As the white collar workforce continues to cope with the challenges of remote work – improvising home office setups, adjusting to video conferencing as a lifestyle – it’s easy to forget that traditional office workers represent only a fifth of all workers globally. The “deskless workforce” – the skilled workers whose labor powers industries like agriculture, education, healthcare, retail, hospitality, manufacturing, construction and transportation – represent the vast majority of professionals. And yet these workers – many of whom are also considered essential – are often woefully underserved in terms of technologies and tools that would make their jobs easier, safer, or more productive.
Today, only a fraction of the $300B that is spent on business software each year has gone to the deskless workforce, while only 1% of enterprise software funding has gone toward deskless worker solutions. This is astounding, because in our experience, there has not been a more compelling audience that’s ripe and ready for a technology to support the critical work that they do.
The deskless workforce is no monolith – deskless workers’ job requirements, environments, and constraints vary widely. But these diverse professionals often share some common attributes. They accumulate vast generational knowledge and experience in order to be “good” at their respective trades. The quality of their work often rests on precision, efficiency, and sustained attention to detail. There is no equivalent of an “undo” button to reverse mistakes or a “copy-paste”-like function to expedite repetitive tasks. They’re often working with their hands, in complex, highly-regulated environments. And many are self-employed entrepreneurs who must manage their daily output and invest in their own tools of the trade.
Doing things well and getting them right the first time is critical – which is why it’s significant that many of these workers encounter daily inefficiencies in their work. Inefficiencies frequently give way to compensatory behaviors or “hacks.” The field technician with the pencil in the ball cap (it’s there for a reason!). The mechanic who writes down a quote on the back of his hand. The emergency medic whose mouth becomes a fifth appendage in a pinch.
These sorts of workarounds exist in part because of a lack of technology solutions to make these jobs easier. So why have deskless workers been so chronically underserved from a technology perspective? For many deskless workers, operating budgets are razor thin, and technology developers may be wary of prospective customers’ willingness to invest in new tools. These workers may also be tough sells about the value a new technology will yield when things have historically been done another way (i.e., if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). And in all too many cases, general products are developed without taking the unique needs and pain points of the end users into account at a nuanced level, thereby limiting the upside of adopting them. For highly specific jobs, general-purpose solutions simply don’t work.
The good news is that innovative solutions are now starting to emerge across a range of technologies. The abundance of personal smartphones and tablets opens new possibilities for software that doesn’t necessarily require hardware expenditure. AR, VR, computer vision, drones, and sensor-based technologies are all advancing in their power and reliability.
But one technology that often goes overlooked for these sorts of professional settings is voice. To date, voice technology has most prominently featured in our lives as consumers, but in the next decade, voice is poised to make waves in the world of work, with a particular allure for the deskless workforce.
The reasons why are fairly obvious. Voice thrives in situations where hands and eyes are tied up. It excels at speedy information entry or retrieval, where a simple uttered sentence runs laps around menus and keyboards. And the infrastructure is flexible – you can voice-enable an existing device, website, or mobile app or create a new experience entirely.
Sounds easy enough, but there’s significant complexity to be tamed to get to purpose-built voice solutions that actually make life better for a host of deskless workers. Here are the three keys to making voice tech a competitive advantage on the job site.
1. Speaking the same language
Speech recognition technology has become reliably accurate to the point that it can perform better than the human ear. But there’s a trickier problem still to be solved, which is natural language understanding (NLU), the job of truly understanding what a given user means with their words.
Interpreting meaning requires making inferences and connections based on context – activities we humans excel at naturally. The reason professionals can quickly converse with one another about a highly specialized topic is because of their shared domain knowledge around the words in question. Even the smartest computers don’t come equipped out of the box with nuanced and accurate understandings of a given field – they must be trained.
For a voice solution to accurately interpret industry-specific jargon (“Can I turn a PVC 90-degree-long sweep elbow slightly towards its side?”), it needs to parse it correctly and retrieve an accurate, helpful answer. General-purpose solutions won’t cut it; purpose-built, domain-specific knowledge corpuses will.
2. Designing hardware + software solutions
Delivering purpose-built solutions also means hardware can matter as much as software. Context matters when thinking through the types of devices and the types of computing that are required to get the job done. For example, a production line manager on a loud factory floor needs solutions that account for ambient noise. An oil rig technician whose job takes them off the grid needs an edge computing solution to call up specs and plans. Not only that but also a device that’s running on an intrinsically safe handset, lest they risk blowing up the whole operation.
The beauty of voice is that it’s not a platform but an interface and can be built flexibly into a wide range of devices and software environments. Winning solutions will have considered myriad ways in which hardware and software can be married to deliver a superior experience to the user, while remaining safe and workspace-compliant.
3. Systems, systems, with a side of systems
One of the most common impediments to the adoption of new software tools is a lack of compatibility with other systems workers already use. From a data perspective, products that don’t play nice with others create headaches that can be larger than the problems they set out to solve. Integration is essential to ensure the most up-to-date information is referenced by any given worker but also critical to delivering on the “speed” facet of voice tech’s value prop in deskless applications. Why wait for a worker to return to a computer to update a bunch of data that they just jotted down from a gauge, when that same information could be relayed in real time, just by speaking?
It’s clear that there’s no shortage of costly problems to solve for the deskless workforce. Alongside other emerging technologies, voice solutions will succeed in transforming dozens of trades and millions of jobs, so long as those solutions are bold enough to deeply understand these end-users, their problems and constraints, and deliver measurably improved workflows through a fusion of hardware and software innovation.
Interested in how voice can drive efficiencies and open up new possibilities for your company’s operations? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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