Listen to this episode for insights on:

  • Developing a strategic framework for prioritizing deskless workers 
  • Leveraging engaged employees for improved communication effectiveness 
  • Ensuring collaboration and consistency in internal communications. 
  • Creating meaningful, relevant interfaces for deskless employees. 
  • Balancing traditional and digital communication channels. 
  • Utilizing technology to bridge communication gaps. 
  • Engaging deskless workers with tailored strategies. 
  • And much more! 




About the Speakers

Mike Klein headshot (1)
Mike Klein 
Communication Strategist and Consultant; Founder #WeLeadComms; Principal at Changing The Terms 
"Companies must find ways to connect with their deskless workers, understanding their needs and providing relevant information that supports their work."     
Priya Bates
Internal Communication, Employee Engagement and Change Management Strategist 
President at Inner Strength Communication Inc. 

"Connecting the dots between company values, employee experiences, and customer experiences is essential to reaching deskless workers and ensuring consistent service delivery."  

Julie Ford


Head of Content
Sparrow Connected
Julie Ford talks with Mike Klein and Priya Bates about the challenges and strategies for connecting with deskless workers. They share their insights on the importance of providing relevant information and the role of technology in reaching this essential group, as well as discussing potential strategies for overcoming challenges in unionized environments.     




Julie Ford 0:01 

Welcome to the IC connected or icon podcast. This podcast will challenge conventional thinking about internal communications. It will force you to think differently. Consider bold ideas and step outside your comfort zone through real unscripted insights from some of the best internal comms pros and subject matter experts in the world. But most importantly, this podcast will help you elevate your career, and together will elevate the internal comms profession to the C suite. Hi, everyone, thanks for tuning into the Icon Podcast. Today I have two guests with me, Mike Klein and Priya Bates. And we'll be exploring the topic of reaching deskless workers, a challenge that many companies are faced with today. Mike is the founder and principal of changing the terms, a consultancy focused on internal communications change and social communication. He's also the founder of weleadcomms an initiative to recognize initiative courage and leadership across the communication profession. Priya is an award winning professional communicator with a passion for driving robust performance from the inside out. She's also the president and owner of inner strength communication. Mike and Priya are both strategic advisors to Sparrow connected. Thanks for joining me today, Mike and Priya. 

Mike 1:11 

Pleasure. Nice to be here. 

Julie Ford 1:13 

So before we dive into the conversation, I thought we should start by defining what we mean by deskless workers. Who are deskless workers. And is this a new term for frontline employees? 

Priya Bates 1:23 

I think deskless workers aren't just the frontline employees, they include the frontline employees, and those frontline employees could be nurses, they could be servers in a restaurant, they could be, you know, customer service representatives in a store or retail location. But they also include your sales forces that are mobile, they could include your truck drivers, they could include your warehouse workers, and people on the manufacturing floor as well. 

Mike 1:53 

Well, there's, I mean, if you look at all of the industries that employ deskless workers, there's an amazing amount of diversity. And this group, I mean, it's everything from doctors to predict like emergency room type doctors, people who are mostly on their feet on their feet working, but also salespeople route salespeople, people outside of the office. And one of my first roles actually involved a huge deskless workers component. When I was working for an airline, where you had the entire cabin crew was almost completely deskless. At the time, this was around 2000, where they didn't even have email. And at the same time of the organization was talking about being paperless. Even then, we were able to override them on a newsletter. But that was a huge component of what we were trying to mobilize and what we're trying to work with. And also, you know, you look at government institutions, teachers, prison guards, you know, most of the time these people are on their feet doing their jobs, rather than being seated in front of a desk with information popping out every few seconds. 

Julie Ford 3:10 

Yeah, there. It's a very broad definition, I would say and, you know, it makes up a huge portion of the workforce. And I'm, you know, because these people are on their feet, generally, they're not obviously not at a desk or computer all day. I think they probably want different things from the organizations they're working for, compared to somebody who is sitting at a computer or a desk all day receiving notifications in real time. Do you guys know, what does this workers really want from the organizations they're working for? When it comes to communications? 

