While flexible work options had been steadily gaining steam prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 supercharged worker demands in a variety of fields to implement remote and hybrid work models. Introducing flexible working to the field service trades, though, hasn’t been easy, given their dependence on location-based activities and fixed constraints, such as limited access and frequently tight timeframes.
Couple that with the fact that many field service companies are dealing with marked labor shortages—thanks to fewer young people entering the profession and current workers retiring at a far greater rate than the apprentices who are replacing them—and it’s easy to see why service providers, technicians, and contractors of all kind are struggling to meet market demand.
Ironically, most field service businesses recognize the benefits flexible work arrangements offer to both their employees and themselves. These run the gamut from improved employee attraction and retention efforts to better work/life balance to boosts in worker morale, productivity, and business continuity.
Problems sometimes arise, though, when these companies try to put flexible arrangements into practice. Quite simply, plumbers, electricians, and other contractors simply can’t hop on a Zoom call or log onto a computer to handle work for their customers in the same way that an attorney or an accountant can. And that is perhaps the greatest challenge at the heart of field service companies instituting flexible work arrangements.
By their very nature, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, landscaping, and other similar work demands an on-site presence. While technology may allow advance diagnosis of a specific problem, the contractor still needs to come onto the scene, regardless of whether that is a large construction site or someone’s home, to actually remedy the issue. Flex work also presents challenges for company management, from supervising the work being done and dealing with highly variant schedules to maintaining the safety and security of employees and customer information.
Despite such potential roadblocks, field service firms increasingly are shifting to an output-based business model which does away with standard workdays and replaces them with flexible timetables that allow individual employees or teams to arrange work to suit their own personal schedules. Typically, such flextime arrangements require employees to work a standard number of core hours within a specified period while allowing each worker greater flexibility in starting or ending their work days.
Variations on this approach include: compressed work weeks, in which employees still work a standard work week, but do it in three or four days as opposed to five; 9/80 schedules, which enable employees to work 80 hours in nine days rather than 10, giving them an extra day off every other week; and part-time work, which enables retirement-age employees to keep one foot in the business (and a paycheck coming in the door) while allowing the companies themselves to better deal with worker shortages.
All of these arrangements can be adopted for location-based work. Where teams of workers are required, however, projects must be broken down into specific tasks or sections. And all such work demands continued management oversight to assure not only that the work is being done, but that there is no fall-off in quality and efficiency.
The other ingredient that can represent the difference between success or failure in implementing flexible work arrangements is technology. Fortunately, many field service companies are already using technology to their advantage. Like so much of today’s business world, field service businesses have adopted electronic communications to send messages to customers and employees, schedule appointments, deliver invoices, and receive payments. Management software is being employed to keep track of everything from estimating and project quotes to invoicing, inventory, and project management.
That same kind of technology lends itself to keeping track of employee scheduling, particularly if those employees are working remotely or on a flex basis. Remote workers are also employing video conferencing to consult with customers and begin analyzing their issues in advance of going on-site. Companies, in turn, are equipping workers with mobile devices or tablets so that they can visually explain potential problems to their customers and how they plan to address those issues.
On a related note, technology is now playing a wider role in attracting younger workers to the field service profession. Younger adults, most of whom grew up on technology and incorporate it into virtually every facet of their lives, seldom realize the kinds of technology field service professionals routinely use today. Electricians, for example, employ everything from robotics and drones to wearable devices equipped with sensors designed to alert them if they are too close to high-voltage electricity or other potential hazards. They also deal with such advances as BIM modeling (which generates digital representations of physical infrastructures) and modular construction (prefabricated, pre-engineered solutions containing prewired walls).
All of which brings us back to flexible schedules. The same younger workers field service companies are trying to attract to the profession not only expect, but often demand flexible working conditions. Many younger employees want to make their own schedules and work when they want to work, all of which bodes well for businesses that have already incorporated flexible working arrangements into their normal routine. Bottom line, the working world is changing rapidly and those companies willing to change with it by making flexible work an option and technology a part of the technician’s toolbox will be those most likely to succeed in the future.
Garrett Wilson is the president and co-founder FieldBin. He has been a serial entrepreneur and expert at building and branding startups for over 20 years. His experience includes multiple high growth startups, SaaS products, M&A, fund raising, and agencies that leveraged his deep knowledge in both B2B and consumer markets.