Field workers are facing operational, organizational and digital disconnections due to an aging workforce and changing job expectations, spurring the need for a digital transformation in utilities. Only through connected workers can you achieve higher quality, productivity and job satisfaction. 

A disconnected field force at the center of an organization

More often than not, a utility company’s core activities revolve around their field force. After all, it is these men and women who maintain the often-critical assets – and they depend on a back-office organization consisting of client services, planning and scheduling, a logistical center and asset management to complete the job.

To live up to clients’ expectations, we need better equipped and closely connected workers.

Unfortunately, the disconnection between field workers and the overall organization is ubiquitous. This might result in unpleasant situations. Imagine having to endure a client’s wrath because you didn’t know you were the sixth technician to come over. Or the frustration an engineer will feel when he arrives at a location unprepared, simply because the information he received wasn’t accurate. It happens, and we all see it.

To live up to clients’ expectations, we need better equipped and closely connected workers. However, that is not the only reason we need to invest in a digital transformation

An aging workforce and changing attitudes toward work

With an average age of 50-55 years, skilled specialists in utility companies are slowly aging out of the talent pool. When they retire, they’ll be taking a priceless accumulation of knowledge and experience with them. To preserve their technical, functional and soft skills, a digital transformation is necessary. 

Furthermore, present-day employees like millennials expect a good user interface, appified systems and less overall complexity – in short, a more accessible digital workplace. Failing to live up to their expectations might send them running for the hills. 

If you want new hands on deck, make sure to equip those hands properly. 

Image: Amplify accessibility. Transform into a digital workplace - Connected worker - by Accenture

Stagnating productivity

Another reason to invest in connected workers has to do with stagnating productivity. By 2025, there will be a €61 billion revenue at risk in Europe alone due to disruptions in demand related to end-user efficiency and distributed energy deployments. 

Due to inefficient and old-fashioned work methods, unnecessary amounts of time are lost on work preparation, travel time and administration. This leaves your staff with less time to perform the actual job. A digital field force will lead to an increase in efficiency, as people will be administratively unburdened, enjoying better day-to-day planning of their activities and thus, an optimal start of their work.

A connected worker will enjoy an increase in productivity as well as in quality, boosting satisfaction for both clients and employees. 

Let us illustrate this with the following example. When water engineers need to manually establish the position of the pipes and valves, precious time is often lost, either by acquiring this information before travelling to the work location, or by working with outdated information on their offline devices. 

In another example, processing a meter reading or replacement is much less error-prone when engineers are able to validate and administer the information directly into the back-end systems. This reduces the chances of billing errors and increases the data quality of your revenue-driving assets. 

In short, a connected worker will enjoy an increase in productivity as well as in quality, boosting satisfaction for both clients and employees. 

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Field force management solutions to connect your worker

As we move deeper into a tech-enabled future, digital transformation is rapidly becoming a necessary step for utilities. Fortunately, there is already a wide array of field force management solutions to choose from.

Location-based services

Firstly, geo- or location-based services are important for any utility company. After all, pipes are located ‘in the field’ and in order to quickly assess their location and type, a Geographical Information System (GIS) is vital. 

But these systems provide more than just the location and type. All technical information is stored, allowing engineers to determine exactly what kinds of materials are in the ground, which tools are required and whether precautions need to be taken. Easy navigation to the exact spot is included, further simplifying the engineers’ work. A Dutch water company took things to yet another level. Combining their work management system with their GIS, they created a field service app that their engineers now use to receive work orders from the planning department and client details from the back-office.

Thanks to the application, they can navigate to the location, look up connections on the spot, perform their administrative tasks and, if necessary, make location adjustments on the map. All information is adjusted in the systems in real time, effectively rendering trips to the office obsolete. 

Field service apps like these will spur the digital transformation of the field force, helping to create a new generation of fully connected workers. 

Planning and scheduling automation

Making optimal use of the available capacity is an everlasting struggle for planning departments and an important KPI for their managers. In organizations with a substantial field force, optimizing the capacity utilization through manual planning is near impossible. 

Luckily more and more solutions provide the option to completely automate the planning and scheduling. These solutions enable the planning of jobs at the right time and with the right resources, taking into account worker skills, location and travel times. This is becoming an increasingly dynamic exercise, as changes in the planning are inevitable. Whether a high priority outage occurs, or someone calls in sick, these automated planning solutions are able to redistribute the work in the most optimal manner.

AI and AR wearables for efficiency and work safety

Another interesting solution is offered by smart glasses. These augmented reality glasses can, among many other things, project an image of the pipelines where they are located in the ground. The beauty of these smart glasses is that the technician can keep his hands free, thus making his job a lot easier. 

AI and AR wearables can also be used to enable on-the-job training, projecting images and tutorials onto an installation and showing exactly how to make a repair. Furthermore, they can be used to allow distance learning. As field work is notoriously demanding, many seasoned experts need to stop working in the field prematurely, due to health issues related to their jobs. If you combine AI and AR with a built-in video connection to one of your older expert workers, you will be able to secure the transfer of knowledge and skills to younger employees with minimal effort.

The roadmap to creating connected workers

But it is not enough to focus merely on the field force. As these people are highly dependent on your work planners, customer service agents and logistics colleagues, the entire organization will need to adapt.

Furthermore, the success of the connected worker depends largely on the willingness of your employees to embrace the new. By empowering them to make decisions on how they want to work (co-create, not dictate), clearly communicating the direction your organization is headed towards and finally by involving your employees in every step you will increase the chances of a successful adaptation of your digital solution.

To guide these changes in the right direction, you will need to develop a roadmap: the strategy that underpins your digital transformation and helps move it forward.

Developing a realistic roadmap and selecting a provider that will best serve your needs are vital to achieving a seamless application of connected working. Our industrial experience equips us with the right tools to help you successfully implement these initiatives.

Building connections to the future

Easing the disconnect between a field force and the rest of the organization is a very real and daunting challenge for modern utilities. On top of that, the workforce is aging, employee expectations are shifting and productivity is stagnating. These challenges may result in suboptimal quality and unhappy employees, while also taxing both your ability to deliver reliable service and your relationships with your clients. 

Fortunately, the technologies available today have proven themselves to be valuable assets when it comes to addressing these issues. By embarking on a digital transformation, you will not only be able to address these challenges but rise above them and set new standards for service and quality in your field. The workers of the future are connected – and the sooner you start building those connections, the better.