Digital Innovations for Utility Field Workers: How to Make It Work

The Energy Distribution is under threat. Utilities are pressured to remain profitable in an environment of declining revenues and increasing costs, while still maintaining the quality and efficiency of the grid. Digital innovations for your field workers are the answer and here's how. 
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Our 2016 Digitally Enabled Grid Research shows it: the Energy Distribution is under threat. Utilities are pressured to remain profitable in an environment of declining revenues and increasing costs, while still maintaining the quality and efficiency of the grid. How can your Operations Department respond to such a challenge? The secret resides in your field workforce. Digital is reaching out to help you make the most out of it.

Why Digital Innovation Is Crucial for Field Workers

  1. Did you know that for Europe alone, there is a €61 billion revenue at risk due to disruptions in demand such as end-user efficiency and distributed energy deployments by 2025? This threat is a great incentive to increase workforce productivity.

  2. Your mechanics are wondering: “If I can handle all my banking matters from my mobile device, then why is all this paperwork in the back of my van?” Changing employee expectations make digital technologies a must have. Digital transformations in other industries are setting higher expectations and will create the same expectations with your employees. Besides that, our utilities workforce is aging. We will experience a decline in number of skilled employees as well as a knowledge drain due to this decline. Ever thought of over-the-shoulder-coaching with the help of digital solutions?
     
  3. And last, but definitely not least there is a strong requirement for Utilities to promote a safe environment for their workforce. Digital solutions can directly reduce health-, safety-, and environmental incidents and as a side effect of productivity gains, supervisors can dedicate more of their time for crew safety.

This explains why the use of mobile technologies for the field workforce appears among the top 3 IT priorities of utility companies in US and Europe. There is an untapped opportunity at utilities to leverage state-of-the art digital innovations, a key component being mobility. Not only for the overall efficiency of the company, but also to make the field workers’ everyday job run easier, smoother, safer, and just a little more fun.

How Can Digital Help Your Field Worker?

So which digital innovations can improve your field work? Let’s have a look at three different types:

  • Geo (location) based features. Planning- and scheduling solutions nowadays allow for optimized task assignment and scheduling. Not only are they based on the task requirements and the worker’s skills, they also take into account the most optimal route to reduce driving time, costs and CO2 emissions. This logic can be extended further with real-time geolocation and task assignment. At any time, the best available resource in terms of skills and location can be allocated to the task, with a significant impact on productivity and other key-metrics. Next to these geolocation-based features, geo-information can be easily applied to your existing Geographic Information System (GIS) and Mobile infrastructure, with a Google Maps look and feel.
  • Wearables. Whether it is a smart-watch, glasses or a helmet, the main added value of wearables is to keep the user’s hands free. A way of smoothly blending into the work process. Moreover, the devices can provide new features which make new use cases possible for increasing safety. For example, imagine your workers are wearing a smart-watch that measures their heartbeat, allowing to emit notifications to the back-office in case of an abnormal change. If one of your workers shows unexpected heartbeat values while working in a secondary substation or has a heart attack with no one around, every second counts to save his life.
    This is why we implemented the Man Down App, a proof-of-concept for a Dutch Utility: With the Microsoft Band 2 we’re able to measure the workers’ heartbeat continuously. The data is sent over Bluetooth to the Man Down App, which sends the data to our analytics platform. When an abnormal change is observed, an alarm is triggered in the back-office. The back-office is immediately warned and the rescue crew is notified directly of the victim’s location. This is a great illustration of how a combination of ‘NEW IT’, like IoT, wearables and analytics can and will change the way we work.

Man Down App: Visualizing a field worker's heartbeat
 

  • Contextual assistance and training. Workers can be trained in the most efficient way: right on the field when needed and without an expert physically present. Think of remote video calls, over-the-shoulder coaching and augmented reality. About that, we are at the doorstep of a new generation of wearables which support augmented reality ‘laid over’ the real world. In other words: augmented reality that makes your assets visible above the ground to your field workers. Imagine what this could mean for maintenance and repair of your assets: a lot less digging to find the right asset.

Your Grid and assets shown through augmented reality wearing an augmented reality supporting device

But How Do You Ensure the Success of These Digital Innovations?

While implementing such technologies, user acceptance is crucial. Without it, your organization might not be able to reap all the benefits of field force mobile tools and other digital applications. It is the people that make change happen and that need to use technology to its fullest potential.

When dealing with user acceptance, you could face one of the following challenges:

  1. End users rejecting the tool because they perceive it as additional hassle rather than as extra help in the process. In extreme cases, users could replace the tool by personal devices, non-digital solutions or simply bypass the covered activity or feature. We have seen mobile devices taking a nap in the sun.
     
  2. Acceptance hampers due to employees feeling that their privacy is being invaded or that fear a lack of data security. Among several utilities we observe that users are reluctant to geolocation-based solutions, resistance often relayed by labor unions. The following concerns are generally triggered:
  • Privacy and independency: a psychological concern of being “tracked” by the employer;
  • Higher requirements on efficiency: The workers may be concerned that real-time visibility and allocation result in higher work pressure.

So how do you counter these challenges? It is vital that the user sees the tool as a facilitator more than a burden or a threat. The key to this is user experience. The innovation should not be seen as an extra level of complexity, but as something that removes impediments and allows for a better focus on core tasks. User experience is the most important factor in gaining user acceptance.

Here are some tactics to provide a good user experience for your workers:

  • Involve your employees in the very first steps of the design process of your mobile application. Your number one priority is to make the user journey as smooth as possible. This applies for both custom as well as out-of-the box solutions. Believe us, it helps.
  • Highlight the benefits for end users. Emphasize that the new technology increases safety, simplifies tasks, and removes non-productive activities such as driving and administration.
  • And finally, make their involvement fun and meaningful! Why would you not blindfold some field workers and let them hold several tablets to see which one is the best handheld? There are many easy ways to involve your field crew in a fun way. It will increase user acceptance dramatically.

Mobile and digital innovations can dramatically improve efficiency and safety if implemented correctly with a strong focus on user experience and involvement.