While the transfer from the office to the laptop due to the pandemic has made headlines for the past few years, rising from less than 4% to approximately 15% in 2023, almost 80% of the world’s employees were already doing deskless work. Construction, logistics, manufacturing, and other jobs that don’t require a desk or office yet constitute the backbone of our society’s work. 

While digitalisation is a part of day-to-day life, many employed in hands-on work receive different technical support than those in administration roles. Startups in Southeast Asia should examine the advantages technology can provide deskless workers as the world witnesses a rise of a mobile workforce

Unlike office-based work, deskless workers are out and about on various worksites. A prime example is construction. Whether it is building a highway, bridge, or office building, human workers work tirelessly to create spaces where people live, work and relax. 

Is the demand for tech jobs in Southeast Asia increasing or slowing down in 2023?

People still control the logistics industry, whether operating a forklift, loading shipping containers, or steering a ship across oceans. People are growing food, cooking and serving customers in the food industry. While Artificial Intelligence (AI), advanced robotics and automatisation will change the job landscape in 10, 20, or 30 years, for now, these and many more deskless jobs will continue to be around. Still, problems and issues arise that technology can improve, and a move to more technical support in physical labour is essential. 

Key numbers behind deskless work environments

Initially, some may view the approach with concern. It would be natural for people to think: “Here it is; technology will steal our jobs.” however, this is not necessarily the case.

According to venture capital firm Emergence Capital, around 70% of deskless workers want more technology in their jobs. The same report indicates that deskless employees report the highest levels of dissatisfaction with the technology they currently work with, with 60% of employees feeling dissatisfied or believing there is room for improvement. 

The 2023 Deskeless Report commissioned by Axonify indicates that slow processes in operations are a recurring theme, with 83% of deskless workers still relying on some kind of paper process. The report also highlights that 65% of corporate leaders believe their internal communication strategies are effective, whereas 35% of frontline workers disagree.

Technology could significantly optimise life for many of these deskless employees. Startups can promote solutions that enhance the work experience and simplify many of the dissatisfactions these workers experience. One such improvement is possible through the adoption of mobile technology. The use of smartphones, tablets and other devices is already prevalent in deskless jobs, but many businesses could take their paper processes and streamline them further using digital means. 

A move to digital documentation, combined with cloud-based solutions, can provide a real-time element to database sharing and remote access to critical information. Technology could also pave the way for more straightforward onboarding programs, more effective communication platforms, and a better flow of activity from a task management standpoint. 

Mercu and the evolution of deskless operations in Southeast Asia

One of the latest developments involving startups in the deskless workforce scene in Southeast Asia is Mercu. Founded and based in Singapore, Mercu bridges the disconnect of office tools for deskless employees. By using interfaces familiar to the chat systems that deskless employees might be more used to, such as Whatsapp, this digital startup creates scalable 2-way feedback loops that provide real-time information to companies’ office staff about their deskless employees. 

Mercu also focuses on creating microlearning programs that the employee quickly adopts as part of the flow of their everyday work, and they also provide a knowledge base so employees can access important information without needing another individual to hold their hand.   

In early May 2023, Mercu announced its success in a seed funding round with a USD 1.6 million investment involving 500 Global, TEN13, Flying Fox Ventures, Archangel Ventures, XA Network and returning investor Sequoia Capital India. 

With a focus on assisting deskless work operations in retail, logistics, hospitality and manufacturing industries, two former Grab employees, Jascha Zittel and Elliott Gibb, founded Mercu. During their previous jobs, they noticed that Whatsapp and Facebook messages received much more engagement than official company communications. This observation inspired them to utilise these popular communication platforms to help startups in Southeast Asia disseminate company information more effectively. 

With the rise of a mobile workforce and the high levels of internet penetration rate in the region, companies such as Mercu are in a fantastic position to gain a competitive advantage in this emerging market. Integrating technology and deskless work is crucial in an increasingly digital world. Southeast Asia has a tremendous opportunity to adopt innovative work practices and processes to capitalise on this changing work landscape.