Some of my ideas are original. This one isn’t. I’m glad to say that it isn’t, because I come across so many bright minds in the field of service management. One of those minds is Steve Nava (www.linkedin.com/in/stevenava1) at Luminex Corporation, Austin, TX. In a recent conversation with Steve, he spoke about his intent to extend the concept of an open office to his field service workforce. What a novel idea.
When we typically think about open offices, we think about a traditional workspace or floor plan that promotes visibility and collaboration. But what about improved visibility and increased collaborative opportunities for those who call their van or truck an office.
I was reminded of my discussion with Steve on a recent trip to meet customers in Columbus, OH. While ‘working’ at a local Starbucks, I noticed a fleet of four service vans parked right next to each other. These vans belonged to the same service provider, a large HVAC and facilities management organization. The four field service agents responsible for these vans weren’t working collaboratively on a site or a project, but they sure were collaborating and developing camaraderie over coffee. This went on for exactly 25 minutes at which time all four vans departed and went on their separate ways.
Connecting with the Field is Essential
I imagine that this form of collaboration is repeated several times a week across service teams all over the world. It’s probably something that drives dispatchers and service managers crazy, given the desire to push utilization to its maximum. But in my mind, it's a good thing. Field service agents need to be connected to their organizations. Otherwise, they can get very isolated in their work and profession, which is typically one that comes with long hours of driving and working solo. In our recent Field Service 2016: The Technician’s Perspective report, the feeling of isolation was one area that field service agents disliked most about their roles. This was true, regardless of experience level, but felt much more so among field workers who had recently entered the service workplace.
There is a great opportunity to extend the concept of the open office to field service agents. Not only can this drive a higher level of collaboration and innovation in the field service ranks, it can drive a higher level of knowledge sharing across the organization. The wealth of knowledge about customer issues, product challenges, and procedure failures, built into the minds of these technicians is significant.
Structured knowledge management efforts to capture this information are essential to the survival of service businesses, but unstructured sessions and meet ups can also be extremely beneficial to the organization. Not to mention the benefit gained by the field service agents, in terms of engagement, loyalty, and commitment.
Steps to the Open Office
Organizations have engaged in various strategies to create a more open and collaborative field service working space. Several have scheduled frequent meetings for their field service teams, where these agents are allowed to collaborate and partner on topics of technology, customer management, and safety. Safety, as a topic, gets everyone’s attention, given how it impacts every single individual in the field.
Other organizations are creating mentorship or apprenticeship type of programs where technicians from one region are paired with those from another region for a period of time. This is typically done at the point of hire, but can also be done on a rotation or continuous basis to foster collaboration across geographies. Several companies also host technician competitions or retreats that allow for improved communication and collaboration. Retreats are typically reserved for the top sales agents, but why not for top service agents?
Some organizations have resorted to the use of technology to create a tighter knit technician community. For instance, at Luminex, field service agents get greater access to the entire team’s service workload via their field service application. Therefore, agents aren’t just looking at their own work and their own parts, but they’re also able to access the workload of others on their team. As a result, field service agents can support one another in the time of need and can also work towards improving service delivery to customers as a team. This requires a culture of customer-centricity and collaboration, one that Steve is very interested in driving. Field service agents who just want to do their own work aren’t the best performers in this type of model.
Other organizations are also using technology in novel ways. Messaging or collaboration platforms such as Slack or HipChat are being extended to the field. Other platforms such as Zinc (formerly Cotap) and TigerText are being developed specifically for dispersed field-based workforces. Video and mixed reality tools offered by organizations such as Librestream, Help Lightning, XOEye, and PTC, are used for remote assistance and field-based training. Demos for Microsoft’s Hololens solution promise an environment where field technicians can collaborate with each other on repair procedures and more, in a virtual meeting environment.
We’ve also seen organizations resort to gamification to promote collaboration and recognition. Recognition is a wonderful elixir for isolation. We’ve seen gamification being used effectively to promote safety, as in the case of a TSC member organization providing access to safety scores and leaderboards to field service agents on their mobile devices.
At the end of the day, field service agents like their coffee and donuts. They like working collaboratively. Maybe we let them have their coffee. Coffee doesn't have to be for closers only.