State of Deskless Work: 2021 Report

A word from our CEO 

“As if the brick-and-mortar landscape wasn’t already competitive enough, Amazon has announced that it will open massive retail stores across the U.S. We can take a couple of things away from Amazon’s encroachment on the brick-and-mortar space:

  1. Even online retailers recognize brick and mortar’s enduring advantages over e-commerce

  2. Brick and mortar organizations are going to have to push their standards higher than ever before

Amazon’s reputation for convenience and customer service is formidable. Let’s be honest, though: brick-and-mortar organizations have been jostling for customers’ attention long before Amazon entered the brick-and-mortar space, and they’ll continue to after Amazon’s stores go live. 

If anything, Jeff Bezos’ boundless ambition is a reminder to brick and mortar’s incumbents: you must deliver a seamless, memorable in-location customer experience or face extinction. This means delivering a convenient, digital, and personal customer experience. 

If you’ve followed Raydiant’s “State of” reports, you know that we’ve focused intently on the cravings, habits, and demands of the consumer. Our observations have led us to an undeniable conclusion: consumers care deeply about customer service. 

The changing nature of customer service in the past year-plus has not diminished the value consumers place on personal, attentive employee care. Our 2021 State of Consumer Behavior report found that 60% of consumers have stopped doing business with a brand over one bad in-location experience. 

With so much at stake for businesses in a jam-packed brick-and-mortar landscape, it’s only right that we turn our discerning eyes upon the deskless worker of 2021. 

With our State of Deskless Workers in 2021 report, we dissect questions like: 

What do deskless workers need from their employers to thrive? 

What sparks employees’ ambition to deliver consistently stellar customer service experiences? What job-related frustrations sap this ambition?

What is, for better or worse, the current state of deskless work (and workers) at this point in 2021?

We hope you will find valuable insight in these employees’ responses. With so much riding on the customer service experience, every little piece of wisdom helps.”


Key Findings 

Only 41% of deskless workers are highly engaged in their work. Engagement signifies the level of motivation and passion that the employee derives from their work.

28% said their engagement has decreased over the past 12 months.  Staff shortages are the leading (but not only) driver of employee disengagement today.

45% of workers do not have a company email they regularly check. If you forego employee email addresses, ensure you are compensating with other modes of communication.

39% say they are seeing more co-worker turnover than ever. Employee disengagement leads to dissatisfaction, poor performance, terminations, and resignations—something has to give, and we suggest that lasting change comes from the top.

34% of workers are using 16 or more digital tools and platforms in their day-to-day work. Staff are worn as thin as a thread, tasked with knowing more and doing more than ever, yet remain masters of nothing. Customers have noticed.

41% believe they are not provided the tools they need to succeed in their job. Despite using 16+ digital tools on a regular basis, employees feel they don’t have access to the right ones. Somewhere between employee and employer there lies a massive communication breakdown.


From August 2 2021, we surveyed 600 American workers who identified as non-desk employees who do not work at a desk the majority of the time. The survey was conducted online via PollFish using organic sampling through Random Device Engagement (RDE). To access the raw data, click here. Learn more about the Pollfish methodology here.

Part 1: Respondent Summary


Part 2: Employee Engagement 

One definition of engagement is “a fight or battle between armed forces”. Though not the engagement we’re speaking of, it’s fitting—brick and mortar organizations are in a constant battle for consumers, and their employees’ engagement has the potential to spell victory or defeat.

The tools of choice on the front lines of brick and mortar are the smile, the helping hand, the eager attitude of assistance to the customer. Increasingly, 

Only 41% report being highly engaged at work. 

One study published years before ours found that about one in ten employees are “fully disengaged” on average. This means they are opposed to something or someone within their organization. Our findings suggest that the scourge of employee disengagement has spread since then. Per our findings, as many as two or three in every ten employees may be completely clocked out.

24.8% of employee respondents told us that they are “not very engaged” at work. Only 41.8% are “highly engaged” with their job, while 31.3% are somewhere in the middle. In other words, less than half of employees bring the passion to work that is necessary to keep customers happy.

Of course, these findings beg a question: why are nearly a quarter of employees asleep at the wheel (at best), and what can employers do to engage them?


28% said engagement has decreased over the past 12 months.

While the challenges of the pandemic have apparently inspired about 39% of respondents to become more engaged, those same challenges (and perhaps their employers’ response to those challenges) have caused nearly 29% of employees to disengage.

We probed further to find out why so many employees have become less enamored with their jobs over the past year.