Priya Bates 3:43 

It's information that's relevant to them in the work that they do. It's information that is accessible, so that they can get information that they need, from an operational perspective when they need it. I think it's information that works around their schedule and prioritizes the customer and prioritizes their work first, and allows them to fit it in as well. Is there something else that you'd add to that, Mike? I think the key for me, though, is they're not the same. Sorry, I think that 

Mike 4:20 

the the main thing I would do, I wouldn't add anything to it. But I would subtract a hell of a lot. And what I would subtract is anything that's that they would consider noise. You know, even if we necessarily think that it's important and bearing in mind that many of us work in organizations where you've got lots of people who are doing change programs who have an inform all employees tick box in their KPIs. And if you can't get control over that, and no, this is also a huge issue when you're looking at internal comms platform. on technology, and how it intersects with deskless workers, because there's an inclination, in the mind, perhaps of your internal communicator or your HR department, that you're going to be able to get everybody just as connected as they are at headquarters. And that's the last thing. I would say 90% of your deskless workers want. So you've got it. The challenge is how do you create an interface that's going to be sufficiently useful or meaningful for deskless workers? And at the same time, minimize, as Priya says, they are more maximize the relevance of what content they get? 

Julie Ford 9:54 

Yeah. Is that a strategy that would work well for unionized work? 

Mike 10:00  

depends on the country. I mean, you know, in. In Germany, for instance, you have not just unions, but you have these things called works councils, which actually has the ability to, which actually have the ability to put a brake on, or even in some cases override company decisions, and they could block access, or they could rule that that, you know, an effort for the company to gain access to personal communication channels may be an overreach, then in the US where you've got, you may have union membership in some states, but you might also have right to work legislation, there's our which is basically bypassing the need for mandatory unions, there may be much more latitude to reach your, you know, to reach your workers, whether they're unionized or not, through personal channels. Now, there's other issues with that, which is, you know, employees don't appreciate being spammed, particularly when they're trying to do things other than work. So there's, you know, it's, it's, there's a push model and a pull model that needs to be reconciled. 

Priya Bates 11:14 

And from a union having worked with employers, who employ quite a few unions, when I led internal communications that Canada's largest private sector employer was 150 Different collective bargaining agreements across the country. And, you know, workers, you know, union workers who were in grocery stores and shipping, receiving truck truck driving, there was a really vast union network. So that would that presented unique challenges. And then, as a, you know, lead internal communications or LED communications, marketing and communications, for Ontario Nurses Association, which is the the largest nursing union in in Canada. And so he's seeing it from both sides was really fascinating that from a union perspective, the unions are looking at how they engage their workers, and they are connecting them to them with apps and technology, like they are leading the way. Because they know how important their your employers are, your employees are their customers, their paying customers, so the value they provide on that experience in that connection is extremely high. It's really a priority for them. Whereas I think that when we get into organizations that usually we start with desk workers, we start with leaders, we start with desk workers, when I worked for that grocery employer, the desk workers were 10,000 in a 200,000 people organization, like put that in perspective, here, and we prioritize that, instead of connecting to employees, at the end of the day, we need to work with Union. So when from an employer side, it really is helping them helping the union understand why we're introducing new technologies and new applications, we're trying to explain what's in it for the employee, and what's in it for the Union, in terms of that information, especially when it comes to safety. That seems to be a really good, you know, split in the door, that we're going to be able to provide safety information in tight just in time to those workers. So it's really thinking through the case, and being collaborative with the union, as you're introducing new processes, new technologies, it's just part of the process, because the minute it is seen as as combative or or putting one ahead of the you know, one higher than the other from a relationship perspective. That's where you may have challenges. 

