The last 18 months have been described as a big leveller, with organisations and individuals across the globe facing many of the same challenges. For the former, one of those challenges has been the question: how to engage and empower – and increase the productivity of your field staff when all they are out of sight or working from home? But just as the idea that ‘we’re all in this together’ is actually not true, with countries worldwide having very different experiences of the pandemic, neither is the idea that organisations everywhere are facing the same issues of maintaining productivity.

Because there are many industries that have always had employees working remotely. Organisations with field service workers are a case in point. And it’s to them that those new to the idea can turn for advice…

Common barriers to productivity in field service staff

COVID has increased these with unusual impediments to work processes, such as field service staff turning up to provide maintenance on-site and being unable to proceed wth their tasks due to access issues and, with the prevalence of home working, difficulty in accessing site contacts when on-site. At the same time, businesses that service commercial operations have experienced the impacts of fewer staff working within those buildings, with such services as lifts and HVAC running at reduced capacity or shut down completely.

Even without the influence of a pandemic though, productivity in field service staff can be negatively impacted by:

  • excess travel times or non-productive time spent at the depot
  • not knowing how to gain access or where to go on the site once they arrive
  • inaccurate or incomplete task information – if field workers don’t have all the information or the tools they need, they may have to make return visits to complete the work, and
  • lack of adherence to start/finish times and break time compliance.

Steps to increasing productivity

Training – No matter what the role, for an employee to carry it out successfully they need to have full and proper training before they begin. But things change, roles evolve and technology progresses. So training needs to be regular and ongoing, so that field staff are always up to speed on any advancements to their systems that assist them in doing their jobs.

Providing parameters – Once a field service worker has completed the requisite training they need to know exactly what is expected of them – what their goals are, and how and when they need to accomplish them.

Clear instructions as to the work to be performed on-site are vital, particularly if the technician doesn’t have local knowledge. Ensure they are always provided with instructions on directions, access, parking and key contacts once they arrive.

Consider utilising both carrots and sticks. It can be said that ‘Control without consequences is not control’. Ensure that you clearly explain the likely negative outcomes for the company if benchmarks aren’t met, but also the probable positive ones for both organisation and employee. Field staff need to understand their boundaries and the importance of adhering to start, finish and break times.

Internal reward schemes can be a great incentive for field service workers to concentrate on their output and work towards planned achievements, but such rewards don’t always need to be financial – career progression and CPD (continuing professional development) are good too. But make time to pause along the way. It can take time to reach targets, so acknowledging and celebrating small accomplishments on the journey is a good way to keep staff feeling engaged and appreciated.

Time management and setting priorities – Successful self-starters are those who know how to use their time well and perform their tasks while prioritising the most important ones. You may find employees for whom this knowledge seems to be innate, but you’re far more likely to find that field staff need assistance in this area. Identify which of your field workers fall into the former category and then spend time with the others teaching them how to set their schedules and allot their time accordingly. And emphasise the importance of focusing on one thing at a time and completing that before moving on to the next job. The idea of multi-tasking being not only possible but a preferred method of working is one of the great furphys of our age and should be discouraged.

Offering flexibility – While it’s important to set the expected parameters for your field service workers, it’s also advisable to offer as much flexibility as this framework will allow. Staff working remotely who believe they are trusted and given a degree of flexibility in the way they carry out their tasks, rather than being forced into a rigid schedule, are likely to replay that trust by performing at their best when at work. In a similar way, although it may be hard to resist, it’s important not to micromanage when delegating tasks. Many managers only feel secure when they know exactly what all of their direct reports are doing at every single second of the working day. But what this does is evoke resentment and annoyance in the worker. And a resentful and annoyed worker is unlikely to be a productive one.

Enabling engagement – Rather than continually looking over your field service workers’ shoulders, keep them engaged in more meaningful ways. A daily or weekly huddle only needs to last for a short time but can pay dividends in helping to keep staff motivated, increasing a focus on goals and checking in on their well-being. All of these factors will also lead to greater productivity levels.

While team building events such as the proverbial paintball competition may have limited appeal today, the impetus for such strategies still stands. What joint activities can you organise to make work more enjoyable? Especially activities that bring disparate staff together every so often to bond and share experiences? If resentful and grumpy workers are unproductive, happy and engaged workers are nearly always the opposite.

Communication and technology – Last but certainly not least, concise, clear and consistent communication is key. As are the technological tools to help field service workers carry out their jobs to the best of their ability. Consider supplying:

  • tools that provide transparency of what is happening in real time
  • location and map information with GPS data to better manage staff allocation and territories
  • remote and diagnostic/intervention tools to either preclude the necessity of a site visit altogether or ensure the technician is much better equipped when they do arrive, including bringing the correct spare parts
  • centralised work distribution, and
  • business intelligence tools to map field productivity and identify issues that may need intervention or further training.

All of this can be facilitated by a software system that aids and promotes all of the above steps. The right field service management software effectively automates manual processes, takes over scheduling, tracks job progress, manages the task dispatch process, and ensures efficient and real-time communication between the office-based management team and their worker in the field.  It is integral to creating the ideal conditions for optimal productivity and growth.

By: Chris Calamos, CEO Retriever Communications