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What could the future of field work look like?

The transformation of office-based work has rightly been a big talking point over the last 18 months. Yet one of the most significant forms of work seems to have slipped somewhat under the radar. Following on from our Productivity research, Lucy Clayton, Head of Business Thought Leadership Marketing at O2, takes a look at the impact of change on the individuals and organisations involved in field service work.

Field work isn’t simple to define. It includes everyone from the classic road-warrior-sales-types through to community nurses and construction workers. Sometimes it can be hard to see the changes that affect such diverse roles. So it’s easy to assume because most field work activity takes place away from an office that disruption doesn’t apply.

But it’s clear from conversations we’ve had with O2 Business customers that field work is changing. It’s just a steadier process and driven by different factors compared with the transformation of office-based work.

So what are those drivers of change and what does the future of field work look like?

In our insights paper, ‘Is your field force evolving to meet current needs?, we talked to O2 experts to gather different perspectives on the disruption and digitisation of field work.

Looking through a different lens

These included unique perspectives on how the global pandemic affected not just organisations and individual field workers but also society as a whole. In particular, the way that we now expect the same super-fast, super-convenient service in person that we do online. And how COVID-19 restrictions have created a backlog of work that means field workers are caught between rising demand and a lack of resources.

This has made people ask whether there are better ways to undertake field work. Not just the incremental gains in the fundamentals of field work. Namely, efficiency, productivity, health and safety, and customer service. But transformational changes that could create entirely new ways of doing things or new sources of revenue.

Some O2 Business customers told us they were questioning why anyone would still send engineers up a 20ft ladder or out into a busy road to dig a ditch. Others have wanted to know how technology can improve the care they provide to at-risk patients who still want to live independently at home.

One perspective captured in the insights paper asks us to consider the ability to make these kinds of transformations in the style of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In a revised version of the classic pyramid, field work is shown to be founded on network connectivity. This is what keeps people in touch with base operations and is the need that underpins everything else on the pyramid (efficiency). Next up are the devices that help people do their jobs (productivity) and keep them out of harm’s way (health and safety). Beyond that is the data related to improving customer service and the employee experience. If those needs are fulfilled then – and only then – can organisations introduce the kind of big ticket changes that radically alter the way field work is undertaken.

Step-change not small change

These new ways of working aren’t about change for change’s sake. They’re about redefining the role of field work in people’s lives and making things easier for individuals and organisations to meet changing societal needs.

For example, a combination of self-service technology, digital tools and a different mindset means Tesla can service its cars in the UK without a network of garages. Smart watches that monitor people’s vital signs are reducing the need for timed visits to patients – letting them just get on with their lives knowing someone can come to their aid at any time. And Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and 5G private networks are enabling people and robots to work safely side-by-side in busy factories.

All this is already happening. And advances in mobile connectivity will continue to influence advances in field work. As the insight paper explores, medical suppliers are already trialling the use of drones to reduce waiting times for life-saving medicines. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) could make unplanned outages a thing of the past and reduce the demand for costly emergency interventions. And remote operated machinery – controlled by experts using AR headsets – could improve safety for field workers by taking them out of dangerous working environments.

The insights paper also goes on to say that these potential futures for field work will be difficult to achieve alone. The number of organisations involved in the drone delivery trials demonstrates how an ecosystem of partners is crucial to handling the complexity of change.

Yet being able to look beyond making smaller changes in the fundamentals of field work towards new ways of adding value could be the most significant transformational step you can take.

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