Mike 13:54 

And that also varies by country immensely as well. I mean, in some countries, the unions are part of the organizational communication, infrastructure, and other companies are completely adversarial, and rely completely on separate channels and separate. You know, the messaging is at the very least disconnected if not adversarial. So it really depends on you know, what your what your local construct does. But the other side of that is that union leaders can be extremely credible messengers, if and when there's a point of agreement. You know, people, you know, we talk a lot about the Edelman trust survey. Interestingly, the Edelman trust survey doesn't even touch labor unions, which is probably a major flaw in its in its construction. I have my suspicion is that union members probably have a lot more trust in their unions than they have in probably anybody else in the workplace. And non members probably have less trust in the unions than anyone else in the workplace. 

Julie Ford 15:00 

It sounds like you have shared a few good best practices. So one, you know, leading with safety, collaborating, navigating communications together as much as you can with the unions. And I think those are really, really good tips for people who are operating in and trying to navigate the world of reaching deskless workers who are unionized. So thanks for sharing those insights. I want to jump to the idea of business impact, Mike and pre I think we've both spoken about business impact on previous webinars. And I know that this is an area that you can both speak to, how does a failure to communicate effectively with deskless workers impact the business, 

Priya Bates 15:41 

while ultimately those deskless workers are usually delivering or creating or manufacturing, the end product, and or service, and not creating the consistency, whether it's in the product delivery, or the service delivery, is where things break down from a branding and customer perspective, right. And that's when you know, there's magic to certain organizations where, where, what your expectations are anywhere in the world or any place you you land in their organization or deal with that organization. If those expectations are met, on a consistent basis, that's when you start building the loyalty. And so when you what, essentially what it's, what you're doing is leaving that to chance, you know, if you're going to just say they joined this organization to automatically know what to do what to say, what to think, understand how to respond and have the conversation with their friends and family, about our organization, our products and our services. That's not a sure bet, you're leaving it up to chance. And what you end up with is a dog's breakfast, right, you end up with things being dispersed, and inconsistent. And that's when when you get those inconsistencies, then the brand is at risk. 

Mike 17:09 

I think the biggest variable here is the amount of discretion that an employee has in the execution of their tasks and their job. So and even then alignment and consistency are still major issues, because the extent to which an employee has latitude to make decisions, if they do not know how the company wants those decisions, prioritized, they will make it up for themselves. Or they will ask the influencer, who they rely on for guidance about this stuff, what the best way to proceed is, and that may not necessarily be what the organization wants, you know, particularly if people want to cut corners, if they want to, you know, perhaps take a little bit of less time at their stations, what have you, you know, the lack of consistency around those policies around those experiences, could create, you know, certainly suboptimal consequences for the organization. But it's different for somebody working in an assembly line, and somebody who's around salesperson for pharmaceutical company, who's talking with doctors six or seven times a day. And if you don't have consistency in those roles, where people are effectively your, your frontline communicators, and not just your frontline execution people, then you have serious breakdown for you know, not only transactionally, but also for your brand and for your image in the marketplace. And too few organizations really see their deskless frontline employees as their most ubiquitous communication chat. 

Priya Bates 18:57 

The other thing, Mike, you mentioned the Edelman Trust Barometer that came out recently. And you know, what we've seen over and over again, in our audits are, you know, a lack of communication or a lot lack of consistent communication, and communication that's aligned, that words that are aligned to actions actually can breed, distrust and distrust leads to disengagement. And that means you're either quiet quitting, what are we hearing about from, you know, for a while here, people who aren't doing the job because they don't really care, or they're actively disengaged and hurting your company. And that's, that's the risk, 

