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BT field-based workers use the digital workplace

10.25.2013
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I read Jane McConnell’s latest blog post ‘Floor-field workforce: the forgotten people?‘ with great interest.  I agree with Jane that office workers are currently the main focus for digital workplace transformations.  But there are some enterprises who lead the game for field-based workers.

It reminded me of when I was the BT intranet manager.  BT had employees who worked mainly from offices or while mobile or remotely from home or local hubs. I was involved in a project to give everyone, including field-based workers, access to BT’s intranet and developing digital workplace.  The project was seen as key to BT’s overall transformation as a business and was closely linked to wider strategic business priorities that included, higher customer service, improved employee productivity, and reduced office and travel costs.

The hardest part of this transformation was equipping all the field-based engineers who visited customers at their homes or places of work.  At the time BT had around 30,000 field engineers spread across the whole of the UK.  Some places were very remote and customers in difficult places to get to.  But this was not just a change of technology project.  It would bring about a huge change in how engineers worked and behaved with other team members, manager, everyone in BT and most importantly their customers.

Equipping every engineer with a laptop or smartphone with access to the digital workplace to upload and download customer progress reports and next job was expensive and technically complex.  The time needed to plan, test and implement for so many people didn’t encourage senior managers to commit easily to this project when quick results counted.  Because of these factors – cost, complexity, time to roll out – BT’s field engineers were the last group to be connected to the digital workplace.

To answer Jane’s point, the field-based engineers were not forgotten in BT but prioritised with everyone else because it wasn’t easy, quick, or cheap to achieve or for business benefits to be realised.

Before the transformation engineers would meet at the start of each day at one location to be given their work by their manager and to plan their routes from there to the each customer’s home or place of work.  They shared knowledge with their team members over a cup of tea before they started on traffic problems, technical tips, new products coming soon, etc.  Any news was given by their manager before they left for their first visit either individually or if appropriate together in an informal meeting.

After the transformation field-based engineers downloaded their first job (not their day’s work schedule) at home using their laptop and free broadband  connection to the online work tool in the digital workplace.  Travel was straight from their home to their first customer saving time and costs – there was no visit to their usual location at the start of each day.  When each customer’s visit was successfully completed the engineer uploaded this outcome to the online tool and be informed of the next customer to visit and what the work involved.  At the end of each day the engineers go home.  They were able to use the digital workplace to read the latest information about BT the same as everyone else.

As I said earlier it wasn’t just a technology project but more about changes to working practices which had been the same for decades.  It was very difficult for everything and everyone to benefit when this amount of change is made.  There have been many benefits but some drawbacks.

The biggest benefits were increased productivity with engineers able to go to their first customer visit straight from home.  The digital workplace was resilient and always available so the online tool could be trusted 24/7 to accept and provide work updates.  Customer service also improved with more flexibility in times for customer visits and quicker changes to work schedules.  Less buildings were needed with home starts with huge savings in costs.

Culturally for the first time in a long while field-based engineers felt part of the same BT team again.  Access to information and news on the digital workplace helped to remove a perception that they were missing out on important information affecting them.

But there were some drawbacks.  Engineers didn’t like the isolation.  It meant they did not see their team members for days sometimes and their manager less frequently.  Many found it hard to adjust to the new approach and considered leaving risking a huge loss of knowledge from BT.

BT has tried with limited success to replace the face-to-face sharing of knowledge with technology.  The limited time and lack of contact did not encourage a huge takeup with its impact on unsolved problems.  In my view tools like Yammer and Jive can supplement some face-to-face contact but they can’t completely replace the absence of it.

The inability to decide how to schedule their work brought a sense of disengagement and lack of empowerment that affected their job satisfaction if it did increase productivity.  A slow burning issue that needs to be resolved.

To again answer Jane’s point, the field-based engineers were connected with the digital workplace but it is not technology changes which are the biggest challenge but the human changes that need most attention.

Published at DZone with permission of Mark Morrell, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)