Staff shortages are the leading reason for employee disengagement

The three primary reasons for worker disengagement in the past year are:

  1. Fatigue caused by staff shortages (18.6%)

  2. Lack of stimulating professional challenges (16.4%)

  3. Low organizational morale (16.4%)


As revenues fell off a cliff in early 2020, many staff shortages were involuntarily survival mechanisms for employers. These shortages persist more than a year later, but not because of employers’ lack of effort. 57% of trade group members said that they reviewed few or no qualified job applicants in July 2021.

Employers may have to consider investing more in training programs, or simply lowering their hiring standards to take the pressure off of their employees. 

When employees prove their motivation and capability, you may consider granting them more responsibility to avoid stagnation. Employees want to be energized by their job, but not to the point of being overworked. Finding this balance as an employer should, in turn, improve organizational morale.

Improving communication with workers is the number one way employers can improve employee engagement.

Employers are, generally speaking, a solutions-oriented class. When it comes to solving the problem of widespread employee disengagement, employers can:

  1. Communicate information to employees in a more timely manner (12.3%)

  2. Hire more staff to prevent employee burnout (11%)

  3. Provide more performance-based incentives (9.7%)


Communication in a brick-and-mortar environment can be challenging. Without the structure of an office (with meetings, consistent email communication, and other means of connecting), it’s easy for brick-and-mortar employers and employees to fall off of the same page.

Some suggestions for better communication include brief daily huddles, quarterly one-on-ones, and motivational sessions where employees are encouraged to share freely. A true culture of communication is a massive advantage in the customer service space.

Insist that employees share when they feel overworked. Take steps to address these feelings. Lastly, don’t just expect stellar employee performance—incentivize it. Create clear objectives for your employees to hit, and provide an incentive that your employees actually want. 

Whether it is extra vacation time, a monetary bonus, or a coveted prize, there is no shortage of ways to light a fire under your employees’ cabooses.

Expert Insights

How can companies improve engagement with Brick and Mortar workers?

"One activity that is free, available to everyone, and easy to implement is also often the most overlooked and underappreciated engagement opportunity – talking to your workers. Studies have found time and again that one of the top reasons a quarter of all new employees quit within their first 90 days is that they feel neglected and/or ignored by leadership. The simple act of talking to your employees daily will help create that connection that people desire in the workplace, making them feel seen and valued in their work. It will also help you create comfortability with your team so that they feel able to bring their questions, concerns, and ideas to your attention."

- Ashley Cox, Founder & CEO of SproutHR 

Section Summary

Harvard Business Review puts a hard figure to what we already know: 71% of senior executives see employee engagement as critical to achieving organizational goals.

Do not ignore what employees have told us: they’re largely overworked, understimulated, and under-motivated. Aid them, listen to them, and incentivize them. In doing so, you’ve eliminated three of the primary problems that lead to employee disengagement.

Part 3: Turnover and Loyalty 

Are you familiar with the term “turnover tsunami”? It’s not a natural disaster, but rather an organizational one. Per Achievers’ Workforce Institute 2021 Engagement and Retention Report, this turnover tsunami is defined by 52% of employees planning to seek new jobs at some point in 2021. 

Employers who want to avoid high rates of employee desertion should understand the factors fueling brick-and-mortar’s turnover tsunami.

39% of employees say they are seeing more co-worker turnover than ever. 

In other words, the turnover tsunami is not a mirage. Employees notice their co-workers in the building one day and gone the next. According to employees’ observations, fewer than a quarter of employers are retaining employees more effectively in the past year. Most organizations are either losing the same number of employees as usual or losing more employees than they have in the recent past.


Turnover is going to persist. Job openings have skyrocketed in 2021, and employees have massive leeway to move on from a job for virtually any reason. 

This reality underscores the importance of communicating regularly with employees, empowering them, providing performance bonuses, and providing assistance when they feel fatigue.

Only 43% of employees are “very loyal” to their company

Loyalty should be hard-earned. As we found, most deskless workers do not dole out their loyalties easily. Only 43% of brick-and-mortar employees feel a strong loyalty to their employer. The remaining 57% of employees seem either apathetic or disloyal to their employers.


Employee loyalty translates directly into strong customer service, organizational morale, and internal accountability. Loyalty is also the inverse of attrition, which costs employers tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the employee’s position and value. 

Retain more of your employees by offering them opportunities for advancement, paying them fairly, offering flexibility where you can, and recognizing their personal value to your organization. 

27% are less loyal to their company than ever. 

