Article | May 5, 2020

How Automation Steps In When Our Workforce Steps Out

Source: Zinier
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Our world runs on field service.

That truth has never been more evident – or starkly presented – than in the last few months, as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the world and forces billions of people inside.

As we implement social distancing measures to slow the virus’ spread, organizations are finding creative ways to collaborate and get work done.

Unfortunately, not every job can be done from home. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there are 16 critical infrastructure sectors – from communications to healthcare – considered so vital to the country that any disruption would have a “debilitating effect” on national security, public health, and the economy.

These industries – and the field service teams that support them – are key to maintaining some semblance of normalcy during this pandemic.

More than ever, we need steady power to light our homes. We need reliable wireless networks to keep us connected, whether we are working from home, browsing the internet for updates, or checking in with friends and loved ones.

For field service leaders, that means one thing: it may not be business as usual, but it’s more important than ever to minimize service disruptions, streamline operations, and prioritize employee safety.

Maintaining operations during COVID-19

One of the biggest challenges for field service organizations right now is the inability to reliably forecast technician availability.

According to a recent report by the Edison Electric Institute, up to 40 percent of utility employees could be out sick, quarantined, or at home caring for sick family members as the pandemic spreads.

For field service leaders, that means the traditional approach of scheduling technicians weeks in advance is no longer good enough.

Organizations need to be able to respond quickly to changes in the field, from unplanned outages to technicians calling out sick.

Slow, manually driven processes are ill-equipped to keep up with the number of tasks that will need to be reassigned in the months ahead – especially when coordinator bandwidth is in question.

One solution is using intelligent automation to drive just-in-time scheduling. Instead of relying on coordinators to do everything manually, just-in-time scheduling monitors the progress of each technician and automatically reassigns tasks to ensure everything gets done on time.

If a technician finishes a task early, just-in-time scheduling can even fill that unexpected gap with another task, such as dropping off a spare part at another job site.

Supplementing your workforce with intelligent automation

As the pandemic continues to evolve, field service leaders will need to make hard choices about where and how to prioritize work.

With so many projects in limbo, it’s difficult to forecast work more than a week out. Even worse, there’s no way to ensure that there will be enough coordinators to manage daily field operations – or technicians to carry out the work.

What organizations can do is supplement their traditional workforce with technology, such as intelligent automation.

By leveraging AI to automate routine tasks, field service leaders are able to help their teams work smarter, faster, and more efficiently.

Here are three ways intelligent automation can help you maintain service during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Support on-demand workers

As the pandemic continues to impact workforces, internal resources alone will not be able to keep up with the number of outstanding tickets.

Fortunately, most field service organizations have already started investing in programs designed to support an on-demand workforce.

A popular approach is the use of step-by-step mobile workflows, which reduces the need for specialized training and provides the back office with real-time visibility into the status of each work order.

By tracking a technician’s progress through a workflow, organizations can predict whether they will finish on time – and if not, take the appropriate action to prevent other tasks from falling behind.

Intelligent automation also helps field teams work smarter and faster by automating routine tasks, whether it’s capturing and uploading data or verifying work. By freeing people to focus on higher-value tasks, organizations are able to drive productivity and minimize the impact of a reduced workforce.

With intelligent automation and a fluid, highly connected workforce, organizations are able to:

  • Minimize the impact of tribal knowledge with step-by-step mobile workflows and on-demand knowledge libraries.
  • Build a fast-moving, adaptable workforce that can swarm hot spots and ensure consistent service.
  • Optimize each task and technician by automatically assigning routine work to new hires and on-demand crews.

2. Prioritize worker safety

When it comes to worker safety, field service presents a unique challenge because some percentage of it has to happen in public spaces. Field teams need to be on-site to repair most breaks. If a task requires some degree of customer interaction, that creates an additional risk factor.

There’s no way to transform field service into a touchless industry overnight, but organizations can use automation to minimize the amount of personal interaction.

Instead of sending technicians into the field to do routine site checks, organizations can look at real-time data and historical trends to determine the health of each asset. Many of the issues that would normally be triaged in person can instead be handled remotely.

If a site visit is required, organizations can shift schedules to avoid having technicians go during peak hours.

In the field, purpose-built mobile devices can also help limit personal interaction. If a work order typically requires a signature, organizations can ask clients to instead accept photos as proof of work, eliminating the need for pens and devices to be passed between people.

3. Reduce the burden on your back office

Even before the spread of COVID-19, one of the biggest challenges for coordinators was the amount of manual work required to do just about anything, from scheduling technicians to verifying work.

Because coordinators spend most of their day chasing down updates and putting out fires, coordinator to technician ratios can run as low as 1 to 4.

That’s a big problem when coordinator availability is no longer a given. Any reduction in the number of coordinators could leave field teams adrift.

Some organizations, like the New York Power Authority, have considered quarantining their control room operators on-site. Others have looked for ways to reduce the number of coordinators present at a given time.

With intelligent automation, coordinators are able to support more technicians because they no longer have to spend time on routine tasks.

Instead of calling technicians in the field for updates, coordinators get an alert if a task is falling behind. Instead of manually reviewing each close-out package, AI-driven anomaly detection tells them if a close-out package needs closer review.

Where do we go from here?

The next few months will bring as much uncertainty as any of us have ever seen. There’s no playbook to reference, no clear timeline for when things will return to normal – or even what that ‘normal’ will look like.

Across almost every industry, organizations are feeling the economic impact of COVID-19. Utility companies are already reporting reduced consumption, as major events around the world are canceled and businesses scale back their operations.

One week after Italy’s lockdown began, the country saw an 18 to 21 percent reduction in peak demand and usage. In the United States, local utilities are reporting slight declines in system demand.

As the pandemic spreads, it’s difficult for organizations to predict what’s next. We expect there to be some form of global recession, but how wide (and deep) is still to be determined.

What that means for consumer habits, capital investment projects, even the future of work is unclear. But one thing is certain: the need for smarter, faster, more efficient field service has never been greater.