Workforce management is an expansive subject with different aspects ranging from how to best blend and improve the connection between the office and the field, to the tools field workers use in order to perform their jobs more effectively. In this HxGN Radio podcast, Gary LaPointe, director of strategic partnerships for Clevest, explains the nuances of workforce management as well as benefits derived from companies investing in mobile workforce tools to increase both production and savings.
ZN: Over the last 15 years, utilities and communications companies have been faced with a number of challenges: an increasingly aging workforce, an evolution of their end users, and more. The most important question they must be able to answer internally is: What are the tools that have allowed them to most effectively integrate? For many companies, mobile workforce management is a key answer. I’m joined today on HxGN Radio with Gary LaPointe, director of Strategic Partnerships for Clevest. Gary, I want to say, first and foremost, thank you for joining us. Happy to have you here. So, let’s start with just a brief overview of the topic. Can you tell me exactly what mobile workforce management is?
GL: Sure, happy to. And thanks for having me on.
ZN: Absolutely. Thank you.
GL: Excited about this. A mobile workforce, a lot of folks think mobile workforce is just about the guy or the crew that’s doing work out in the field, and that’s not true. It’s actually all the pieces, software technologies, that enable them, but it’s also about the folks who schedule that work. It’s about the dispatchers who get that work out to them, and then, of course, the folks out in the field, getting the actual work done. It’s the tools that help them do their job better. So it’s that entire view, office and field.
ZN: Right. And so to that extent, then, if we go back in time and we start looking historically over a long period in stretches, we’ve seen that pretty much every business has had some version of a mobile workforce tool, right, whether it’s exactly mobile is a different conversation, but they’ve had some form of that tool. So, looking back and moving forward, how has that exactly changed over time? How have we seen that develop?
GL: Good question. So, you’re right. They’ve always had something and the tools where, you know what? They were radios. The person would pick up that radio in the truck, call back to the office, and they’d pick up and talk to him about, “Oh, you’ve got this work in this space.” Or somebody in the office reaches out, “Hey, who’s near the drugstore? I’ve got a transformer out.” That was mobile. Not that long ago, that was mobile. But you know what? It evolved, and it got into—as we got connectivity, better connectivity, it got into tools that would let the workers connect seamlessly back into that office so they could get things electronically.
ZN: And when did we start to see that change kind of start moving?
GL: You saw it in the, basically, late ’90s, kind of the first systems coming out to take advantage of good wireless connectivity, so turning paper stacks of forms into electronic forms. But then you saw that kind of continue to evolve over the last 15 years into better tools, more advanced tools, taking advantage of things we’ve got in front of us—tablets, smartphones, not just a laptop sitting in that truck, replacing the radio with texting and so on.
ZN: And so, we’ve seen every company, like you said, invest in this over time. And I guess the natural extension, then, as a question, is: What exactly are the benefits that they’ve seen from that investment?
GL: Sure. The benefits are in several different places. Some of the core benefits, though, are how do I roll trucks less often? So every time you start that truck up and get somebody out to go to work, that’s a significant amount of money. It’s upwards of $200 just to get that truck rolling. Windshield time, so the amount of minutes or hours that folks are out on jobs. So how do I roll trucks less often, get them directed to the right work quicker so I’ve got less windshield time? And those are kind of the traditional savings, but then, let’s start talking about the office as well. So how do I, as the scheduler who sits—and I’ve got 50 or 60 crews I’ve got to schedule—how do I get that done quicker? How do I only spend a few hours as opposed to half my day? The dispatchers, how do I spend less time on the radio and more time looking at work, looking at who’s available, where they are, and getting that to them? It’s time savings in the office as well as those hard cost savings out in the field with trucks and people.
ZN: Yeah, and I think that’s a key point, especially as you’re looking between the field and the office. And so if I’m at home right now and I’m listening to this, my natural thought is going to be thinking that this is primarily a large company investment and this is where the most change is happening, or the most benefits rather. And so how does this actually work, then? How does the workforce management extend itself, not just to these larger companies but also on the smaller end?
GL: Yeah, no. And you know what? That’s a big misconception, that it’s only for large utilities. And certainly large utilities who have complex scheduling needs or three shifts with complex dispatchers and complex field crews, they will get a greater advantage to a more automated and robust mobile workforce-management system. But look, even smaller utilities, sub-5,000 meters and so on, small municipalities—water and so on—there are advantages in the scheduling, but when you look at what can be accomplished with having a dispatcher who might have three, four, five, six, seven people available to them throughout the day, there’s always work that’s just coming in constantly. So your workday is never about the day you plan. It’s about, “Oh wow, okay. I’ve got an outage,” or “I’ve got a priority reconnect,” or “I’ve got a leak somewhere.” It’s about how do I react to those and understand where I have my limited resources, where they are and how available they are, and getting them to that incident quicker. And then my day is kind of, “Okay, where do I go from there?” And so the tools actually have a greater impact on a smaller group than it does a larger, because a disruption to a small team tends to be pretty big. Mobile tools could help alleviate that disruption or at least make it easier to smooth out the interruption in that disruption.