Mike 19:37 

or they're, they're frustrated, and they're actually trying to make a contribution. And they show up as disengaged because there's a problem with the engagement server that doesn't really value, you know, actually systematically devalues your contribution of the organization. The the underlying issue here though, is that you've got a You know, a consistency issue, you know, between, you know, behavior and action. And you also have an extent to which you care about that inconsistency. You know, a lot of organizations are unwilling to test whether people see that inconsistency or not. One of the things that I do in the measurement space is I asked, I encourage people to ask one single question to kick it off, which are, what are the top three issues facing your organization. And usually, leadership and employees see two completely different pictures to a large extent. And that's totally indicative of the say do gap that Priya talks about 

Julie Ford 20:42 

sounds like the inconsistency is one of the biggest issues here. And that can result in some major issues for the business and can definitely impact the brand, the revenue, the engagement of the employees, and so on, and so on. So we know that reaching deskless workers is extremely important. I'm wondering if you guys have seen any strategies that have worked really, really well, or the opposite strategies that have failed miserably, 

Priya Bates 21:10 

I was mentioning, you know, work that I've done for the Union, both, both inside a union and also as I have a unions as clients as well. And when they're using mobile technologies, the fact that they're including things like their collective agreements, in that information, that's something that's relevant to those union workers, they want to have access, because they want to know what's happening. And they want to be able to, to have a dialogue and conversation with the union on things that are important to them. And, and they can search information as they need it on the ground. So they're willing to use their mobile technology, their personal mobile technology, to access information and receive information from the organization, when I worked for that grocery retailer that I talked about, and I've worked for other ones, across the country as well, really being able to find people where they are. So using other digital screens, and and really leveraging frontline supervisors in the beginning and ends of shifts, to be able to quickly in five to 15 minutes, explain what is relevant and what is important. And and it's so it's not it, I think we tend to write the novels, sometimes as as leaders and as communication leaders, versus really thinking about the bite sized pieces of information that will build over time to create a consistent narrative and story  

Mike 22:48 

I think one of the things that that is over relied upon by particularly internal comms folks, and the people who employ them, is a belief that if you just push all the communication through the line manager, everything will be okay. And bearing in mind that line managers have a couple of factors that you really need to think about before pursuing a strategy that's that tries to force everything through that one portal. One is that line managers have a hell of a lot else to do, particularly if they're in just looks worker jobs themselves. And they have to do the job and supervise other people doing the job. That's one thing. So you know, them talking about the beta digital transformation problem program, because somebody's got a KPI over there that says all employees need to need to be informed, that's not necessarily going to show up as priority. And if you're going to pressurize these people, then you you're actually creating some resistance in the organization that you don't need. I mean, one of the great opportunities that you have, with the introduction of this technology is you can take stuff off the managers plate, so that the managers can focus on the things that employees really want to hear about it from managers, which is, how is my job going to change from day to day, and while I still have the job next week, that's the main thing on the agenda for a lot of Tesla's workers out there. What tends to work? What I've seen work is the extent to which people can be seen as visible consumers and distributors of internal information. It was easy back in the day of paper newsletters where you could see who was reading the newsletter. So you didn't have to read it yourself. You could go to this person, if a question came up. That was one of the ways we were successful in the airline case. Now that's a bit dated to do that. But it's like, okay, how can you encourage people who do read this stuff to make themselves more visible? as secondary resources to management, I don't think anybody's cracked it. But I think that's a question that companies should look at. And I think another thing that doesn't work is just simply trying to see technology as a means of connecting everybody to the main pipe. Because some people might not see it as a water pipe, they might see it as a sewage pipe. Interesting. 

So with all of this, it sounds like reaching deskless workers can feel really daunting for internal communications professionals. Do you have any resources that you could recommend to people who want to figure out this complex puzzle?

Julie Ford 25:28 

So with all of this, it sounds like reaching deskless workers can feel really daunting for internal communications professionals. Do you have any resources that you could recommend to people who want to figure out this complex puzzle? 

