4 reasons why communication with non-desk workers is so important


​For internal communications, non-desk-workers are a group that is consistently rated as difficult to reach.

There are 4 key learnings for communicating with non-desk-workers:

  1. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and traditional channels don't work
  2. The cost of miscommunication is higher than ever before
  3. Tomorrow's changes shouldn't stop you from doing more today
  4. Non-desk workers want more from communications

The old adage for succeeding in internal communications is "go where your audience is." Non-desk employees, however, are everywhere. Unlike traditional employees who sit at a desk 40 hours a week, these employees are on their feet and on the move. In service, field service, sales and many others, these employees often deal directly with the company's customers. In manufacturing, these employees operate heavy machinery and work on assembly lines. In transportation, these employees literally move across cities, states, and the country to get people or products where they need to be on time.

Any company that has non-desk workers should understand how important they are to success. In many cases, these employees are the reason a company can sell a product in the first place. In other cases, they are the face of the company, the first and sometimes only contact customers have with the company. Simply put, these employees do the actual work that makes money.

Yes, it can be harder to reach these populations, but internal communications as a driver of strategic business goals and employee outcomes like employee engagement should aim to connect with these employees. If you have non-desk employees and your communications strategy isn't doing everything it can to reach them, here are four reasons why you should rethink your approach.

1. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, and traditional channels aren't working.

It wasn't too long ago that email was the dominant method of communication in the workplace - the average employee sends and receives 122 work emails per day. For communicators, email is a handy tool to quickly disseminate important messages and keep their employees informed. Why not take advantage of instant, direct and personal communication with your employees?

The IT revolution that made email possible hasn't found its way to employees who don't work at a desk. According to a recent study, 83% of non-desk workers do not have a corporate email address. In other words, the primary communication channel for 95% of internal communicators is an absolute no-go for this group. Instead of making up for this digital deficit, many choose to continue relying on a channel they've always used to reach this audience: Updates from direct reports.

And while face-to-face interactions, especially with managers, are undeniably important, everyone has a different communication style. If you make face-to-face communication your primary communication channel, your communication strategy will only be as strong as your worst communicator. As Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin, CEO of Tribe Inc. notes, relying on direct supervisors for communication works better in theory than in practice. "For one thing, some supervisors are better communicators than others, so important messages can get lost in translation. There's also often a problem with inconsistent timing. Some employees find out about big changes earlier than others, simply because some bosses haven't told their people yet."

2. The cost of miscommunication is higher than ever before

Steve Soltis, group director of employee and leadership communications at The Coca Cola Company, summed up the unique impact of internal communications when he said, "A company can't generate sustainable value and growth if employees don't understand where it's going, why, what it takes to get there, and why every employee matters."

The numbers prove Soltis right. Today, the cost of miscommunication is rising. In large companies with 100,000 or more employees, the average loss per company due to poorly managed communications is $62.4 million per year. Even in smaller organizations with 100 employees, where communications are supposedly easier to manage, miscommunications cost an average of $420,000 per year. And the population most likely to be affected by this disruption? Deskbound employees.

Soltis points out the importance of understanding the company's mission and vision, but when those messages are meant to come from the top, non-desk employees don't hear them. In a survey of 1,000 non-desk employees, 58% said they only hear from management a few times a year or almost never, and nearly half can't name their company's growth vision. These messages may come across clearly in "wired" office environments, but they don't come across as strongly if the only channels through which they are delivered are a direct supervisor or signage in the break room.

3. Tomorrow's changes shouldn't stop you from doing more today.

Disruption through technology is so frequent and radical that it's hard not to think about what the next inevitable change will bring. In particular, there's a lot of talk about AI, automation and the potential impact on the future of work, and for good reason. One particular forecast estimates that 47% of all jobs in the U.S. are at risk of computerization in the next 20 years. The jobs most at risk are manual and routine jobs, which comprise a large portion of what is considered unemployable labor.

But widespread automation has yet to fully occur, and it is not yet clear to what extent and to what degree this will happen. The potential impact of automation in the future is a flimsy excuse for not doing more today to connect with your non-desk workers. According to Google, non-desk workers make up 80% of the global workforce (about 3 billion people). This group is too large to ignore and too important to the health of the company to let them down.

4. non-desk workers want more from communications

According to a Gallup study on factory worker motivation, communications teams will become frustrated when they find that printed messages and arguments made by company spokespeople don't inspire them as much as they had hoped. While the study acknowledges that it is more difficult to connect factory workers with explicit corporate messages, the reality is that the situation is somewhat more nuanced. Factory workers and other non-desk workers want these forms of communication, they just feel left in the dark. In a recent survey, 74% of non-desk workers said consistent messages from management are important to them, but 84% feel they don't get enough information from management. It's no surprise, then, that nearly 40% of these employees are wary of the information when they do receive it. The truth is that the unemployed population wants more communication than they currently receive, and the low frequency of messages, mixed with a lack of substantive information, puts a strain on communicators' trust with this audience.

To successfully build trust, communicators often need to deliver print, digital, and in-person communications, but engagement across these channels needs to deliver more than just transactional company information. Employees want to feel connected to the company, but also to their colleagues on a personal level. Gallup confirms that employees who feel their managers are invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged. For non-desk-workers, that means taking the time to build relationships in face-to-face conversations with their managers, and also looking for digital channels that can do the same.

As long as non-desk workers are doing important work, there will always be a need to communicate with them beyond the bare minimum. Reaching this group may be difficult, but it's a challenge worth overcoming, given the invaluable contribution these employees make to the company's success.

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