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January 23, 2018

Connected objects and "deskless" employees

Written by Investis Digital

Connected objects — physical devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones that collect and exchange data — can help ensure seamless, accessible communication for employees no matter where they are. After all, not every employee operates from a desk. In what is rapidly becoming a virtual or "gig" economy, many employees may be working from home, public workspaces or coffee shops, among other settings. Even within more traditional workplaces, there are often many employees who aren't working at desks — think retail, health care and the trades. They can benefit from the use of connected objects, too.

Doing this well can reap big benefits, as Peter Hirst, associate dean of MIT Sloan Executive Education has discovered. Hirst and his team at MIT have introduced a flexible work program that has seen direct, tangible benefits: 

  • 83 percent of employees surveyed claimed that collaboration actually improved through remote working and telepresence technology
  • 90 percent reported improvement in their personal and family lives
  • 85 percent said that flexible work setups mitigated stress levels 

Of course, these big benefits are only achievable if communications efforts are well managed. 

Challenges and considerations 

While there are clearly advantages to being connected 24/7/365, there are also some inherent disadvantages. For one, the stress that can come feeling the need to be always "on." For senior leaders, managers and knowledge workers in particular, the feeling — whether real or perceived — that they must respond quickly to colleagues and superiors or else somehow damage their standing in the workplace can create anxiety. That problem, of course, is not unique to senior staff. Having devices that allow immediate access from anywhere, anytime, can be a challenge for staff at all levels and in a wide array of positions.

At the same time, the sheer amount of information we're all exposed to these days means that messages can easily become lost or minimized due to the constant competition for ears and eyeballs — messages not only from employers, but also from friends, family, strangers and organizations across social media channels on an increasing basis. 

Breaking through the clutter in some meaningful way is critical to engaging deskless employees. 

Best practices 

Talent-assessment consulting firm Talent Plus has a number of employees who don't work at desks. This "extended community" relies on technology to ensure that its members are connected with each other — and with Talent Plus itself. Libby Farmen, Talent Plus's chief consulting officer and leader of its People Plus practice, uses a number of smart methods to ensure her remote, deskless staff remain well-connected.

"First, ensure their technology works appropriately," she says. "After they have had some conference calls where most of the participants are together in one location or Skype, etc., reach out to them to understand how well they felt able to participate." In the beginning, she advises communicators to position themselves as advocates and remove any obstacles that may be hindering communication.

It's also important, Farmen says, to check in with these deskless staff members actively and frequently. "Remote associates often experience the 'out-of-the-loop' feeling more intensely — even if, in reality, they know just as much as everyone else."

And remember, when it comes to consuming information, needs and preferences vary. Offer multiple options for audiences to access and consume information — written, visual or video. Offering multiple mediums of communication can ensure that you're effectively reaching a wide range of employees, not just those who prefer one format.

Ultimately, regardless of whichever technology provides the fuel to ensure that employees remain connected wherever they are, somebody must drive the car. Effective communication management requires leveraging both technology and people to their fullest potential. 

Linda Pophal, MA, SHRM-SCP is owner/CEO of Strategic Communications, LLC, and a marketing and communication strategist with expertise in strategic planning, PR/media relations, social media and SEO and corporate communications. Linda is the author of several books on marketing and business practices. Pophal is an accredited member of SHRM, IABC and the American Marketing Association.

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