Priya Bates 25:43 

Resources? That's a good question. I mean, there's a, we talked about the technologies, but the technologies are only as good as the communication professionals who are using them, and the leaders who are using them to disseminate information. So whenever we go into organizations, we start with the research. And you can do that research yourself, if you know how. But you could also bring in companies like us to, to come in and do those audits, because we're able to talk to your people, right, so so there's the technology that will does make it easier to connect and have access to those workers, but having conversations, to ask them what they need and what they want. None of them are saying none, it doesn't matter if I'm talking to a manufacturing floor, nurses out in the field, you know, as part of a union environment, it doesn't matter who I'm talking to, they're not saying stop talking to us. What they're saying is give us the information we need in a timely manner. And also have some balance. So we managers, we can't be over reliant on managers and supervisors, but we also can't not include them in the process, right? Because I've heard boast, I worked for technology companies, where they decided, hey, it's easier just to go straight to the worker, let's forget the managers is going to make everybody's job easier. And what the managers found themselves is they didn't have the answers to questions, they weren't able to, to have an honest conversation, because they were finding things out, it's at the exact same time as their employees, and they were, they were shrugging their shoulders, and that puts their credibility at risk. So it's really about understanding your system, because every system is different. We do learn from audit to audit, what works for organizations, but each organization is different. Each set of leaders and how they communicate successfully is different. So really coming in, understand your organization's leaders, and how to connect those dots is a great place. It's the planning, and then how you actually use the technology to disseminate the right information to the right people at the right time, that is actually read and relevant is the magic, right? So there is work there strategy and thinking and planning that needs to take place in order for you to use all that technology successfully. And maybe also decide if you don't have technology, what's the best technology for you, 

Mike 28:14 

I would take a slightly different tack in terms of how to you know what to do first to break things down. I mean, I think even before you do, research, you've got a you know, if you're if you're a communications person, or even an HR person, and a organization, which has a significant whether it's a majority, whether it's just a critical 10%, or what have you, of so called deskless workers. First of all, you need to break down who your deskless workers are. So if you're a hospital, your doctors and nurses are going to have very different information needs from your orderlies, or people working in your on site childcare facility. So just simply treating employees as a monolith, or treating deskless workers as a monolith, is exactly the opposite approach from what you can take. Second is for us to do that, you know, as particularly those of us who think strategically about internal comms, we need to change the strategic frame we use, we need to stop thinking about the old fashioned think, feel do model. And we've got to focus on what I call, do no feel say and you start with what people are supposed to do. So what are the actions that we need people to take in order to deliver a consistent experience in order to meet business priorities in order to to to deliver roles in a safe and, you know, consistent matter? And then from that basis of what people are supposed to do, then you figure out what they need to know. You figure out how you want them to feel does everybody need to sing the company fight song every five minutes? Or do people just simply not need to resist stuff that's going on in the organization? And then capture to a certain extent what people are saying, because anything you ask in an open ended question, for instance, is something that somebody is going to have said something to somebody to somebody else before. So you look at it from a do not feel safe bird's eye perspective. And then you segment and then you know, do you need to give 40,000 People an account on your intranet? Or do you give the 5000 people who have jobs that have direct leverage over certain things, those that access first, and then you figure out what information they need in order to be able to do what they're supposed to do. 

Priya Bates 30:47 

And at the end of the day, remember that internal communication does not sit in a vacuum. Right? Employees are hearing information from a lot of different sources, and there's opportunity to embed a lot of communication into operations. So working collaboratively with tech, or marketing or human resources, or operations is is such an incredible opportunity for creating that consistence consistency and connection in the places employees already are. And then supplementing where they already are with additional information that provides more context from a timely perspective. 

