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Ensuring the AI revolution doesn’t ignore the deskless worker

Sept. 5, 2023
Factory workers, field service personnel and even engineers can benefit from AI tools, even if they don’t use computers every day.

Over the past decade, Artificial intelligence transformed knowledge work. Its roots, however, go back much further. As far back as the 1960’s chemists began using the AI tool DENDRAL to analyze chemical compounds. This was followed by early decision support tools, spreadsheet programs and databases aimed at business analysts and knowledge workers.

With the rise of natural language processing, data mining and generative AI in the last 10-to-15 years, the scope of AI's impact has exponentially increased. Many of the mundane administrative tasks in offices are now being handled by intelligent algorithms. This has sparked a meaningful conversation about how humans can best collaborate alongside AI systems to maximize productivity.

However, there's a significant oversight in this discussion—the impact of AI on the 80% of the global workforce who are deskless. These workers, across industries such as retail, hospitality, healthcare, construction and manufacturing, spend their days away from computers, on their feet and interacting with the physical world. Yet they are almost entirely left out of the conversation around AI in the workplace—exacerbating an existing digital divide. 

Why does this omission matter? Simply put, deskless workers stand to benefit enormously from AI and automation technologies tailored to their needs. These jobs involve a lot of repetitive manual work, as well as health and safety risks from heavy lifting or operating machinery. AI has the potential to improve not only efficiency and productivity for these roles but also job satisfaction, safety and work-life balance.

Another aspect of removing deskless workers from the AI conversation is understanding that they already face significant motivation and engagement challenges. In fact, 43% are in danger of quitting

AI’s potential to transform deskless work

Consider a shop floor worker in a factory. Their day may consist of manually tracking inventory, reporting issues, collecting data around the production line and operating heavy machinery. But with AI, cameras and sensors can automatically track stock levels and alert workers when supplies are low or a machine needs maintenance, avoiding downtime and shortages.

Collaborative robots can work in tandem with the human, handling dangerous or tiring tasks. Voice-controlled AI assistants could take voice commands and notes, freeing up the worker’s hands and saving the need to exit the shopfloor to report information. This action alone reduces the need for memory recall, improving reporting accuracy and reduces the time spent on what is seen as a boring task, improving job satisfaction.

An important consideration is keeping the human in the loop with AI, especially for manufacturing roles. With human-in-the-loop systems, AI acts as a supplemental tool to augment human skills and expertise, not as a wholesale substitution. The human perspective remains critical—identifying edge cases, gauging quality and providing common sense checks on the AI's recommendations. By combining the precision and speed of AI with human strategic thinking and expertise, manufacturers can achieve enhanced productivity, quality and job satisfaction.

Enhancing deskless work without new hardware

Implementing new hardware like robots or sensors may not always be feasible for enhancing deskless work. However, AI-powered software solutions also provide major benefits.

To list just a few examples, natural language processing systems like chatbots can handle routine customer service queries, freeing up human agents to perform more valuable or innovation-based tasks. Knowledge management portals and personalized training modules can be produced to display best safety practices within each worker’s unique environment, ultimately providing more practical information and learning opportunities on demand, leading to fewer injuries.

When thoughtfully implemented, these software-based AI tools can automate tedious tasks, boost access to organizational knowledge, enhance training, and amplify human capabilities – all without introducing new machinery to workers’ environments.

Boosting engagement and motivation

Without easy access to company communication channels, deskless workers can easily feel dissatisfied and disconnected, leading to higher turnover.

To tackle this, intelligent algorithms can enhance digital signage and communication channels tailored specifically for deskless audiences. AI-generated text and image summarization help create optimized messaging and visuals on screens throughout workplaces. This could be anything from displaying promotions or celebrating success stories to visualizing workflows and disseminating vital announcements.

More impactful communication fosters a more empowered and invested workforce. Workers stay up-to-date on company news, policies, training, social events and more through digitized platforms designed for deskless engagement.

AI takes the grunt work out of translating communications for various languages and modalities. This allows teams to focus on high-level messaging that resonates with deskless workers. The technology fades into the background, while human-centric communication takes center stage.

Implementation for everyone

The future of work and AI is bright, but to achieve such lofty goals, we must actively include deskless workers in the conversation. With a human-centric focus, their jobs could be profoundly enhanced by tools that reduce drudgery while making roles more varied, skillful and rewarding.

The working lives of factory workers, retail assistants, bartenders, cleaners, warehouse operatives, construction crews and many other overlooked professions could be transformed. By designing and deploying AI thoughtfully across the entire workforce, we can distribute the benefits often reserved for information workers to the 80% who need them most.

About the Author

Luke Hubbard

Luke Hubbard is co-founder and chief technology officer at ScreenCloud.