Using mobile working to boost field service workers' productivity
Written by: Kate O’Flaherty | Published:
Mobile working is becoming increasingly popular thanks to the growing availability of wireless connectivity and productivity boosting applications; credit: iStock/nullplus

Field service workers are taking advantage of new platforms, software and applications designed to make them more productive, discovers Kate O’Flaherty

Mobile working is nothing new but its reach is widening. According to analyst Strategy Analytics the number of mobile workers will rise to 1.75 billion by 2020, accounting for 42 per cent of the global workforce. This growth is being fuelled by more efficient communication networks, devices and software.

“Solutions, devices and networks have moved on and confidence in mobile working has sky-rocketed,” says Ken Eastwood, director of mobile working consultancy Digital Nomads. This is in contrast to 15 years ago, he says, when: “We were trying to use mobility networks that didn’t work and devices with a two-hour battery life.”

All industries have been affected by IT’s increasing consumerisation, not least field engineers. Their devices have become more capable; fuelled by apps and software packages that aim to improve response times and efficiency. For example, field service organisations can now use predictive analytics to move personnel from job to job more easily.

In addition, the software available today is giving companies the ability to send and receive data in real time. This improves efficiency by allowing them to provide more accurate waiting times, as well as information about the service to be performed.

Apps and software
There is growing pressure on businesses to be more efficient. And, as technology improves, customer expectations rise. According to Stuart Brunger, head of business development at scheduling software designer Magenta Technology: “Customers are under pressure from their own customers. They want to be given a one- or two-hour time slot, and after they receive it they expect to be kept informed over text messaging.”

So what kind of apps and software are firms currently using? On the software side many field service organisations are refreshing their mobile interface approach, says Cameron Roche, research analyst at VDC Research, a M2M marketing intelligence and advisory firm.

“They are looking to leverage multi-platform support on Android, iOS, and Windows. They are also updating mobile interfaces; with many implementing HTML5-based capabilities to support more features,” he explains.

Increasingly field service workers are using general productivity tools such as Google Docs and the cloud version of Microsoft’s Office 365 suite. According to VoIP software provider CounterPath’s executive VP of sales and marketing Todd Carothers, field workers want to be able to use voice calls, video, and even screen sharing in the field.

Carothers says: “Field workers clamour for that extension. They want the office to follow them – and to have accessibility to the same tools everywhere.” For example, he says: “Field users can type an instant message to say there’s an issue. If they need more detailed information they can progress to a voice call and if they still don’t understand they can use a video call. This can make a huge difference to their productivity.”

There is also growing demand among mobile workers for custom apps. “For some companies out-of-the-box solutions don’t do it for them so there’s a need for custom apps,” explains Nisha Sharma, managing director at professional services business Accenture Mobility.

For example, continues Sharma, some firms require a solution to allow workers to see assignments – including the equipment they need to work with and integration with maps to direct them to where they need to go.

“As much as they try to do it themselves they don’t always have the expertise to do it in-house. They need someone who doesn’t only understand apps, but also field services. How do we integrate the data; how do we know what we need? How do I provide the best user experience for that?”

Typically mobile field workers are doing two types of jobs: maintenance or emergency breakdowns, according to Brunger. The problem for companies is therefore working out who is best to send, he says.

Magenta Technology’s Maxoptra is a purpose-designed web-based tool that ensures optimal scheduling of remote workforces. With the ability to react to events as they happen the firm says Maxoptra increases productivity at the same time as cutting costs and improving service levels. Brunger explains: “It’s a scheduling and decision-making engine that will work out who is the best engineer to attend.”

Brunger claims Maxoptra takes away the need for a human decision maker by using data to understand the specifics around the job and the work planned for each engineer, as well as their progress throughout the day. “Essentially it is making consultations with huge amounts of data that we couldn’t do in our heads. So it calculates who is the best engineer to send based on this.”

Brunger states this can improve productivity by nine to 20 per cent. “This can have a significant impact – almost certainly reducing operating costs. It’s cutting travelling time and maximising working time at site.”

As part of its solution Magenta Technology offers an app geared towards what the engineer needs. “It gives them what their next job is, it is GPS-enabled so can get their position on request. It also allows the engineer to say they have the job and have arrived, or that it will take longer than they anticipated to finish.”

Meanwhile, Telecetera’s workforce management software, which includes an Android-based app, helps firms streamline their processes. “They need a way of getting the data back to the office. Once they are out in the field there are often other things they need to do, such as tend to a problem with a vehicle,” says Cecilia Pearce, director at the firm.

“You need to be flexible – do they need to take photos, digital signatures, video? Many people focus on the job itself and don’t think about everything else,” she adds.

Another solution by CounterPath offers a unified communications platform as well as developer tools to help organisations be more productive. Carothers says among its advantages is that it’s technology agnostic: it can be used “across any platform, any device and any network”.

Radio engineers’ mobile working needs Radio engineers can be on the road for most of the day. As well as planned maintenance work there are often emergency visits to attend. If companies can use engineers’ locations and send them to their closest site it’s possible to increase the number of jobs they can do in a day.

While working radio engineers will be regularly using apps, accessing videos, and filling out forms, so long battery life is an essential requirement. Better hardware is already addressing this, and on the software side some apps can help too. For example, Carothers says, when CounterPath’s app is in the background it doesn’t use any battery, compared with other apps which, he says, can cause 30 per cent to 40 per cent battery drain.

One example of a mobile workforce in action is Airwave Solutions, which provides one of the largest mission-critical networks for the emergency services. It is essential that its network is available, resilient and secure. Airwave has about 3,450 sites in the network, 1,155 of which are highly resilient.