ZN: And speaking of resource management, you had mentioned a couple of questions ago that you see a benefit in terms of truck costs, right? And I’m assuming that’s the only place that we’re seeing savings. Can you talk a little bit more about what that looks like kind of across the board?
GL: Absolutely. Certainly, as I said, the truck costs—the rolling, the windshield time. But at the same time, it’s also not just hours spent by supervisors, dispatchers, and so on. Every utility out there has a stack of work that they can’t get to, that they’re always putting off. And it’s pretty critical stuff. It’s maintenance, it’s inspections, it’s things that, you know what, it can wait until tomorrow because today I’ve got to do other higher priorities.
ZN: You can get this next x, y, z.
GL: Right. So it’s not so much utilities are saving by, for example, cutting workforce. We actually don’t see that. It’s the workforce can now get to all of these things that were previously getting put off or pushed out, which have impacts to longer-term maintenance schedules. Like office workers who, their work is made easier through dispatching and tools—
ZN: So not just employees in the field?
GL: Exactly. Not just employees. But dispatchers now, well, they don’t have that stack of paperwork to manage, but guess what? There’s now updates in information in systems that they can be making. Their time is freed up to do higher value things that were always pushed off because they didn’t have the time.
ZN: And so, then, just to put a point on it, so what you’re saying, then, is it’s not just a saving in terms of—typically when we think, especially in these kinds of companies, we tend to think of savings almost primarily based on cost, because when we talk savings, that’s typically… But you’re saying it extends further than that. Time is a kind of savings we’re talking about. It extends far beyond just the dollar amounts that we’re getting for truck and windshield and everything else like that.
GL: Now, don’t get me wrong. Utilities will translate time into savings because it is about the dollars. But the dollars are more than just the gas savings or the truck maintenance or the salaries. It translates into, if it costs $75 to do a connect, and I could do more connections, that translates into dollars for that utility.
ZN: And you mentioned salary, and I want to talk about this too, because I think this is really crucial, right? There are a lot of folks out there who when they hear “workforce management,” they think of it in an in a negative light, right? You tend to think of workforce management as a way to eventually reduce the workforce and that when we hear the word “savings,” we might be thinking of it in terms of we are now reducing the total amount of people who are out on the job. And I know that there are a lot of concerns about it. Can you speak to that a little bit?
GL: Sure. You know, it is a rare situation that we’ve seen where you’re actually reducing workforce. You’ve got folks that are naturally retiring, so your workforce is shrinking for the most part. And also, your more advanced skills aren’t there in the younger folks today. It’s how do I, as a utility, still serve my customers, because they’re not changing their demands. They want all the energy or water or gas they can get. They want it now, and they want it all the time, and they want it really cheap. So how does the utility with a shrinking workforce actually continue to meet those needs? It’s not about reducing the head count; it’s about being able to make sure that the utility can still provide those critical services.
And then, another important piece of this is the safety of that worker. For example, we have a customer up in Chicago that, through mobile workforce, they were actually able to communicate out to all of their workers in a certain part of the city where there was an active shooter. There were notifications in from the local police department to that utility. And so they got their collections agents out of that area. They had a couple of inspectors as well as two crews in that area. They were able to pull them out. And when you can take advantage of things like, for example, in command centers, AccuWeather overlay so that you see where approaching storms are and you know where your crews are. Well, guess what? You can get those crews adjusted into safe areas. There is the reality of that safety for these workers as well.
ZN: Okay. So that’s the soft side, and I just want to close on a hard side question really quickly. Like we said, we established it a couple times, used by every company across the board. Does this mean that they are all using the same hardware, or is that going to alter as well company by company?
GL: No. A good question. No, it does change company by company, but it would also change based on the work that they’re doing. For example, if I’m a crew chief out there and I’m working for two or three days, eight, 10 people, you know what? I’m probably going to have a laptop in my truck, and that’s what I’m going to work with because I’ve got a lot of complex information. But if I’m an inspector, no. I want to have a tablet, or I want to have a smartphone. Even within the utility, based on the job that they’re doing, they’re going to have different devices. So they’re looking for technologies that can be flexible, based on what a person needs while they’re out in that field.
ZN: And that’ll do it for us today. Gary, I want to say thank you, one more time. Thank you so much for being here. If you want more information about today’s topic, please visit www.hexagonsafetyinfrastructure.com. If you want to listen to additional episodes or to learn more, please visit hxgnspotlight.com. Thank you all so much for tuning in.