Asset-heavy utilities are equipping their remote workers with the technology, skills and support to transform their operational efficiency. Denise Chevin reports.

The lasting impact of the pandemic is being felt in all corners of utility operations. The move for some staff from office to spare room might appear the most obvious shift, but those out in the field have also seen employment habits reshaped .

These armies of key workers who continue to keep services running during lockdown – linesmen, jointers, repair and maintenance crews and water network operatives – have also had to take on board new working practices overnight. At the physical level, that’s involved splitting up from work partners and driving around in singly occupied vans, social distancing on site, and applying new practices when visiting homes.

But it’s also been a transformative time where we’ve seen an acceleration in the adoption of technology.

Some companies were already well down the path of having apps on smartphones, toughbooks or rugged tablets to receive schedules, record job particulars, transfer information from field to site, and other related tasks. But even these have seen an acceleration in digital processes. The daily visits to the depot have been replaced with video calls from team managers while online training workshops and resources have become more readily accessible in bite-sized chunks from smart devices.

Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks is one organisation where the pandemic has propelled technology uptake. SSE has a field staff of about 1,500 from a total staff of 3,300 in central southern England and northern Scotland. Field roles are varied but involve mending overhead lines, underground cables, substation faults, restoring supplies and maintaining assets.

Mark Rough, director of customer operations at SSEN, explains: “Over the past three years we’ve equipped 2,500 workers with smartphones and provided rugged tablets to 1,000. Getting the right technology in the hands of our frontline teams was key, but it was only part of the puzzle. I would say that in the last 4-5 months the key shift is that we have really accelerated digital processes and embedded them into our ways of working.”

The upshot, says Rough, is increased productivity and customer satisfaction, and fewer cancellations of work in the field.

The biggest part of the digital rollout for SSEN has been the adoption of what Rough terms regional operating models. This has involved scheduling the location of jobs centrally and pushing them out to the field force. This move has been coupled with the development of easy-to-use software for reporting outcomes.

“We’ve created standardised forms so that the right information can be fed into regulatory reporting,” he says. “Workers can fill in a time sheet on line, so there is no need to check into the depot. By standardising forms and making it easy to use the apps the new system has been well received.”

Rough says the workforce has accepted the technology readily: “Most people use some of the technology already in their private lives so are used to the process, and where there has been follow up support required, we’ve delivering that. We recognised early on that trust is key to adoption.

“If we hadn’t invested in those types of tools, then dealing with Covid-19 would have been a more challenging place.”

While SSEN’s adoption of technology in the field has gathered pace in the wake of Covid, other companies have been on the same trajectory, as the pressure has mounted to increase efficiencies and improve customer satisfaction.

“These days we are looking to recruit those who are comfortable working with customers and who are competent and capable with technology,” says, Rachael Hollings, head of HR at Thames Water.

Neil Morrison, group HR director at Severn Trent, concurs, saying: “The skills we’re looking for have evolved over time. We’ve seen an increasing focus on the customer. It’s about helping people make the connections between the work that they’re doing and the service that customers get, rather than seeing it as a process in itself.

“In many cases, we don’t recruit on a skills base – it’s really looking at the strengths and attributes that the people have. We’ll teach a lot of the skills when people come in and join us. We’re investing £10 million in a state-of-the-art training academy in Coventry as part of our work to support this.”

The need for smart working

So far, industry players have been moving at different speeds to harness digital advances. But those who have digital processes well embedded talk of the need to keep software as easy to use as possible, and explain to the field teams why the collection of that data is important.

Here, we explore companies’ strategies, and what has changed as a result of Covid in more detail.

Thames Water

Embarking on a major overhaul of its operations is Thames Water, whose tough final determination from Ofwat for PR19 included a leakage reduction target of 20 per cent in the five years to 2025.

Rachael Hollings, head of HR, says: “We’re setting off on a journey to review how the water network business is structured, and how workers can take ownership for geographical patches. It’s early days, but it’s all about improving customer outcomes.”

Hollings says that nearly 3,500 of the 6,000 people who work for the water company are field based, operating and maintaining water and wastewater treatment facilities. “They could be on their own or dealing with customers, or working in the community operating the water network. So they would come into contact with people.

Hollings says that nine to 12 months ago Thames gave cloud-based office software technology to the field teams and it is now starting to refresh field devices.

