Many HR leaders are conscious of the growing need to connect with and recognize their offline, frontline, or other critical employees, who—due to the nature of their work—can feel removed from corporate culture. But our research this year shows the separation is broader and the problem is deeper than most of us thought. Four-fifths of employees worldwide lack opportunities, technology, and autonomy in their work, and a very large number of them feel ignored and unvalued despite the imperative jobs they do. This means organizations must now take big steps to support their needs, understand their viewpoints, and reward their contributions—or face some powerful but predictable consequences.
The Covid-19 pandemic changed how we see our work and—for a moment—how we see workers.
As countless offices closed their doors and sent their people to work from home, international attention focused on millions of employees still out on the frontlines. Nurses, EMTs, grocery clerks, warehouse and factory workers—a spectrum of people with traditionally lower-profile jobs—were suddenly celebrated as essential heroes.
That moment, however, was short-lived, and now that organizations are moving forward with new work models and strategies for innovation, these employees have again receded from view. As one focus group participant, a city bus driver, says, “we’re expendable again.”
It may come as a surprise that 80% of the world’s workforce does not work at a desk.1 If so, consider what they do instead. They construct our neighborhoods and cities; grow, ship, and cook our food; serve us in restaurants, hotels, and stores; assemble and deliver every product we buy; and care for us any time our health requires. From pickers to plumbers to pilots, these people are critical to every economy on earth and touch nearly every part of our everyday lives. Yet when out of sight, they’re often out of mind.
To be clear, the diversity of the 80% make them challenging to categorize. It may be tempting to define them with terms like “deskless,” “offline,” or “essential,” but none of these common labels is adequate. In a divided organizational structure, an 80% employee is any employee who has less opportunity and voice than their more integrated and connected corporate peers. As a result, they feel less valued and more detached from their workplace cultures. And they’re correct in their perceptions of inequality: BCG finds only 8% of executives say increasing support for these workers is a priority for CEOs.2 On average, they also receive less than 1% of companies’ technology budgets.3
So, what are the outcomes? Over the past two years, organizations across all industries have found it increasingly difficult to retain the 80%. Forbes reports turnover rates of up to 500% per year.4 Equally concerning, according to our data, many of those who do stay due to financial constraints or a lack of training or opportunity are demoralized, resigned, and unfulfilled in their jobs.
Thankfully, there is hope. While our research uncovers inequity in employee experience, it also shows that when the 80% feel seen, valued, and appreciated, there’s a powerful positive impact on their sense of belonging, fulfillment, and connection to the organization. Meaningful recognition, modern leaders, and inclusive cultures can help the 80% feel as essential as they are and improve the chances that every employee can thrive at work.
“They [the 80%] are the livelihood and heart of businesses, and without them, everything will come to a standstill.”
—Matt Fairhurst, CEO, Skedulo
Disparate (and Desperate) Workplace Experiences
In our research, we looked at the 80% in two ways: Employees who spend less than 40% of the workday sitting at a desk to do their work, and employees who lack regular access to technology and tools like email, messaging apps, and online HR systems in their normal job duties. These people do not have the same opportunities, autonomy, influence, or voice as others in the workplace. And this fact explains how perceptions held by the 80% are so different from those of more corporate employees when it comes to their employee experience, as called out below.
Some other startling findings about the 80% experience gap:
- Workers in the 80% category are nearly 2x as likely as their corporate peers to feel they had no options when they accepted their jobs
- Only 35% feel they have freedom to take time away from work for personal errands (compared to 58% of corporate workers)
- Only 45% say their organization supports them in learning new skills at work (compared to 69% of corporate workers)
But there’s a deeper defining difference in the workplace experiences of the 80% best described in terms of access and enablement.
Access refers to the availability of technology that connects employees to the organization. Enablement is the degree to which employees have autonomy, influence, and voice at work.
Only 10% of these employees feel they have high access to the tools, technology, and opportunities necessary to connect and advance in their workplace and the autonomy and voice to shape their workplace experience. Even more alarming, only 17% of employees with low access and enablement are engaged.
“We’re frontline, so we’re the lowest on the totem pole. We’re not selling, we’re not pushing product, so we’re not rewarded for what we do. People on the corporate side are getting branded clothing, four-day trips, etc. It’s just totally different. They get respect.”
—Focus Group Participant, Manufacturing Worker
Much of the 80% Live in Survival Mode
While there are some healthy salaries among those in the 80%, nearly half of these workers report living paycheck to paycheck. About a third work more than one job to meet financial obligations, and even more (40%) have borrowed money from family or friends in the past year to pay bills.
