The Key To A Successful Field Service Management Workforce? Digital Collaboration Tools

Francesco Benvenuto
November 9, 2023

Utilities face major hurdles to keep their costs low, profits high, and workers safe. Deploying digital collaboration tools is the solution. 

Utilities are in turbulent times. 

Shifting global geopolitical norms, cutthroat competition, evolving customer expectations, and heightening emissions standards have put mounting pressure on utilities, forcing them to reassess their approaches to profitability and productivity. Consequently, the field service management workforce is also experiencing these pains and will increasingly need to deploy innovative digital solutions to address them. 

In fact, bolstering productivity with technology is the top-ranked priority of field service organizations in 2023. As utilities work to provide stronger customer service experiences, increase first-time fix rates, and streamline worker safety procedures, they’ll need to turn to digital collaboration tools for help. In this article, we’ll explore four common challenges utilities face in the modern energy landscape, as well as how digital collaboration tools can mitigate those issues. 

What’s Getting Utilities Down?

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, four major challenges are critically hampering utility productivity gains: 

1.   Increasing Asset Volumes

As global energy markets transition to renewable energy sources, utilities must integrate new sets of assets with their existing ones. According to a recent Deloitte report, the influx of renewables and distributed energy resources (DER) means that utilities are managing 10 times more assets than they were 20 years ago. As this figure is predicted to grow, collaboration technologies will be pivotal in helping utilities manage greater asset volumes and maintain 100% uptime. 

2.   A Widening Skill Gap

Around 50% of the utilities workforce will retire over the next decade. As companies lose experienced personnel, they lose collective knowledge and human capital, too. This puts the next generation of incoming workers at a disadvantage; instead of learning from highly experienced individuals, new employees are tasked with “learning by doing” and must gain experience quickly on the job. Ultimately, the loss of experienced personnel puts companies at risk for lowered performance rates. 

3.   Sub-Optimal First-Time Fix Rates

Deploying field technicians to service sites is a hefty expenditure of time and resources. It’s in the utilities’ best interests to ensure repairs are completed with one visit, minimizing the need to return to the site to conduct follow-up repairs. On average, utilities send out an additional 1.6 dispatches to resolve an issue if it isn’t addressed the first time around, and low first-time fix rates can quickly add up for field service management organizations.

4.   Field Worker Safety Challenges

Worker safety is a paramount concern for utilities, given the inherently dangerous nature of their operations and the diverse range of tasks their employees perform. Timely execution of asset maintenance activities is critical to enhance worker safety and minimize exposure to hazardous scenarios. It’s paramount for utilities to ensure employees are always up to date with certifications and safety training. Moreover, field management workers must be able to perform accurate and real-time field data collection to reduce the risk of human error. 

How Field Collaboration Technology Solves These Core Challenges

According to Gartner, 40% of utility distribution companies already plan to deploy augmented reality-powered collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and machine learning tools to optimize field technicians’ capabilities. These field collaboration technology solutions provide field service management workforce with distinct advantages, including:

  • Augmented Collaboration: Advanced collaboration features to assist, guide, and train physically separate workers, leveraging AR features and annotations, content sharing features, and digital work instructions. 
  • Digital Work Instructions: Step-by-step digital work instructions to guide technicians in the execution of tasks, directly in the field.
  • Knowledge Management: AI-driven knowledge management captures, enhances, and redistributes expertise to drive continuous improvement. 

Let’s explore how these capabilities can mitigate the four challenges highlighted earlier.

Field Collaboration Software Streamlines Asset Management

Field collaboration technology enables utilities to monitor assets as they are deployed in real time. Sensors and IoT devices can be deployed to gather data on asset health, performance, and potential issues. This data can then be analyzed to detect anomalies, predict maintenance needs, and schedule preventive maintenance before assets fail.

Collaboration solutions also include remote diagnostics capabilities, which enable field technicians to connect with experts in real time. This reduces downtime as experts can guide technicians through troubleshooting and repairs, even when they are not physically present on-site.

Digital Collaboration Narrows The Skills Gap

Retirees may exit the workforce, but that shouldn’t mean their knowledge should leave with them. Utilities can use digital collaboration tools to document critical knowledge about equipment, work processes, and assets. 

By harvesting, accessing, and sharing content, digital collaboration tools democratize knowledge and enable organizations to successfully tackle the skills gaps or generational shifts. These tools can also connect newer workers to experts — through remote calls similar to Zoom or FaceTime — for daily work and training purposes.  

We can look to German energy giant EnBW as an example; after implementing digital collaboration software with augmented reality and machine learning features, technicians could rely on videos previously recorded by expert colleagues and available in a training repository, available 24/7. This had a direct impact on the company’s ability to foster innovation, streamline employee training, and enhance productivity.

Collaboration Tools Boost First-Time Fix Rates

Digital collaboration software can significantly boost first-time fix rates for field service workers by improving communication, access to information, and problem-solving capabilities. Workers can access manuals, diagrams, and historical data in real time using digital collaboration tools. This immediate access to information helps technicians quickly diagnose issues and determine the right solutions, reducing the need for return visits.

Field workers can use collaboration software to connect with experts or colleagues in real time, even when they’re not physically present at the site. This allows them to receive guidance, share live video feeds, and collaborate on troubleshooting, increasing the likelihood of resolving complex problems on the first visit.

Hands-Free Collaboration Reinforces Worker Safety

Field collaboration empowers safer work environments even in hazardous areas — all while reducing costs due to accidents or injuries. Hands-free devices ensure technician safety and guide fieldworkers in executing complex and risk-sensitive tasks, helping them access critical data, documentation, and communications on demand.

Digital collaboration also improves health and safety standards by enhancing safety training. Leveraging virtual reality, digital collaboration improves how employees experience e-learning, making training accessible from anywhere, including on immersive head-mounted displays and tablets. It engages users in a powerful yet configurable virtual or immersive training, providing a realistic and immersive 3D environment for them to gain a complete understanding of any equipment or procedure.

Consider the hands-free solutions deployed by Italgas, Italy’s largest gas distributor. The company leveraged hands-free via voice-controlled systems to resolve complex issues quickly and safely, all while avoiding additional travel or costly service downtime in extremely restricted zones.

The future of the field service management workforce

In the rapidly changing utility landscape, adopting digital collaboration tools emerges as the key to overcoming the challenges faced by field service workers every day.

Utilities grapple with surging asset volumes, a widening skills gap, low first-time fix rates, and critical worker safety concerns. Digital collaboration technology offers a promising solution and is already being leveraged by forward-thinking utilities. These tools empower field management personnel with augmented collaboration, digital work instructions, and advanced knowledge management capabilities. 

By addressing the core challenges utilities face, digital collaboration software streamlines asset management, narrows the skills gap, increases first-time fix rates, and empowers worker health and safety. As utilities embrace this technological evolution, they stand better equipped to enhance operational efficiency, reduce costs, and deliver the high-quality services expected in the ever-evolving energy sector.

Ready to send your productivity and worker safety standards skyward? Get in touch to learn how OverIT’s collaboration solutions can help. 

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