“Alongside this we are upgrading our operational and work management systems with a new cloud-based system, which is being trialled with the wastewater network teams. This links contact information from customers directly to field force activity. At the moment all of this information is on different systems. The new approach will make a massive difference to the experience of customers and all our colleagues who deliver for our customers every day.”

The new software allows field workers to receive work schedules in real time on their devices and training will be made available virtually in bite-sized videos. “At Thames we have workers at both ends of the spectrum – those with 50 years of service through to the newly qualified. How they have wanted to engage is quite different,” says Hollings. She says that instead of coming into the depot for a briefing, they now communicate digitally. Thames has started holding union meetings using video conferencing software. “That has worked well. And our managers meet for a virtual conference rather than face to face. We’re finding the more people can do things virtually, the easier it is to get people together and the better the attendance.”

United Utilities

United Utilities has been a pioneer of using innovation to improve performance across the business and was rewarded in the PR18 review as being one of just three water companies whose plans were fast-tracked by Ofwat. It has pledged to cut customer bills by £50 a year and is harnessing technology to deliver operational efficiencies and improved service.

Of the 5,200 staff at United Utilities, 2,000 are out on the road or in treatment works. Teams are responsible for geographic areas and a local manager manages a team directly – reporting in to the heads of that region – and they have responsibility and resources to look after customers in that area.

“In one sense the area teams are the factory production team, with all the responsibility to get water services to customers at the lowest price,” says Simon Chadwick, digital services and central operations director at United Utilities.

Again, field staff at United Utilities communicate virtually using with collaboration workshops held remotely and digitally.

In the past five years controllers and water networks teams have all been given their own smartphone, says Chadwick, from which they can access live customer information, so if they are dealing with a problem, perhaps due to leaks or water pressure, they can view the history and also see if the customer is on the Priority Services Register.

The software solution used by United Utilities allows ease of integration with bespoke apps that the water company has developed in-house to provide resource and proforma for inputting data.

United Utilities has deployed 16 different apps which range from optimising processes for meter reading to checking environmental permits. Some, like the health and safety solution for example, encourage field staff to note good H&S practices and areas of possible concern. Data is fed into the central AI-based system which is able to look for trends. “If it spots common issues, it might then push out training content to the team,” Chadwick explains.

In parallel with digital technology being put in the hands of the workforce is a greater use of control and sensor technology at water and wastewater networks. An example would be systems that allow valves to be operated remotely to stop and start a treatment works. United Utilities is able to crunch data and issue alerts so that teams can be dispatched to fix it “before it arises”.

Western Power Distribution

WPD’s operations director Graham Halladay says that equipping remote workforces with iPads and in-house developed apps has improved customer service dramatically. Of WPD’s 6,500 employees, 70 per cent are in network operations. “When we first introduced iPads, some people had never used one, so to embed those into the business did take time. But we’ve been using mobile tech now for the past five or six years, and field staff now look at an iPad as any other tool.”

Field staff are able to access all the relevant information concerning the history of the job in hand, and their devices are equipped with apps to send back the updated information.

Equipping the iPads with a data Sim allows managers to carry out virtual meetings with their staff, which they are encouraged to do at least once a day.

“The reason we choose these devices is because of the ability to easily create your own applications,” explains Halladay. “We’ve currently got 25 different apps that we use, all of which have been developed in-house. Those cross over from safety to operations to customer service.”

Halladay continues: “Last year we developed and rolled out a single scheduling tool for all field workers in the business. Previously all of those people were scheduled using various different tools and that was done using various different tools across the business. But now we’ve got a single tool. In my desk here in Bristol, I can look at the schedule for a team that’s going to make a connection in Skegness tomorrow – it’s a central system.”

Halladay says that being able to collect data digitally offers huge benefits. “Historically, that data was collected on paper. That would come back into an office, and somebody would have to manually input that data into the system. But now, with the apps we have, that same data is collected electronically on the iPad and then automatically updated into the central system. Not only is that more efficient, it also improves the quality of the data because it’s being handled much less.

“The next phase of that is asset management, which we’re just starting, which is introducing QR codes, so all of our equipment will have QR codes on it. Then you can track it from the moment it comes into the business, being in the stores, going onto somebody’s vehicle, going into the network, through to being decommissioned from the network.