This financial instability affects their workplace experiences, especially if organizations do little to help employees manage their lives outside of work. More than a third say their job doesn’t allow them to take time off for personal emergencies, so they frequently make difficult choices between work and personal life (39%) and have little time to spend with family and friends (41%).
Living with such challenges takes a toll on the 80%, as several measures attest:
“It’s like you got to work a lot to really be able to survive. I tell a lot of people that I meet here you have to either have a good job or a side hustle or something to even be able to maintain.… You got to have at least a job or two.”
—Focus Group Participant, Distribution Center Worker
The 80% Feel Invisible and Inferior
Statistically, this group feels unseen by their organizations. A full half say their organization treats them as expendable; only 30% feel seen and valued. Furthermore, they doubt leaders understand the work they do or how they contribute to the organization’s success. Of course, it doesn’t help that less than half of workers in the 80% report receiving any recognition from leaders, corporate peers, or their organization in the past month. And of those who did receive recognition, most say it came across as inauthentic and insincere. Barely a quarter (26%) feel their recognition is meaningful, and less than half (46%) say they have leaders who understand how they want to be recognized.
In addition, when workers struggle to make ends meet, it complicates aspects of the employee experience where comparisons are conspicuous. For example, random company-provided lunches can feel insulting to the 80%—especially when they see their peers in the office receive monetary awards for contributions that rely on their work.
Perhaps worse than feeling unseen, however, are the biases workers in the 80% often perceive from their corporate peers. Nearly two of every five say they are viewed as inferior by employees in the office. Almost as many (35%) report senior leaders minimize or dismiss their ideas, and 39% say their work is not valued as highly as office work.
These numbers are all the more striking given that they apply to the essential workers who keep production lines moving, customers purchasing, and the business functioning. The good news is that personal, genuine appreciation can be a powerful antidote. When employees in the 80% feel seen and valued by their organizations, outcomes improve significantly, as shown in the following table.
“The people in the warehouse get overlooked. They’re expected to get a product done, a product out the door. Corporate’s getting the applause, the ‘good job,’ whereas us warehouse people get mandatory overtime. You’re working every day, no days off, and everybody looks miserable. When they quit, they’re walking out the door with not even a handshake or a thank-you from management. Management just sits back and goes, ‘Alright, there goes another one.”
—Focus Group Participant, Warehouse Worker
To help engage, connect, and meet the needs of the 80%, organizations must improve access and enablement, promote modern leadership, and provide meaningful recognition.
1. Leaders need to know their people better
Understanding what matters to employees at work and what causes stress in their lives is imperative. Train and enable the leaders of every team in the organization to take the time, listen to opinions and feedback, and be more conscious of needs and challenges.
Prescribe regular one-to-one meetings as points of connection. This enables leaders to better address—individually and collectively—issues the 80% face at work and discuss what technology, tools, and resources they require. It also provides career development and appreciation opportunities, helping employees feel seen and valued. When leaders take time to understand the role, career aspirations, and perspectives of a worker in the 80%, the odds of several positive outcomes improve dramatically:
- Belonging (+1,069%)
- Community at work (+834%)
- Fulfillment at work (+603%)
- Strong connection to leader (+1,086%)
- Above-average engagement (+1,009%)
- Accomplishing great work (+933%)
Communication and recognition from leaders can also help eliminate the bias corporate employees may have towards the 80%. At a minimum, the likelihood of perceived bias decreases among workers in the 80% when they have the support they need from leaders (-35%), feel seen and valued (-41%), and feel heard (-34%).
2. Recognize the 80% often and in meaningful ways
Many technology-focused employee recognition tools and programs are not accessible to workers in the 80%. This means leaders must be familiar with alternatives and use them appropriately to facilitate timely, meaningful recognition.
Organizations can’t assume every employee has access to the internet or knows how to use online tools. Instead, they should educate leaders about recognizing their 80% teams—what messages to communicate, how to create meaningful recognition experiences, and how to help their teams feel connected to the rest of the organization. Leaders should present recognition in front of others and showcase it throughout the organization so all employees can see contributions celebrated equitably for all. It’s also best to provide a wide variety of awards so workers in the 80% can choose items that benefit them most.
The simple act of seeing the 80% and showing appreciation for their contributions and great work can make a big difference. The following table illustrates how four core principles of recognition improve the odds of eight positive outcomes.
