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Ode to the Bacon Butty (or how life is changing for the mobile field worker)

This is the first in a series of articles by Richard Sykes, Principal Consultant at DNASTREAM.  Here he discusses the importance of agreeing a change strategy before implementing mobile technology in the field.  To be notified about future articles from Richard let us have your contact details here.

Richard Sykes

20 years ago the majority of field workers started the day with a piece (or sheaf) of paper which represented a ‘days work’. The organisation of the day, or least the half day, was very much in their own hands.  So the first call might be a local café where peers and colleagues gather for breakfast, discuss the football and generally have a social interaction which wasn’t governed by work demands.

This was invisible to the management, who at a low level may have known about it but turned the blind eye as long as the work got done.  The field worker would then proceed to the day’s work and endeavour to end the day as near to home as possible and before the rush hour got underway in earnest. This often meant working through their lunch hour, eating on the move or leaving it to the end of the day with an early tea, once at home.  As long as this loose framework worked for both parties the world rubbed along.

However the digital world came into being and then the recession really got a hold.  The recession is over but competition isn’t and the digital world is here to stay because of the massive benefits it brings in terms of communication and data transfer.

So what do this means to our field worker and the bacon butty?
First of all as soon as the device is switched on they are visible to the control room or call centre that captures and allocates any jobs that arrive (probably automatically based on skill profile). This means in all probability the bacon butty has bitten the dust.  But how are jobs allocated?

Does a job become a pick up and go item or does the field worker manoeuvre the system to provide some slack time?
Does the number of allocated jobs drive the day?
Is a lunch slot allocated in the schedule?
Is the work scheduled to complete near home?
And what time does the day finish?

I suspect these are all the underlying issues that drive the field worker to feel big brother is watching.  Which leads to hostility towards the new way of working, and because the field worker is used to ‘playing the game’ they look for ways to add back some of the elasticity into the schedule.

So is this an acceptable situation position to arrive at?  Because in the worst cases I have seen that this new way of working has been completely sabotaged, company objectives have been missed and in some cases things have gone backwards.

How could have this been avoided?
The ubiquitous answer is the lack of change management and the lack of communications.  But I think this is disingenuous and by far under states the problem and the solution.

From a social science point of view each field worker develops over time a series of habits and rituals which become embedded in their lives. This is not uncommon i.e. smokers in an office usually time their smokes to coincide with colleagues or at least collect them on their way to the smoking area.  Then a social discourse ensues as well as moral support for a diminishing habit. This has led to accusations that smokers are less productive than non-smokers, very difficult to prove in a ‘knowledge based’ industry but more obvious in a call centre were the work is more defined and scripted.

However this then comes to my point. Through the study of work and ergonomics most jobs which are based in factory or an office that are repetitive and cyclical have been studied and measured.  In this measurement process allowances have been made for fatigue and recovery normally embedded in the time for each cycle. Therefore after a number of cycles an operative has accrued time in which rest can be taken. Again this is most noticeable on a factory floor or call centre when small groups of staff will leave their work place and go as a group for a ‘personal needs’ break or a coffee or associated activity, in fact in a lot of modern environments space is set aside for this with the building as well as smoke huts.

So back to the field worker how are their tasks measured?
Probably in broad terms there is an argument for it to be based on the number of tasks per day. So the question I ask myself is “has the same amount of consideration to what constitutes the whole task been taken into account?” i.e. fatigue and contingency which may then allow the engineer some latitude during the day.  The best way for this to be managed is so that it becomes an explicit activity which is visible and managed with discretion, either independently by the field worker or in conjunction with the control.  This then requires discussion and development between the management, the field worker and the control and becomes an explicit policy with attendant guides for application.

This might not mean the return of the café break but maybe a crafted compromise, say a team meeting which is 50% business 50% social intercourse with a bacon butty thrown in as well.  Businesses can achieve this by understanding the reality on the ground through early engagement with the key stakeholders.  This includes negotiation with those in the field and working out the art of the possible, trying it and compromise on both sides to achieve the joint goal.

This means that a change plan, or should we say change strategy, is developed.

What do we mean by change strategy?
It means sitting down and working out what the future working pattern could look like, who loses what and who gains and why. Are there things we can give away to make the transition easier, is there a new way of working which will allow the field worker to profit from the change as well?

In this new world where the level of communication multiplies via Task message, text and phone call, a new etiquette of communication needs to be developed.  A new expectation that the field worker is required to respond and in return the control centre (be it control room, Supervisor or Manager) is there to support and resolve issues though this may not always to the liking of the field worker.

Again this is part of the change plan or strategy.   I have seen control rooms largely subdued through the sheer belligerence of the field worker and the lack of key management support within the control room.  This is an issue that should be surfaced early on as it will take some effort and desire on behalf of the management to resolve this problem, and will usually involve a trade union and extended discussions. This again plays to developing a change strategy and good communications plan which sets out the future and how the dialogue with all the stakeholders will be conducted.

Through these processes we can model what the future may look, play scenarios through this model and understand the risks that the implementation of a new way of working.

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