Unmet Emotional Needs Driving ‘Deskless’ Workers to Leave Jobs


While many employers are currently finding it difficult to fill vacant positions, 53% of “deskless” workers – employees whose jobs are tied to a location or can’t be done remotely, such as retail – feel burned out at work, and more than four out of 10 are at risk of quitting, according to a new study published by Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Approximately 70 percent to 80 percent of the world’s labor force is made up of “deskless” workers. Industries such as retail, health care, manufacturing, logistics, food production and hospitality rely heavily on deskless workers.

The BCG research, titled “Making Work Work Better for Deskless Workers,” features findings from a survey of 4,668 deskless workers in the United States, France, Germany and the UK. Respondents were almost evenly split between men and women, and included a range of ages, levels of seniority, job experience and employment status.

Retail workers lead in risk of quitting

The portion of deskless workers at risk of quitting differs depending on geography and field. The UK has the largest portion of people in deskless jobs open to a new opportunity (49%), followed by Germany (44%), the US (43%) and France (37%).

Almost half of deskless workers in the retail industry (48%) are at risk of quitting, with 41% of employees passively looking and 7% actively looking. Other industries at high risk include transportation and warehousing, industrial goods, health care and education.

While deskless workers cite pay and compensation as an important aspect of their jobs, eight of the top 10 factors that motivate deskless workers to quit are emotional rather than functional, including feeling fairly treated and respected, feeling valued and appreciated, having work that’s enjoyable, and maintaining a good relationship with a manager or boss.

“Deskless talent is a vital sector of the global workforce, yet more than half of this important group feel burned out, and 43% are at risk of quitting,” says Debbie Lovich, BCG’s global leader for the future of work.

“Of course, compensation is table stakes,” she continues, “but the real drivers of whether a deskless worker intends to stay or leave an organization are emotional: does my leadership and manager respect, value, and care about me? To retain this subset of employees, companies need to understand and act on both the functional and emotional needs of their deskless workers.”

Gen Z: burned out and actively job-searching

According to the survey, younger employees are more likely to be looking for a job change. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of deskless workers aged 18 to 24 describe feeling burned out from work, and 55% are either actively looking for a new job or would consider switching if the right opportunity came along. By comparison, only 30% of deskless workers 55 and older, and just 38% aged 45 to 54, say they are job hunting.

The survey reveals that the trend of “quick quitting” – workers leaving a new job after a relatively short period of time – is most prevalent among deskless workers with the least amount of time on the job. Among all deskless workers, 52% of those whose tenure is less than 12 months are either actively or passively job hunting. This means that delivering emotional connections during recruitment and onboarding, as well as sustaining them for the long term, is critical.

Retaining your deskless workers

The survey offers three key areas of focus for employers to ensure their deskless workers are not lured away:

  • Find out what workers want: Using surveys, focus groups and one-on-one conversations, find out what your deskless workers want in a job.
  • Build great managers: BCG’s research shows that deskless workers dissatisfied with their managers feel more burned out, are less likely to recommend their employer, and are twice as likely to leave. Organizations must build their managers’ capabilities to deliver a positive work experience for deskless workers.
  • Invest in making work better: After identifying changes to improve work for deskless workers, companies must invest in the technology, upskilling opportunities, governance approaches, etc., to support the new practices; then make necessary adjustments before rolling out and scaling.

“Our data confirms that quick quitting is most widespread among deskless workers who have the least amount of time on the job, but this trend can be reversed if employees feel supported and that their emotional needs are being met,” says Sebastian Ullrich, BCG managing director and partner and coauthor of the report. “With the right effort, organizations can identify employees passively job searching and make changes to prevent them from becoming active job seekers.”  

Download the full BCG report here.