The pandemic has seemingly galvanized about 37% of employees, who became more loyal to their employers over the past year.  However, nearly 28% of employees feel less loyal to their employer due to the effects of the past year. 35% employees have experienced no change in loyalty.


There is truly no formula to employee loyalty. A sincere expression of appreciation for employees may be enough to win the life-long loyalty of one employee. Another deskless worker may value compensation more highly than verbal gestures.

As an employer, you’re the coach of a team of varying personalities with disparate motivations. Communication is key to finding out what drives each employee, and providing the fuel that produces satisfaction and retention.

Expert Insights 

Why are Brick and Mortar companies seeing such high turnover with their workers?

"This issue is well reported, with many surveys over the course of the pandemic. A percentage of workers have decided that they’re looking for more long term, steady hours, and a better quality of life that retail brick and mortar operations aren’t able to provide. The other piece that comes into play is the demands of the environment – do all that it takes at all costs. Employees have come to realize, due to the recent pandemic crisis, that they have other needs and priorities. The long hours, overtime, and stress that accompanies these roles has worn out, and there are many other employers lining up to offer them 9-5 type hours, better pay, and stronger benefits (PTO, Health, Dental, Vision, tuition, etc.)"

Tom Schin, Owner of Build Better Culture 

Section Summary

Deskless workers tell us that their loyalty is tough-earned and easily lost. This creates a dilemma for employees, who have to foster loyalty in a creative manner even while knowing their employees could jet at a moment’s notice.

Despite the risk, investing in employee loyalty is critical to improving customer service outcomes. Loyal employees go the extra mile for the customer and their organization—it’s really that simple.

Part 4: Customer Service 

We surveyed 26 brick-and-mortar experts to identify the Top Trends For Brick and Mortar Retail in 2021. The importance of customer service was a theme that the experts brought up time and again.

Employees’ manners, willingness to assist customers, and knowledge of your offerings remains critical, as it has since the dawn of retail. Today’s customer service also retains new elements—safety, caution, instantaneousness of services, and respect for personal space being key new features.

We know that poor or even average customer service can break an organizations’ reputation and revenues. So why are employees admittedly lagging when it comes to serving customers?

Only 47% of employees believe they provide very good in-location customer service. 

There are very few variables that brick-and-mortar organizations can truly control. For the most part, customer service is one of them.

And yet only 47% of deskless workers say they provide “very good service” to customers. A whopping 25% of workers admit that their customer service is “not very good”, while more than 27% of employees rate their service as, essentially, “meh”.


In a time where job availability is far outpacing demand for jobs, employers may be hesitant to use the metaphorical stick. An employee can walk away at any time, find a new job, or support themselves through other means.

In lieu of the stick, why not try the carrot? Incentivize great customer service. If someone is not inclined to be helpful by nature, perhaps money or paid time off will do the trick. 

25% believe service quality has decreased while 37% say it has increased. 


Like employee loyalty, we find a tale of divergent trends when it comes to the quality of customer service. Again, you have to ask why some deskless workers have stepped up their customer service game in the past year, while others have let it slide.

Possible explanations include burnout, lack of clear incentives, and lack of communication—problems that we have presented various remedies for.

Investing in new technologies and tools was the number one change made to improve customer service at physical locations.

Brick-and-mortar workers who have improved their customer service credit:

  1. Their employer’s investment in new technologies and tools (46.9%)

  2. Their employer’s implementation of new protocols and procedures (42.8%)

  3. Their employer’s investment in new training (42.34%)


Employees clearly believe that their employers, not their own attitudes or motivations, have the greatest power to improve customer service outcomes. Are you taking a proactive or reactive approach to improve your organization’s customer service?

Having fewer staff was the number one reason why customer service quality decreased at physical locations.

Employees who reported a worsening of customer service cited:

  1. Fewer staff on duty at a given time (37%)

  2. Limited product offerings (33.3%)

  3. Restricted hours of operation (30.9%)


Curfews, cleaning requirements, and restocking demands all contributed to restricted store hours in 2020. Some of the largest brick-and-mortar retailers, including Apple, Nordstrom, and Ralph Lauren, closed their doors for significant periods of time.

These are inconveniences to the customer that are largely uncontrollable. However, staff cutbacks—the leading cause of diminished customer service—should become less of an issue as organizations incentivize workers to return to and remain within the workforce.

Expert Insights 

How is the in-store customer experience tied to the employee experience?

