workforce management is dependent on strong communication with remote staff. A company intranet is one of the most common internal communication methods used across every industry.
A question I always ask is: “Are you sure that your employees are reading and engaging in the intranet content?”
If your answer is “no”, well – congratulations for recognizing that your intranet is not necessarily the only tool you have to rely on!
It’s a great first step to acknowledge that there are different approaches that you could be taking. Start by considering what content your employees really want to read and what information is practical for them. If so, people will self serve.
There’s ample evidence in organizations of the fact that, when something’s really useful, or helpful, people will bookmark it or they’ll share it among their colleagues.
Employees are resourceful. They are resilient. And they are smart people.
It comes down to relevancy of the information that you put out there and the findability of that information.
Those are the two biggest barriers to a successful intranet. It goes back to really having to understand the needs and roles of the employees that you’re serving.
The scenario in which your company’s intranet might not be working so well can also have some practical reasons.
Maybe it is the fact that many of your workers, after a 12-hour shift, just don’t have a moment to log on to the intranet. In this case, you may want to have a different mix of internal communication channels to get your information across.
Or perhaps the information you want to convey is something that’s better served in a face-to-face standup. It’s something that you say to the managers, “Can you mention this new policy in your next (virtual) standup or your next huddle?” Make sure you brief the managers and team leaders well through your usual channels for this audience, and let them in turn cascade the messages across the teams.
Enable Dispersed Workers To Make Their Day Easier
Dispersed workforce communications is exciting, fulfilling, and constantly evolving. Every employee, whether they’re remote, deskless, or front-line, has specific needs and approaches their work in a unique way.
Understanding these differences, applying empathy in your strategy development, and focusing on relevant information will help a dispersed workforce engage with company communication and feel more motivated.
You’re helping them make their work day easier and, in turn, your communication will resonate more profoundly throughout all corners of your organization
About the author
Tracy Tang is a communications professional and instructor with over 15 years’ experience in the private, public, and non-profit sectors.
Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Tracy is currently the Leader of Digital Engagement for Island Health.