The firm’s 73 field engineers based around the UK are responsible for network maintenance. “Management has to be slick and comprehensive,” says the company’s director of core operations Chris Elliot. “Like any network we get faults. In the majority of cases these are fixed and up and running in four hours. So we need engineers in the right places to fix faults in all weathers – and they can be in very remote locations.”

The engineers use fairly specialised equipment. For example, “each one has a personal-issue generator. In the event of back- up failing they can recover power to a site,” Elliot adds.

The firm also has an engineering management system: a scheduling work management real-time tool designed specifically for its field operations. Available on a desktop browser, smartphone or tablet, field workers can obtain information about the site, such as the job required; the worker’s location; the site location; and the engineer’s travel plans. Employees can also update job details in real time. “The engineers book on at the start of the day and are updated throughout the day,” Elliot says. “All the forms engineers need are on there and that is fed back to the central team.”

“Our engineers are multi-skilled – some are climbers and riggers – and if you have engineers with a skillset our system knows,” he adds.

Barriers
The software, platforms and apps enabling mobile working are gaining pace, but there can still be challenges when choosing and implementing a new system. For example, there can be skills gaps, especially among the older demographic, says Eastwood. At the same time, “some people can be disruptive to change programmes and go out of their way to find problems with solutions,” he adds.

This makes training integral for any company taking on a new system. Field workers need to be taught how to fill out forms correctly and the software should be easy to use.

However, in some cases – especially when using familiar enterprise technology – it requires little effort. “Productivity software, such as a Microsoft Word document on your phone, is a very similar experience on a mobile as it is in your office. If you have the same user experience across devices minimal training is needed,” Carothers says.

But at the same time, companies looking at mobile working do not always consider how they will have to change once it is introduced. This can lead to organisations investing in a system that does not work properly. Pearce says: “I think it’s a massive challenge.”

Very often the solution is an extension of an existing in-house system, she adds. “People say they have system X and develop a mobile app [for it], but that doesn’t end up being the best solution.

“People create an app on Google Play and it does not work. Then the data comes back and they don’t know what to do with it. Businesses should be able to run reports every day and see what’s happening,” she suggests.

Network issues
Despite vast improvements in recent years networks can also be a barrier to mobile working: connectivity is a particular challenge in some places. “Rural broadband can be abysmal. Up in Cumbria there are areas that have substantial ‘not spots’ – and in North Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland you can have problems,” Eastwood explains. “So you need intelligent mobile solutions that work offline. They cache the data and automatically synchronise with the cloud once the device’s broadband connection is restored.”

In order to avoid issues he says field testing is really important. Data security is also something that must be factored into a solution. This is often built in by the provider, but it is essential that firms do their own housework.

However, cyber security should always be balanced with usability, Eastwood argues: “It’s very easy to say ‘we have to lock this all down’, but it can lead to so many controls that the technology solution becomes unusable. Cyber security needs to be addressed appropriately and proportionately and a risk assessment should be done.”

For firms to change the way they work successfully they must have a plan, says Eastwood.

With this in mind change management programmes are often required, adds Sharma. “Companies need to be sure that apps and solutions are helping them. We recommend integrating technology into your work.”

This can be coupled with employee training programmes, Eastwood points out. “Any change programme can be a learning programme as well – including training of employees.”

Mobile technology is only getting better and this will lead to more efficient and productive field workforces. Various options are available now, but firms should not immediately rush into a new solution. Strategy comes first – and then the technology can be put in place. As Sharma acknowledges: “Developing a strategy can be done in a couple of months, but implementing it can take up to two years.”

The future of mobile working
The future of mobile working is bright, with an increasing number of options to choose from for companies with field forces. Leading organisations are using tools such as wearables, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence says Nisha Sharma, managing director at professional services firm Accenture Mobility.

She cites the example of a project with Dutch telecom KPN, which saw the business implement a digital glasses solution for field engineers. It found the wearable tech improved job quality, reduced average handling time by 17 per cent, and simplified work processes.

The solution could be used across many industries, including manufacturing and the health services. Sharma adds: “We are seeing a lot of interest; there are many use cases of wearables such as smart glasses linking up to a camera and video feed. They are also useful for training: the glasses can look at videos and get step-by-step instructions. Or they can be applied to safety – for example we can measure a field worker’s heartbeat.”

Top tips for choosing and implementing a new solution

  • When deciding on and implementing a mobile working solution the first step is a strategy. Nisha Sharma, MD of Accenture Mobility, says: “This includes an assessment understanding workers, the systems they connect to, and the different people involved, as well as their apps and devices.”
  • The next step is to pinpoint what you want to achieve. Sharma advises firms to ask: “What is my vision? What do I want employees to be able to do? Then create a roadmap and plan.”
  • Communication is key. “You should always start with an initial conversation,” says Cecilia Pearce, director of Telecetera. “What are you looking for? What are your aims and goals? What are your processes? How can your system support the customer in that process and how does it link into their systems – if that’s a requirement?”
  • Make sure you understand what you are doing. “People sometimes introduce technology for technology’s sake without understanding the process they are trying to improve,” explains Chris Elliot, director of core operations at Airwave Solutions.
  • Ensure the solution is user-friendly. Elliot points out: “If they can play with the technology themselves they will use it.”
  • But at the same time “don’t put it off”, Ken Eastwood, director of mobile working consultancy Digital Nomads, suggests. “Look at an area in the business where you can make changes. Start small and develop.”


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