"The in-store customer experience directly relates to the employee experience. If the experience for a customer is confusing, then the employee will be inundated with customer questions and requests, and if it is not simple for the customer it is most likely also not going to be simple for the employee to find the item or resolve the issue at hand. Furthermore if a customer has a negative experience they are going to take their complaint to the first person that they see, which is most likely going to be the entry level associate working the sales floor or cashier. This will lead to the employee becoming frustrated as they are constantly dealing with confused or disgruntled people, and the attitude will start to reflect on their duties and how they treat others. Ultimately it will lead to contempt of their managers and place of employment for not remedying the problems that they are hearing constantly from customers."

Will Ross, Founding Director of Better Business Consulting Co.

Section Summary

Who has a clearer perspective on customer service than the employees delivering the service? Perhaps the customer, but the customer’s insights are far more difficult for brick-and-mortar organizations to harness.

Talk to your deskless workers. They see the impact of limited staff, ineffective technology, and other shortcomings that subvert the customer experience. 

Part 5: Tools and Technology 

Our findings indicate that, while employees are inundated with technology in the workplace, the technology they have is fragmented, outdated, and largely ineffective. 

Harvard Business Review refers to the problem as “death by information overload”. In short, overabundance of information and tech “can adversely affect not only personal well-being but also decision making, innovation, and productivity.”

It’s clear that deskless workers feel these adverse effects.

34% of workers are using 16 or more tools and platforms in their day to day work. 

As necessary as technology has become to brick-and-mortar operations, the revelation that 34% of workers use 16 or more digital tools in a given day seems…excessive.

Nearly 40% of respondents use between six and 15 digital tools per day. Only 25.8% of deskless employees use five or fewer digital tools per day. 


There should be no wonder why employee burnout and turnover is rampant. Your organization should be ever-evaluating the true necessity of the tools you provide your employees. Diminishing technological returns is a very real threat to employee productivity and satisfaction.  

41% believe they are not provided the tools they need to succeed in their job.

So much technology, and to what end? Even in a sea of tech and tools, 41.3% of employees say they do not have the tools and tech that would allow them to excel at their jobs.


Studies have found that the wrong technologies in the workplace are a “cognitive burden” to employees, rather than a benefit. While organizations should be open to technology, they must not persist when a specific tool fails to bear fruit.

Employers are embracing many technologies, but are they the right ones?

The leading technologies that employers have adopted over the past 12 months are:

  1. Buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) technologies (30.8%)

  2. Contactless payment technologies (30.8%)

  3. Digital signage and digital displays (27.7%)

  4. Appointment scheduling software (27.3%)

  5. Self-service checkout technologies (25.7%)


Most of these technological investments make sense. Self-checkout, contactless payments, digital signage, and BOPIS technology have emerged as critical features of the best stores. 

Expert Insights 

What technologies can help create a better employee experience for Brick and Mortar workers?

"You can go simple or complex with this piece. It really depends on the technological skill of your employees. Some easy things to use are Google Forms to collect survey information, report safety hazards, make an electronic suggestion box, etc. If you want to build on the team building aspect, you can use some other gamified tools like Kahoot to have a little ice breaker fun once in a while. Try to mix up what you do and how you do to make the most impact. It doesn’t need to be flashy to make a splash – it has to connect with your people on THEIR interests, even if it’s as simple as bringing in photo prints of someone’s family event to help them connect with one another."

- Tom Schin, Owner of Build Better Culture 

Section Summary

Inc. states unequivocally that “technology fails employees in the modern workplace.” This can be true of the deskless, brick-and-mortar employee who must dedicate inordinate time to a technology that does not fulfill its promise. Ultimately, ineffective technology takes the focus away from the customer. 

Be daring in your investment in tech, but be willing to cut ties when your employees tell you that the latest app or technology just doesn’t work.

Part 6: Communication 

The line between healthy communication and micromanagement is fine. Like many facets of management, communication with deskless workers is a balance of art and science.

As delicate as this balance may be, communication could be the key to unlocking a more dedicated, loyal fleet of employees. Let’s see where organizations can improve when it comes to employee communication.

45% of workers do not have a company email they regularly check. 

Email is not always necessary for brick-and-mortar employees. We know that many organizations feel this way, as at least 45% of deskless employees do not have a company-issued email address.


Here’s the thing: if you choose not to issue your employees an email address, recognize that a communication void may exist. 

Establishing both on- and off-channel communication can both make your employees feel included and allow you to share your organization’s messaging without resorting to dull, (likely unnecessary) meetings. 