“It’s about the human touch. Like, I see you, you’re here, and I see you. That’s all we need. But if we just become numbers and you don’t see us, then we can’t be productive for you.”
—Focus Group Participant, Flight Attendant
3. Improve access to technology, resources, autonomy, and voice
Despite diverse demographics, the 80% report needing greater access to technology and opportunity, as well as more autonomy in their work.
Ask employees about the specific obstacles to connection they face at work and help them create strategies to overcome these challenges. Ensure tools for HR processes, recognition, and connection are available to workers who are not at a computer or desk. And discuss how to provide them with the autonomy to improve their work and the flexibility to handle basic needs like doctor appointments, home repairs, or children’s school events. (See the Equitable Flexibility chapter for more.) Finally, seek their feedback regularly and listen to how you can improve their everyday employee experience.
When employees in the 80% have high access and enablement at work, positive outcomes soar:
“More of our frontline workforce are participating [in these programs] this year. We think that’s a really good sign of increasing trust and acknowledgment of our commitment to take action on the feedback we receive.”
—Dani Wilson, Global Director Performance & Reward, Treasury Wine Estates
The 80% Experience—Key Takeaways
Employees in the 80% feel unseen and unappreciated at work.
The 80% have less autonomy, flexibility, opportunity, and voice at work compared to their corporate peers.
More influence within the organization and better access to technology can help the 80% feel seen and valued.
Workers in the 80% thrive when they have leaders who understand them and recognize them in meaningful ways.
The 80% Experience Sources
- “The Rise of the Deskless Workforce,” Emergence, 2018.
- “The Employer’s Report Card on the Future of Work,” Deborah Lovich, Nick South, Henning Schierholz, Sebastian Ullrich, Ádám Kotsis, Stefan Trifonov, and Natasa Biscan, BCG, October 5, 2022.
- “How Can Leaders Better Manage Their Deskless Workers,” Benjamin Laker, Forbes, August 3, 2021.
- “Here’s Why Deskless Workers Need Better Tech in 2022,” Jacob Waern, Forbes, May 18, 2022.
- O.C. Tanner Client Story, 2022.
- “Deskless Workers Are Finally Getting Their Day in the Sun,” Paul Gillin, Computerworld, January 7, 2022.
- “Deskless Workers Are Finally Getting Their Day in the Sun,” Paul Gillin, Computerworld, January 7, 2022.
- “Starbucks Mobile Ordering Is Working Too Well,” Tom Ryan, Forbes, April 12, 2017.
- O.C. Tanner Client Story, 2022.
Case Study—Building a Stronger Company by Appreciating Everyone
Following a strong financial year, BlueScope Steel in Australia decided to appreciate its employees with more than typical salary reviews and bonuses. The company wanted to recognize and unify its people, so it provided leaders with messages and guidelines and gave every employee the opportunity to choose five gift cards from leading retailers to help ensure they could find something they or their families wanted or needed.
Accessibility and inclusivity were critical. Everyone—from workers in the manufacturing facilities to cleaners, labor-hire, and contractors—received the same options via physical thank-you and gift cards, in addition to an online portal. Says Nikky Ray, Head of Rewards, BlueScope, “I’ve heard some lovely stories from our people. Some of our security guards did a cartwheel flip to express how happy they were to feel included.”5
Case Study—Seeing and Serving the 80% Well
How do top companies provide greater access and enablement for all their employees? Here are a few highlights:
Ashley Furniture. In addition to internal emails, the company puts up signage and even painted murals in every store as part of a multi-channel communication strategy that ensures everyone receives the same messages and helps hourly workers feel more included.6
Bank of America. An internal job board enables tellers to pick up shifts in the loan department—an area that needs more employees and their skill sets—and provides more flexible scheduling.7
Starbucks. To ease stress and balance workloads, the global coffeehouse dedicates additional baristas to mobile orders at high-volume locations and is testing mobile order-only stores where it can transfer staff as needed. Both tactics improve the employee experience.8
Treasury Wine Estates. To ensure all employees feel connected and celebrated for their contributions, TWE makes its recognition program available and accessible to workers in the vineyards as well as other places outside the office. A mobile app, automated workflow, and platform in multiple languages guarantee every employee can give and receive recognition.9
O.C. Tanner. The company wanted all employees to feel equally appreciated for their contributions and impact on business success, so it moved everyone to the same bonus structure and variable compensation plan. Now, both corporate and manufacturing workers use the same framework to set outcome-based goals and receive performance-based bonuses.