“The next stage of development, from a customer service perspective, is being able go into a customer’s property and provide them with a quote, to be able to schedule the work on the spot and then for the customer to be able to track that enquiry online, to be able to send reminders to them of what day we’re arriving, and being able to send them an estimated time of arrival [ETA] on the day.

“And we’re also developing the same capability for faults. We’ll be able to tell you the resource has been dispatched, what their ETA is this, the fact that they’ve arrived on site, and updates throughout the process, using both central systems and the mobile tech that we’ve got.”

Like other firms interviewed, WPD has also developed an app for data collection to boost health and safety. “Before, the risk assessments that have to be done on a daily basis before any work is started were a paper exercise. That’s now all done on the iPad.”

UK Power Networks

Technology implemented over the past few years has allowed field-based staff working for UK Power Networks (UKPN) to carry on business as usual without too much disruption, helped by the introduction of virtual collaboration tools down to the field level. Patrick Clarke, director of network operations at the company, says: “Everyone’s got a touchpad out there, with all their records and maps, and they return everything electronically. Everything has been designed to make it easy to input data.

“So if they’d done a job which modifies the network, they’ll complete something on the touchpad that shows what they’ve done to the network, which gets automatically sent back to the people who are updating the diagrams, or updating the control systems.

“They’ll capture data on when they expect to finish a job, so we can update the customers and provide great customer service.”

Andrew Pace, HR at director at UKPN, says explaining the importance of data collection to the workforce is key to making it work. “As we collect data through iPads, we can consolidate that data and spot trends – so we might be able to anticipate where the faults may be, for example, which benefits the customer.”

To make it even better, Clarke says UKPN is also exploring how it can provide customers with regular ETAs and work progress, as they would get from parcel couriers.

With most individuals having their own personal smart devices, Clarke admits that workers can be frustrated by the fact that work technology does not always keep pace with their mobile phones. “In a company like ours, resilience and security are really important, so we sometimes have to lock things down a lot more than you would get on a mobile phone, just to protect our network. For example, a lot of the things they’re going to do, they have to put a password in every time, unlike on your phone or laptop. It’s not as fluid as you’d get on a normal computer.”

Says Pace: “Our ambition is to get to a place where work technology mirrors our staff’s home-life technology. We’re not there yet, and there are good reasons why some things will never be exactly the same. But if we can use tech to make life simpler for people, then that’s perfect.”

The importance of engagement and communication

One area that all agree on is that technology can only bring maximum benefits if people are trained to use it properly.

“If you look at the industry, part of our workforce has struggled with digital literacy because it hasn’t been part of their lives. So how you help people to feel comfortable with that is really important in order to get the benefits of the investment you’ve put in,” says Neil Morrison, group HR director at ­Severn Trent.

Severn Trent has about 3,000 field workers, including repairs and maintenance teams, meter readers, water and waste water operatives, together with scientists and engineers.

“If people don’t trust the tech, they’ll tend to work manually around it, because they don’t trust that it’s going to do the right thing at the right time, so they’ll keep their own system,” says Morrison.

In making new technology stick, it’s also essential that it solves a problem people have – that way, they are motivated to use it. One example Morrison gives is the use of QR codes to be able to call up an instruction manual about a piece of equipment. “Something like that is very simple and attractive, because it’s existing consumer tech, but it’s being able to use it in a way that allows people to access information that they need to do their job, really quickly.”

UKPN’s Pace also emphasises the need for support: “There are lessons for us all in how to make sure that adoption of new tech is successful. One of the lessons we’ve learnt is not to put too much information on a touchpad,” says Pace.

“And we have consciously listened to that, and stripped back some of our systems, so that what’s being captured is really valuable, but also captured in a straightforward way that doesn’t frustrate our field staff.

“If you make it simple, you get great adoption, and vice versa. So, you can now, for example, claim your expenses when you’ve got ten minutes spare in your van, book your holiday instantly, know your time sheet has been calculated for you. If we can make those things easy, then the other things that we ask people to do are much better received.”

It is clear we are seeing a paradigm shift in working practices as utility companies move at pace to adopt digital processes for field workers. The availability of integrated software that allows reports of malfunctioning energy and water supplies, for example, to be used to schedule and dispatch a team to fix it – and potentially tell the customer when they can expect a crew to arrive – is leading to more agile working that can optimise efficiencies and boost customer services.