The future of work in the field

Debate rages about the best way to work – at home, in the office, or a combination. Yet the conversation around digital workplaces often overlooks the fact that many people don’t work in an office and can’t work from home. That doesn’t mean they should be excluded. Technologies such as 5G, AR and IoT could revolutionize the efficiency and safety of workers in the field.

It’s not hard to get drawn into a conversation about the future of work. As businesses reassess their working models in the wake of the pandemic, it is only right that there is discussion and consideration about which approach meets their specific organizational requirements.

Work beyond the office

With so much focus on the merits of fully remote versus in-office versus hybrid, it is easy to overlook that being on site is unavoidable for most people. In fact, for all the focus on knowledge workers, they account for a relatively small proportion of the population. In the UK, just 37% of working adults did any work from home in 2020, a step up from the 27% who did the same in 2019, but still well under half of all workers. In the U.S., 62% of employees say the responsibilities of their job cannot be done from home.

It would be a mistake to leave these workers out of the conversation on the future of the workplace. Those workers in the shops, on the production line, out in the field or on the road should be involved in discussions around digital workplaces and the use of technology in employee experiences. They are just as likely to benefit from the tools and technologies that make up digital workplaces as their knowledge-worker colleagues.

For instance, a McKinsey study found that those in the field can spend up to 40% of their shift on non-value-adding activities, such as filling out timesheets and manually inputting data. This has a significant impact on worker productivity, limiting the number of callouts a utilities worker can do, for example. In retail, time spent clocking in and out, logging into points of sale (PoS), or manually checking stock levels at a fixed terminal is time away from customers. And external sales personnel that don’t have mobile access to customer relationship management (CRM) will have to spend time at the end of the working day uploading insights and communicating with colleagues. As well as potentially missing rapid turnaround opportunities, this could also impact employee engagement.

In each of these instances, providing employees with mobile devices, secure, reliable connections and access to relevant apps could reduce admin time and free up staff to focus on value-add activities. Data can be captured, uploaded and shared in the moment, not stored up to be delivered at home or when in the office. This is where a digital workplace comes in, integrating field workers’ computing with all aspects of the business. It also means IT teams can still centrally manage all endpoints, apps and services.

In addition, when things go wrong, employees need to be able to fix all but the most significant themselves, through self-service and education that keeps them productive, not waiting for support tickets to be processed.

Innovating with new technologies

It is not just about making sure field workers can work more effectively and efficiently. By putting in place the right digital workplace now, businesses will be in a much better position to assimilate emerging technology into their working models.

For instance, while the deployment of 5G will undoubtedly provide significant benefits to knowledge workers, it can also support virtual and remote work traditionally done in the field. Engineers can complete repairs on aircraft, for example, without being in the same time zone, using 5G and robotics. There will be no need to fly experts around the world at short notice; teams can review schematics and diagnostics to identify problems and guide repairs without worrying about poor connections.

They could even take this a step further with augmented and virtual reality technology. Wearable solutions, such as Orange Aider, allow remote workers to perform complex tasks onsite while delivering information directly back to central teams. Human error is greatly reduced as those colleagues can see what the field employee sees, without it being filtered through their individual perspectives and experiences. In addition, there is no delay in gathering data, so it can be processed and analyzed automatically, allowing any resulting action to be taken much faster.

Keeping employees safe wherever they are

Digital technologies aren’t just about making processes more efficient; they can also be deployed to make the workplace safer. One Orange customer, an offshore mining company, used Internet of Things (IoT) sensors attached to heavy machinery onboard vessels and crew members’ personal equipment to detect when employees were potentially in at-risk areas while at sea. Using geofencing around the machinery, the bridge was alerted if a crew member was in a dangerous area and could instantly communicate with the seafarer to move away.

The same sort of application can be used to track social distancing in areas of high traffic onsite. Location tracking, body cameras and microphones, whether on handheld devices or wearables such as smart helmets, can help monitor worker locations, movements and activities. When combined with employee profiles, they could even monitor whether employees have the right certifications to be in certain areas in factories or secure facilities, for instance.

Businesses should not make the mistake of thinking that the future of work only applies to knowledge or office-based workers. While those in the field or onsite do not have the option of working from home, they are still well placed to benefit from advances in technology. From improving efficiency and productivity to keeping employees safer, the deployment of digital workplace tools can have significant benefits for both employer and employee when integrated properly with the wider business.

To find out more about new ways of working, take a look at our new ebook on digital workspaces. Or, if you’re wondering how best to equip your workforce (whether in the field or the office), take a look at Device-as-a-Service, a new way to provision your employees with the devices and apps they require.

Josh Turner
Josh Turner

I am a technology writer with a decade of experience in business, technology and logistics. From starting off my career writing questions for a TV quiz show, I’m now spending my time looking at how the world of business is going digital and transforming a variety of sectors and industries.