This content is part of the Essential Guide: HR mobile apps for employees strengthen HCM strategies

Why mobile HR apps are key to engaging deskless workers

Creating a positive experience for deskless workers rests partly on making HR-related tasks easier for them. Here's a look at how mobile technology can help.

A number of trends -- including a tightening labor market, the increasing use of mobile technology in HR and the growing recognition that engagement is as important to retaining deskless employees as it is to office workers -- have combined to make mobile HR apps important contributors to the overall employee experience.

That's important since employers remain under pressure to keep current workers in place. In April, the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 3.9%, its lowest level in more than 17 years. A 2017 study by HR advisory and research firm Future Workplace and the HR technology vendor Kronos found that 87% of employers said improving retention was a critical priority. 

Job hopping is at an all-time high and, according to ADP research, 42% of employees are open to the idea of a new job, said Susan Hanold, Dallas-based vice president of strategic advisory services at ADP. Because of that it's more important than ever to develop and engage employees and keep them productive, she said.

Engagement especially impacts retention for deskless workers such as retail salespeople, warehouse workers, truck drivers, ward nurses or anyone who doesn't have a specific place to sit or a company email address, said Rea Abrahams, a strategist at CultureIQ, a New York company that helps employers measure and develop strategies around culture. She points out that industries with deskless workers, such as those that employ manual laborers or the restaurant industry, have high turnover. "So engagement becomes even more important," she said.

Research supports the idea that employee engagement impacts recruitment, retention and performance, turning it into a valuable investment.

For example, according to research by benefits provider Aon Hewitt, manufacturing plants with higher levels of engagement have 75% fewer quality defects and 26% fewer safety-related workers compensation claims. Gallup reports that "highly engaged business units realize a 41% reduction in absenteeism and a 17% increase in productivity." 

Mobile HR apps -- the used, the ignored

Given all that, it's no surprise that an entire sub-industry of HR technology has grown up around the idea of facilitating engagement. Some of these products take frequent, even daily, surveys to keep up with the workforce's state of mind, while others seek to streamline communications between managers and team members.

But engagement has a lot of moving parts besides surveys and communications. For example, using a mobile HR app to clock in and out or track a trucker's driving hours streamlines the employee experience, said Marilena Acevedo, the vice president of human resources at PetroChoice, a lubricants distributor based in Fort Washington, Pa. "Where once they might have had to get to a computer to do something, now they can do it with the touch a button," she said.

If you don't actually see people ... or all you do is get electronic communications, it's very hard to get a read on how they're doing.
Mark SomolCEO, Zeal Technology

PetroChoice equips all of its truck drivers with iPhone 7s or 8s loaded with several mobile HR apps. Doing so "is very helpful to them and very helpful to us because they're able to be very self-sufficient," Acevedo said. In addition, the technology gives PetroChoice a competitive advantage in terms of retention. Many drivers have told her that jumping to a company where paperwork was done on actual paper would make them "feel like they're going backwards."

All of that makes sense to Kristie Evans, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's special expertise panel on technology. However, it also causes her to warn that any discussion about the engagement contributions made by mobile HR apps could become "a misinterpretation" of what they actually provide.

Amy Gurchensky, a New York-based senior research analyst at IT and business services analysis firm NelsonHall, agreed. "Mobile HR apps are driving employee engagement levels for deskless workers up, but I think that the scope of that engagement is narrow at this point in time," she said. "There are mobile HR apps in the market today that are pretty extensive, but what actually gets used by employees on a regular basis is so limited."

For example, Gurchensky said employees will regularly use apps to clock in and clock out, but not to access their benefits information. Ultimately, she believes that if you were to dissect usage rates of mobile HR apps by capability, you'd find employees use some functions more than others, so each app contributes to engagement by varying degrees.

Deskless workers UX expectations of mobile HR apps

Thus, it may be that many mobile HR apps contribute to engagement indirectly by simplifying routine tasks or making employees feel like they're working for a forward-thinking organization, Evans said. However, she warned, employers must remember that apps don't replace regular interaction between employees and managers.

Technology "augments what you need as a baseline," Abrahams added. Mobile HR apps, she said, "can never completely replace a manager's relationship with an employee, but [they] can certainly augment it and make it that much better." When mobile devices help employers and employees communicate, she said, not only do workers gain a better understanding of what they need to know to do their jobs, but they also "feel connected to the organization as a whole."

However, a number of challenges come with that potential, especially for deskless workers. Most notable, Hanold said, is the employee's expectation that mobile HR apps will equal the user experience of any app they use in their personal lives. Employees have "really good technology systems at home and mobile devices at their fingertips," she said. That means companies "need to leverage the necessary technology to stay competitive."

Then there's the challenge of standing out from the noise, said Keith Kitani, CEO of GuideSpark, a provider of employee communications software in Redwood City, Calif. At a time when people are deluged by social media content, engagement "is really about relevancy," he said. That challenge is complicated, added Gurchensky, because the deskless workforce is multigenerational and has varying communications preferences.

Sometimes the solution involves taking a granular approach to an app's user base. For instance, breaking deskless workers into groups such as truck drivers, manufacturing workers and floor nurses is just one step, Kitani said. Once that's done, employers should look at other factors within each segment, such as demographics. "Engaging a millennial manufacturing worker could be different from engaging a baby boomer, especially around something like the 401(k)," he observed.

Mobile HR apps only part of engaging deskless workers

For all their flexibility in terms of surveying employees or tailoring communications, mobile HR apps are "never going to fix a culture that's broken," Abrahams noted. Instead, they'll simply amplify the existing culture, whatever it is. That means apps could "take something that's not going well and make it worse."

That's why employers can't simply implement mobile HR apps and declare their engagement work done, said Mark Somol, CEO of Zeal Technology, a Burlington, Mass., provider of employee survey tools. "If you don't actually see people and all you do is talk to them occasionally or all you do is get electronic communications, it's very hard to get a read on how they're doing," he said.

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