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Related Expertise: People Strategy, Talent Development, Digital HR

Why Deskless Workers Are Leaving—and How to Win Them Back

By Julia DharDeborah LovichChris MatteyNick SouthTatsuya Takeuchi, and Sebastian Ullrich

Deskless workers—those who need to be physically present to do their jobs—were often called heroes during the pandemic. But more than one third of these workers, who make up three-quarters or more of the labor force in most countries, are at risk of quitting in the next six months, according to a seven-nation survey of more than 7,000 of these workers. Here’s what companies can offer:
  • Flexible schedules. Consider workers’ lifestyles and needs when designing shifts; create shift marketplaces enabled by technology
  • Expanded benefits. Adapt benefits to best match needs of your workers
  • Career growth and upskilling. Invest in upskilling and retraining for managers and individual contributors; actively identify career pathways
  • Demonstrate support and commitment. Build front-line first culture with leaders spending time listening to and acting on worker views and needs.
To explore our survey results and learn more about what deskless workers are looking for, click here.

They’ve been called heroes during the pandemic, but many of them aren’t satisfied with their jobs. Here’s what leaders can do to change that.

“Deskless” workers—those who need to be physically present to do their jobs—do not have the option to work remotely. They also generally do not have the flexibility to set their hours. And more than one-third of these workers, who make up three-quarters or more of the labor force in most countries, are at risk of quitting in the next six months.

This finding, revealed in a seven-nation survey of more than 7,000 deskless workers, has potentially dire implications for fields as diverse as construction, distribution, manufacturing, health care, retail, and transportation.

The survey, conducted this spring and covering about 1,000 employees each in Australia, France, Germany, India, Japan, the UK, and the US, found that 37% of these workers could be out the door within the next six months. Employees at risk of leaving fell into three similar-sized groups: those who are definitely leaving within six months, those unwilling to commit beyond six months, and those who are undecided.

That finding is sobering news for employers, which already have raised the wages of deskless workers and taken other measures to retain them during the pandemic. The reality, of course, is that employers often struggle to offer what many of these workers want: greater flexibility and the ability to work from home as so many knowledge, or desk, workers do.

Exacerbating the Talent Shortage

Barring a recession, persistent talent shortages are among the greatest challenges facing many companies. The US, for example, has millions more job vacancies than people looking for work. Germany reports record-high shortages of skilled workers. France and the other countries from the survey face similar challenges. That’s why employee retention needs to be a top priority of every leader.

Japan’s deskless workers indicated the weakest attachment to their current jobs, with 42% either planning to leave (11%), undecided (24%), or unwilling to make a commitment beyond six months (7%). Deskless workers in the UK followed closely behind, with a higher percentage (15%) already having decided to leave their current jobs in the next six months, 15% unwilling to commit beyond six months, and 11% undecided. Meanwhile, Germany and the US have the lowest shares of at-risk deskless workers. Even so, more than one in ten deskless workers in those countries are already planning their exits.

Younger workers are more likely to quit their deskless jobs than older workers. Nearly half (48%) of Gen Z employees are at risk of leaving these jobs in the next six months, compared with 35% of Gen Y, 32% of Gen X, and a still-considerable 24% of the Baby Boom generation.

Lack of career advancement was the main reason deskless workers said they may leave their jobs, cited by 41%. Other top reasons were pay (30%), flexibility in where and when they work (28%), work-life balance (22%), and lack of enjoyment in their current position (15%).

Next Steps

The BCG research suggests steps leaders can take to address the concerns of unsatisfied employees and strengthen the bonds with satisfied employees. It will take more than pay increases to reduce the number of at-risk deskless workers. Companies should also consider:

  • Flexible schedules. Consider workers’ lifestyles and needs when designing shifts; create shift marketplaces enabled by technology.
  • Expanded benefits. Understand that not all employees value the same thing; adapt benefits to best match the needs of different workers.
  • Career growth and upskilling. Invest in upskilling and retraining for managers and individual contributors; actively identify career pathways.
  • Demonstrate support and commitment. Build a “frontline first” culture with leaders spending time listening to and acting on worker views and needs.

The world saw the importance of deskless workers during the pandemic. They allowed the rest of us to remain productive while working remotely. Today, they watch after our children and our elderly; they build our bridges and operate the trucks and trains that deliver the goods we require for work and life. If they flee their jobs, we will all pay the price.

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