AI’s untapped potential to empower deskless workers

Factory workers, truck drivers, and other deskless workers need AI too
Luke Hubbard

Headlines in 2023 have been dominated by reports of the transformative impact of AI on ‘the workplace.’ Whether that is revolutionising tasks like data analysis and report creation or sparking discussions on the coexistence of workers and cutting-edge technology, this narrative doesn’t adequately represent the entire workforce. 

AI tools are increasingly impacting the way we work. For example, advanced automation has permanently altered how millions of information workers approach daily tasks in less than a decade, from the marketing and sales departments to legal and internal comms. However, when discussing implementing AI tools, we’re guilty of neglecting a crucial part of the workforce: ‘frontline’ workers. 

It is a well-reported statistic that a staggering 80% of the global workforce comprises deskless workers, many of whom remain digitally detached. Though often overlooked, these crucial workforce members play a critical role in many industries. Despite this, discussions on AI’s potential primarily focus on the 20% in front of computers. It’s essential to explore how AI is increasingly empowering this silent majority. By delving into this often-ignored aspect, there is a compelling perspective on how AI is shaping the future of work for all

While the potential for change is enormous, implementing AI for these elements of the workforce won’t come without challenges. For example, one potential issue in delivering useful AI tools to deskless workers is the lack of data input. For AI to be intelligent and continually add value, the workforce must constantly generate and feed it training data. So if the deskless worker doesn’t even have a digital interface, how can they take advantage of AI? So, in order to reach the point of AI enhancement and implementation, there is undoubtedly groundwork necessary first to meet digital needs.

AI and the drive for flexibility

Despite the challenges, we must begin somewhere, and currently, the deskless worker is being ignored. When it comes to technology solutions, the deskless workforce receives significantly less funding than their information-based counterparts. While a mere 1% of software venture funding targets deskless worker technology, we cannot underestimate the potential for AI to transform the workflows of this portion of the global workforce.

Flexibility is a fundamental demand for these workers. Deskless workers witnessed information and knowledge workers granted this privilege due to the global pandemic and subsequent remote and hybrid working. This left many of them yearning for change. Studies have shown that flexibility in scheduling and job hours is a potent factor influencing job satisfaction and productivity, with many willing to accept lower pay for the opportunity.

AI has the potential to drive this transformation, as it optimises workforce deployment, eliminating lost ROI and unnecessary employee hardship caused by legacy scheduling. AI enables employees to fit their availability to schedule demands and bid on shifts needing coverage. It’s also fostering instant polling and seamless communication through chat functions connecting workers with managers and peers. AI is beginning to solve the deskless workforce’s long-standing challenges. Even when improved flexibility isn’t enough to keep certain employees, the capabilities of AI digital assistance in retaining tribal knowledge could be crucial for filling the skills gaps. 

By integrating digital signage and AI, real-time analytics become accessible, optimising workflows and automating scheduling via user-friendly interfaces that have the potential to revolutionise the deskless work experience. Deskless workers can receive crucial and motivating information in an easily digestible manner without needing a company email or access to company hardware. This means communication is much more effective and efficient. For example, truck drivers in a depot can learn all about the company benefits available to them, warehouse workers can discover promotional opportunities, and those in hospitality can highlight specials and sustainably change menus.

Improving processes, productivity and performance with AI

AI has become a fundamental tool in enhancing workflow management for deskless workers. For them, a perennial problem is a lack of information or an over-saturation of places where they can find it. Trying to discover the correct information is time-consuming and demotivating. By using AI to improve omnichannel communication strategies, deskless workers can have all the relevant details at the tip of their fingers without requiring access to a work email or hardware station, saving time and energy. For example, deskless workers in the construction industry will be far more efficient if they know exactly what time, place and with what equipment they need to be at a particular job.

Employees who feel successful and motivated are happier in their jobs and more likely to stick around. With a shortage of workers worldwide, industries that rely on non-desk jobs are especially prone to high turnover. So, it's crucial for companies to make sure their employees are doing well and feeling inspired at work to help them stay. If businesses don't keep up and care for their employees, they'll struggle to keep them engaged and supported.

Another area where AI is poised to make a strong impression is in predictive maintenance, monitoring and analysing data from the machinery and equipment used in manufacturing and agriculture. AI enables proactive maintenance scheduling, reducing downtime, and optimising resource allocation by detecting early signs of wear and tear or potential malfunctions.

Moreover, safety enhancements are paramount for deskless workers’ well-being, and AI-powered surveillance systems and computer vision technologies will be able to prevent unnecessary accidents. By continuously monitoring worksites, AI will rapidly identify unsafe behaviours or conditions, alerting both workers and supervisors in real-time to avoid accidents and elevate overall safety standards. 

The future of AI and deskless workers

It’s clear that information workers are much further ahead in the transition to AI technology. However, it is time deskless workers are given their proper due by being included in these conversations. Sitting at a computer all day shouldn’t be the deciding factor in whether someone has access to improved processes or a more efficient workplace. As is shown by the levels of employee churn within commonly deskless sectors, it’s demonstrable that they have a significant amount to gain from AI adoption.

Despite its dominance in the news over recent months, AI has been around for quite some time and, in many scenarios, has been tested and proven. As a result, more organisations are beginning to understand that AI is here to stay, and not just in office blocks. While each organisation is different, for many businesses, the technology offers a win-win scenario for employers and employees alike. For organisations, this means boosting productivity to meet growing demand and improving employee retention dramatically. For employees, this means a happier, more connected and less stressful workplace. For businesses struggling to improve their productivity to meet demand, turning to these technologies could be the key to unleashing the untapped potential within the deskless workforce.

Written by
Luke Hubbard
September 25, 2023
Written by
September 25, 2023