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Remote, dispersed, field, frontline workers…? What do we call ’em?

ClearBox Consulting > Communications  > Remote, dispersed, field, frontline workers…? What do we call ’em?
Mapping diagram to show overlapping terminology.

Remote, dispersed, field, frontline workers…? What do we call ’em?

Every organisation has a digital workplace, even if it’s undefined. Those who work at desks in the office may be the most obvious users, but our communication and collaboration tools should be able to support people no matter where – or how – they work.

As we’ve been exploring employee app products, we’ve noticed that there’s very little consistency with how ‘people who are unlikely to be at a desk, but might be, and want to use their mobile phones to do or know stuff’ (called ‘the group’ from now on) have been defined. ClearBox often helps organisations consider appropriate channels to engage ‘the group’, and we’ve drafted the following definitions to help more accurately discuss who we really mean.

We invite you to leave your comments at the bottom, to help us hone our language and accuracy; we’re likely to update our definitions and our views, and appreciate your input. Note that we haven’t included those workers whose preference might be for working with apps, but who are likely to work with usual business tools on a company computer (for example, the Microsoft suite on a laptop, or InDesign on a Mac).

Overlapping boxes showing how people can be in multiple categories of 'worker'.
Diagram to show overlap of terms / working practices. We would welcome feedback about the arrangement and overlapping. Click to embiggen.

Firstline / frontline

Definition: The firstline is about directly impacting customers and / or the public. It can be about sales and service; or maintaining those services without directly touching a customer (a farmer, for example). Some firstline workers sit down, some stand and walk. Some firstline workers use a computer all day long, some rarely touch general computing devices (but might use specialised equipment). This could be shopfloor staff in a retail business, a train guard, or an advisor in a call centre.

Our view: We feel these may be most appropriate terms for ‘the group’ we are trying to identify and so this is how we will refer to these workers in future articles and reports. We might alternate between ‘firstline’ and ‘frontline’ unless a clear distinction emerges (as ‘frontline’ can feel a little aggressive!). We also feel that these terms best describe who someone is in an organisation, rather than purely what they do, where they are, or how they work.

Group 1 – What they do

Knowledge / information workers

Definition: Knowledge workers are said to think for a living, rather than get paid to perform physical tasks. They regularly undertake non-routine problem-solving tasks and Peter Drucker described their labour as “ever-changing, dynamic, and autonomous”. This includes accountants, lecturers, and architects.

Our view: This term leaves out a large number of people from ‘the group’ as it refers to a specific type of worker. Additionally, some knowledge workers may well form part of a frontline for a business, so they are covered in that terminology. Where needed and relevant we will refer to them separately.

Field workers

Definition: People who work on-site, often outdoors, or at different sites for different projects. They may directly interact with a customer, but are more likely to just quietly get on with providing the service, or installing or maintaining service infrastructure. Some field workers might sit down for paperwork (which might be in a van, café, depot, or at home) but many drive, are driven, stand, and walk a lot. Includes salespeople, delivery drivers, and field engineers.

Our view: Like knowledge worker, this excludes a lot of people from ‘the group’ but are also covered by our choice of ‘firstline’. Again, we will use this term where relevant.

Group 2 – Where they are

Remote

Definition: Refers to geographically remote people, or those who travel a lot. It also now refers to individuals that are physically distanced from their teammates / direct colleagues / manager. Some remote workers sit down, some stand and walk. This could include park rangers, or any ‘office worker’ who works from home.

Our view: The question is, ‘remote from whom?’ They are remote from head office, remote from the director, so this word can be an othering term – it means ‘not like us’ where ‘us’ refers to the ‘normal / desk-based people’… ‘Remote’ can create an ‘us and them’ false dynamic. Most remote workers will also fall into the firstline definition, so would be covered by that.

Dispersed / distributed

Definition: Teams and teammates that are geographically separated. Can be about teammates in several offices, as well as satellite sites (e.g. sales offices). This includes a regional sales manager, a plumber who starts from home or a satellite office, a hairdresser in one of a chain of salons, and generally stand-up firstline workers and people who work from home.

Our view: Some or all workers within a business could be dispersed. Problematically, there is no consistent way to apply this term to ‘the group’ we’re trying to define across all businesses; as in one business the C-suite could be the only dispersed workers, whereas in another it’s the entire frontline. Dispersed workers are likely to fall into another of the terms, can be included within the ‘firstline’ definition, or shouldn’t be included within ‘the group’ in the first place. So, we’re still debating the definition and usage.

Hard to reach

We’re not going to define this phrase, instead we’re going straight into our view. We feel that this is a challenge to tackle rather than a way to define a group of people. This term is a legacy from when mobile technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is now, so not only were this group ‘hard to reach’ but they could be ‘easy to ignore’ as there were no good solutions available. This is no longer the case. Refer to your relevant workers as firstline and tackle the challenge of reaching them, rather than blaming them for something that isn’t their fault.

Group 3 – How they work 

Deskless / non-office

Definition: Usually means those who don’t sit at a desk: people who stand up to perform their duties, do not use a computer often, or may not work in an office environment. This includes chefs, tram drivers, and traveling salespeople, shop floor workers and retail staff. But it could also include those who hot-desk and are expected to be in meetings, on a plane, on site with clients etc.

Our view: Whether or not someone has a physical desk doesn’t exclude them from using a laptop and the ‘usual’ business systems, but it may. A lot of firstline workers are likely to be fair mobile device users and deskless, but not all of them, so this term misses out important clusters of people.

Untethered

Definition: This is the term Deloitte uses and refers to those people who don’t need to be connected into a company’s suite of systems in order to complete their tasks. This could include baristas, welcome hosts, or charity volunteers.

Our view: This doesn’t cover knowledge workers who could be travelling or those who use one specific platform to complete their tasks, such as customer service representatives on Salesforce. It also ignores the fact that so much is done online now, so it’s inevitable that employees will move into having at least one tether to the business – which could be an employee app.

Mobile workers

Definition: Those who physically move around to complete their tasks, but primarily those who frequently use mobile technology. The former includes midwives, truck drivers, and regional managers, whereas the latter could include almost anyone who doesn’t sit at a computer all day.

Our view: This could be a term that we come to use more frequently as mobile technology, including employee apps, become more prevalent. For now, there is likely to be too much confusion with the physically moving around definition, and workers do not need to be ‘mobile’ to appreciate mobile phone technology.

A good start

What do you think? What needs finessing or outright changing? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Suzie Robinson

I've always worked with intranets, and have practical experience with all aspects of intranet management, including research, implementation, governance, and strategy. My roots are in internal communication and I focus on employee experience and engagement.

1 Comment
  • Posted at 2:13 pm, 20 March, 2020

    Thx for the blog – some good food for thought. Personally I use ‘remote’ but don’t like it (for the reasons you outline, negative connotations etc.) – I like first-line but does it remove all the back up and services, even management? I notice you don’t include teleworking (broadly used around the world) – is there a reason for this? For now, I think mobile is best.

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