Whether you choose to make this connection through email, Slack, or other media, your employees may appreciate the open line of communication. And if not, they can always mute their alerts.

37% say they believe their employer does very well at communicating with their deskless staff.

Significantly less than half of deskless employers say their employer does “very well” when it comes to communication of “key information”. Nearly 27% say their employer communicates “not very well”, while the remaining 36.2% of employees issued their bosses a neutral grade.


As easy as tech has made communications, never lose the face-to-face dimension of the employer-employee dynamic. A conversation provides nuance, sensitivity, and clarity that employees value, particularly in an ever-digitizing world. 

26.5% say communication with deskless workers has gotten worse over the past 12 months.

While more than 36% of employees note improved communication with their employer, 26.5% have seen regression. 37% of deskless workers have noticed no change in employer-employee communication over the past year.


The thing is, “communication” is a broad term. You must be open with employees to determine what good communication means to them. Then, you must abide by employees’ standards for employer communication. 

39.7% wish their employer would communicate more with them.

Nearly 40% of deskless workers crave more communication with their employer. On the other hand, 26.7% of employees wish their employer would quit bothering them with communiques they deem non-essential. 33.7% of employees are fine with the communication status quo.


Please don’t draw the conclusion that you can’t please everybody. Understand that employees often have trouble communicating certain sensitive subjects—wages, safety concerns, and conflict resolution being among those testy topics.

Employers who establish and continually service lines of communication will foster a more cohesive cadre of employees. 

Expert Insights

What technologies can help create a better employee experience for Brick and Mortar workers?

"Don’t forget to share the why behind what the company or leadership is doing as often as it’s reasonable. Most people don’t like to (and won’t) blindly follow someone or something without understanding what’s going on and why it matters. When you communicate why we’ve made a decision, decided to go in a particular direction, or need our workers’ support with something, your team will appreciate being informed and will be more likely to support (at least understand) your decision and/or follow through on your request. Anytime you’re sharing new information or reiterating a past decision, ask yourself what you can share about the why behind that information or decision."

Ashley Cox, Founder & CEO of SproutHR

Section Summary

Employers can easily commit one of the seven deadly sins of employee communication without even realizing it. From unkept promises to develop an employee to over-emphasis on weaknesses, it’s easy for a well-meaning employer to go astray.

Every employee has different needs, and emphasizing, re-emphasizing, and triple-emphasizing your organization’s open-door policy towards employee issues is vital. Unless your employees feel genuinely empowered to communicate with their superiors, issues will fester. Productivity, loyalty, and the customer experience will suffer as a result.

Part 7: Outlook For Companies Future

Many indicators suggest that brick-and-mortar, as a whole, is in a full-blown rebound. That’s great, but individual organizations have a more pointed concern: are they in the midst of a rebound?

Employees often reflect their organization. If they feel they’re on a sinking ship, they may not even care to re-arrange the chairs. The inverse is also true. As it turns out, employees see the way their employer treats them as an indication of their organization’s longevity.

36.8% of deskless workers see their organization closing in the next five years

What could possibly compel employees to have such a grim view of their organization’s future (or lack thereof)?


It appears that employees are wiser than some give them credit for. The primary reasons why employees predicated organizational demise are:

  1. Failing to invest in better tech to improve customer service outcomes (19%)

  2. Failing to prioritize employees (17.65%)

  3. Failing to prioritize customer service (14.93%)


Employers should be encouraged that deskless workers see the customer experience as a harbinger of organizational success (or failure). 

Section Summary

Whether you are aware or not, your employees are taking notes. They notice how you invest in them, and how you invest in the customer experience. Failure in either of these respects could unbalance the equation for employee loyalty, customer satisfaction, and organizational longevity.


Our State of Deskless Work 2021 report revealed that:

  • A large swathe of employees feel disengaged

  • Poor communication, tech overload, excessive responsibility, and lack of professional stimulation are driving employee disengagement

  • The customer experience ultimately suffers when employees become disengaged

With brick-and-mortar operations vying desperately for qualified employees, these insights from deskless workers are invaluable. It’s now time to act. 

Potential solutions to employee disengagement include:

  • Clear, desirable performance incentives for your employees

  • Creative approaches to open lines of communication

  • Delegating responsibilities reasonably to avoid burnout and tech overload

  • Communication, communication, communication

Poor communication will lead your employees to quit. When communication is good, employees feel safe to bring forth issues that are hampering them, and affecting the customer by extension.

With these insights Raydiant wishes your organization the best in the remainder of 2021 and beyond.