May 11, 2020 •
In an article exclusively for Field Service News, Laurent Othacéhé, CEO at Cognito iQ says service engineers workloads are increasing and stress levels rising. He shares insight from some of the firm's customers, including Baxi and Serco, to see how they're adapting to the new covid-19 environment.
Here in Covid-19 world, we are rightly hearing a lot about the key workers who are keeping the country running: the doctors, nurses and carers, the supermarket staff and the postmen and women.
Field Service Engineers working Through Lockdown
But we don’t hear so much about another group of essential workers – the field service technicians and engineers - who are also putting themselves at risk to do their jobs whilst the rest of us are on lockdown.
Field service workers are key workers too
At Cognito iQ, we work with customers in a wide variety of industries, such as HVAC, healthcare, and facilities management (FM); what they all have in common is that they have field-based technicians who are currently facing unprecedented challenges.
Field-based workers don’t have the option that many of us do, to work from home, spend more time with our families and stay safe indoors. These unsung heroes have had to keep going whilst their jobs are changing around them, to develop new working practices and to continue going into homes and workplaces, whilst attempting to maintain social distancing.
Many of the services they provide are classed as essential – repairing boilers or healthcare equipment for example - and we’ve heard countless stories from our customers of how they are transitioning to support their field-based employees so they can look after customers in need.
New procedures add stress
One of the key issues is in equipping field-based technicians with personal protective equipment (PPE), so they can go into people’s homes or workplaces. As well as sourcing the equipment and distributing it, technicians must be trained in how to use it safely and effectively. Masks and protective clothing can be uncomfortable and restrictive, particularly for workers in hot or humid environments.
This is stressful for technicians, and it also makes it harder for them to complete tasks in normal timescales. They also need additional time in between tasks to remove PPE, wash and eat safely. On top of this, they have to develop new working practices. For example, an engineer can no longer just put his toolbox down on your kitchen worktop – the box must be sanitised, and not moved again until the job is completed. Technicians also need to maintain social distancing to protect themselves and their customers. This applies not only in customer premises, but also anywhere that technicians gather, such as central locations for picking up tools, parts or deliveries.
"It has been impossible for managers to predict how much work they would have during the lockdown period..."
Danny Rayner, Service Operations Manager at Baxi said: “During Covid-19 we are working with our engineers to develop new procedures that ensure we can keep them and our customers safe. This includes the provision of PPE alongside increased housekeeping measures, such as counting tools in and out and sanitising them between tasks. In addition to the practical measures we have put in place, the mental wellbeing of our staff is at the forefront of everything we do. Mobile tech has meant that our field-based staff can access help and guidance, and daily vlogs from our CEO David Pinder have kept them informed of company and industry updates.”
Workloads are high
It has been impossible for managers to predict how much work they would have during the lockdown period. Many field service businesses have seen huge drops in demand and have had to furlough their employees. Others are struggling to meet the demand they do have with a workforce that is reduced through sickness and self-isolation. Often companies are managing both situations at once. Serco is pleased to report some unexpected demand. Serco designed, built and implemented the London Cycle Hire scheme for Transport for London.
The company now uses field-based maintenance staff to keep the fleet of bikes up and running. David Schofield, Head of Technology & Analytics at Serco, said: “At the beginning of the lockdown period we experienced a steep drop in cycle hire, which we expected. However, we have been surprised and pleased to discover that there is still a considerable demand for our bikes, albeit at a lower level than before. A free code for NHS staff and other key workers has been created and utilised over 20 thousand times as a safe way to get to work and get exercise at the same time. Travelling by bike is particularly appealing when the tubes are crowded and the roads are quieter, so keeping the fleet maintained is a priority.”
Quieter roads are a bright spot for field-based technicians, reducing travel times and making journeys more pleasant. However, with many workforces being cut, some technicians are having to cover a wider area, which can negate this advantage, and add to the stress for the individual, who has to do more driving and end their shift further from home.
The field service industry was already facing a shortage of skilled engineers, so finding extra staff to cover customer appointments is tough. There is also the issue of bringing new staff on board, and equipping them with mobile devices, uniforms, PPE and parts, as well as training them in company processes and in health and safety procedures, all whilst socially distancing.
What can service companies do to help their heroes?
T Brown, provide services to the social housing sector. The company has put a number of measures in place to help employees, and to protect residents, some of whom are vulnerable. Emily Gardiner, HR & Communications Director at T Brown explained more. “Where many organisations have slowed down and furloughed employees, our front-line engineers remain steadfast and committed to ensuring that, even during these challenging times, we can continue to deliver critical services,” she said. “In doing so, their safety, and that of their families, is paramount. From the outset PPE has been the primary agenda item for the Board, and we have communicated to our staff members and clients that if an activity cannot be undertaken safely, due to a lack of suitable PPE, or social distancing implemented, then it should not take place. Scripts to assess if a resident is shielding now form part of the Customer Service Centre process when booking appointments, and further checks are carried out until the point where the engineer arrives.
"People who work in field service industries have always been key workers, they always will be, and we salute them..."
“We have prioritised our work requirements to ensure that we are able to assist the most vulnerable residents and to attend emergencies in order to minimise the disruption of services during this lockdown period. We are also taking steps above and beyond to serve our communities and aid the NHS by building interim field hospitals and, where possible, providing free boiler repairs to NHS Workers, who live within our contract areas, so that they have one less thing to deal with at this time.”
At Cognito iQ, we recommend that field service companies consider these measures to protect their employees, whilst continuing to deliver great service to customers.
- Build in extra time - new procedures are making planning and scheduling difficult – existing standards for task duration, and expectations about productivity don’t apply and technicians need some slack built in to help them work without pressure.
- Keep in touch – communicating with field-based employees is always important but now it is essential, not only in ensuring that technicians know about new procedures and safety measures but also in helping them feel connected and motivated.
- Take advantage of technology – keeping in touch via Zoom calls or using the messaging capabilities on mobile workflow apps can help to build morale.
- Be aware of stress and mental health issues – your staff who are working may feel under a lot of additional pressure, especially if they are also home schooling or looking after vulnerable family members. Check in regularly and make it clear that their health and wellbeing is a priority.
- Put new call centre procedures in place too – your call centre staff can help by contacting customers in advance to find out about their needs for distancing, or if access to premises is restricted – a particular problem in FM. They can also reassure customers about safety procedures.
- Analyse your field service data – look for what has changed, what the new normal looks like and where problems are occurring. This will help you stay on top of a continually changing situation and make your field-based employees’ jobs easier.
- Boost morale by supporting others – in a crisis people, people typically want to help, so to know that your company is contributing to the wider community - Baxi and T Brown offering free boiler repairs to NHS staff and Serco offering free cycle hire - can be motivational.
The situation we find ourselves in is extraordinary. People all over the world have changed radically, in a short space of time and it remains to be seen which behaviours and attitudes will stick, when this is all over, and which will be quickly forgotten. At Cognito iQ, we’d like to think that the respect and admiration for the NHS and other key workers will continue; people who work in field service industries have always been key workers, they always will be, and we salute them.