Julie Ford 31:35 

Absolutely, that makes a lot of sense. So to conclude the conversation, I just wanted to ask you both. If you have any final advice for companies that are looking to reach deskless workers, 

Priya Bates 31:47 

I'd probably you know, as Mike said, understand who your organization is, understand who those deskless workers are in and do your analysis on them. Talk to them, ultimately, that I mean, that's the work that I love, is when I'm talking to employees, especially those employees in the field. People know what they need and what they want. And the majority of them want to do their work successfully. Right? They want to feel that they've got purpose. They want to build pride. There, they're not trying to sabotage. Right? But no, nobody does that on purpose. I'm an optimist. From that perspective, we've got most people in the world who want to deliver and work with purpose every day, we spend more time at work than we do with our families sometimes. And so it's really, you know, really understanding your audience understanding their needs, having conversations versus thinking about the campaign. So I always say it's, this is more about the conversation we're having with our employees and with one another, versus creating these one point in time campaigns that you put a lot of money and effort into, but then go away. We launch and we leave. And that that tells a very different story to your employees, especially those justice to workers. 

Julie Ford 33:08 

Quick follow up question on that. Priya. So are you suggesting that the conversations with the deskless workforce should be ongoing, 

Priya Bates 33:15 

I think that's what it feels like when we deliver it correctly. What they're seeing is a consistent thread, whether they're talking to their their supervisors, whether they're hearing information, whether it's reflected in the stories we tell and what we value, whether it's reflected reflected in who we promote, and who we demote, and who we fire. All of those tell our story. As an organization, what I'm often looking for is that consistency, because it's amazing how something small or something little that you didn't think mattered, comes up and again, and again, we're doing our audits. And we're going What's this all about, it's always fascinating to see what people are listening to and what they really hear and what they really need. Because there's a lot of assumptions. So don't start with assumptions. Start with understanding your organization and understanding where not only where it is right now, but where it wants to go. So that you can actually drive a path to help the organization get there. 

 Mike 34:10 

And also and also look at where the gap is between leadership and what how they see the world and how specific groups of employees see the world because that's going to be the place where you can make the most obvious and most immediate difference. Looking more broadly, I think the key issue here is about respecting the agency of your deskless workers, that in a lot of organizations, there's a class divide between desk workers and deskless workers. It was white collar, blue collar, we're smarter than you. We earn more money than you and you're more replaceable than us. And, you know, we can tell you what to do. And if you don't like it, you can leave and certainly in American companies that's kind of an embedded part of the culture and a lot of organised nation's this idea that you know, you have total ownership of the your employee in return for the $8 an hour that you pay them. And the more the less you respect employee agency, the more you're going to have resistance, and the less effort that employees are going to make experiences consistent. So the starting point is you've got to respect the fact that your employee has the choice of whether to engage with your information or not, even if they're being strongly encouraged to do so. And once you recognize that, then you could build up the strategy around what people need to do, what you need people to do, and what they choose to do to move that forward. 

Julie Ford 35:44 

Excellent, great advice. So I'm sure that after this insightful conversation, our listeners are going to want to connect with both of you. What's the best way for our listeners to connect with you after listening to the podcast? 

Priya Bates 35:38 

For me, it's I'm here in Toronto, Canada, but do work mostly in North America. Happy to work with clients around the world. It's inner strength communication.com. And you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter probates. 

Julie Ford 36:11 

Thanks for you, Mike. 

Mike 36:12 

You can find me on LinkedIn either directly as Mike Klein, that's m k l e i n 818. That'll get you to my LinkedIn profile fastest. And also, I have a community of communication leaders called wheelie comms, that's hashtag, we lead comes on LinkedIn. And if you want to reach me on my website, you can reach me at changingtheterms.com 

Julie Ford 36:38 

Thank you both so much for joining us today and for sharing your insights on this challenge of reaching deskless workers and hope to talk to you both again soon. Excellent. Thanks. Thanks for listening to the Icahn podcast. This podcast has been brought to you by Sparrow connected head over to Sparrow connected.com To learn more about the internal comms platform that is elevating the internal comms profession. And be sure to follow we lead comms on LinkedIn. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcast channels and tune in for the next episode podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcast channels and tune in for the next episode. 

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