Author: Jim Darragh, Chief Executive Officer, Totalmobile
Over the last six months the need to equip FM field operatives with the most efficient digital mobile tools has never been more crucial to help ensure continuity of service while maintaining social distancing. This is a space where Totalmobile, specialists in field service management and mobile workforce software solutions have been able to offer their expertise, but surprisingly up until now the firm hasn’t had a high profile in FM, despite being around since the 1980s.
Explains Jim Darragh, Chief Executive Officer at Totalmobile: “The firm was born and bred in Belfast, beginning with delivering solutions for local councils, which migrated to managing social housing repairs. As mobility became more prevalent within the housing space, we got one of our technical experts to build us mobility tools in earnest and the company pivoted and became more about mobile workforces and mobile workforce management.”
“As the tech has matured for us the market has matured alongside and we’ve now got quite a critical mass, with local government bleeding into social care and healthcare, to encompass housing associations, hospitals and transport customers, a lot of which is outsourced to FM. This all links to FM services delivery for properties and so on. Our mobility has become a part of the FM offering and we bring something different to the providers in that space.”
The difference he believes is that the technology is designed from the ground up with the mobile worker in mind, “a subtle statement but one which means quite a lot to us.” He explains that quite often the technology mobile workers are given is just a version of a back-office system. They may be linked in to a CAFM system which has a mobile element that is adjusted for field workers, but in practise it means taking a back-office system and porting it into a mobile device.
He says: “We’re coming from the opposite direction, saying ‘you’re a mobile worker, what will make your life easier? We will allow you to be more efficient. You’ll need data from the back office but we won’t start with that. Instead we’ll say, ‘you’re going out to the field today what do you need from us to do your work?’”
“Because we think of mobile workers first – that’s what makes us different. We’re also very customer centric so in any conversation with a client we’ll make them think about what their before and their after will look like. It’s not part of the sales process it’s part of the value add.”
While it is to be hoped that maintenance teams are no longer using time sheets, there are some organisations that are only now migrating over to digital platforms. The duel benefit is making individuals and groups of people more efficient – particularly when it comes to the scheduling of works.
Says Darragh: “We think the digital mobility piece gives you 20 per cent more efficiency but the second [scheduling] one gets you another, and 40 per cent more efficiency equates to two extra days a week.”
Any piece of tech is only as good as its usability and with such a wide gap in demographics and skills within the FM space, how do front-line operatives tend to cope with new mobile solutions?
“The user interface is essential as we live or die by user adoption”, says Darragh. “Because the tools are designed for the mobile user, and are adapted to work with Apple and Google we’re ensuring someone can pick it up and almost instinctively navigate their way round the system. It’s not designed to fox people, it’s designed to help them.”
He cites cleaning as one example. Totalmobile equipped Mitie cleaning staff with smart watches that alerted them with a buzz when a room needed to be cleaned. By double tapping the app, the cleaners indicated they were on their way, and a triple tap meant that the job had been done. Both basic but useful.
Back office benefits
A solution that links seamlessly to the back office is obviously crucial, so the tech must be designed for this more complex piece of the puzzle, i.e. ‘how do I get the right information so that person can do the job first time, every time?’
Explains Darragh: “When you look at hard FM and big infrastructure and assets that need to be maintained you need contextual information. We’re pulling that from different back office systems that are connected to a particular job, so that when you do a job of a more technical nature you have everything to hand. Basically, it’s the same platform but the complexity can vary, from quite simple cleaning tools to using our software on the project to build Hinkley Point nuclear power station.”
The firm is already working closely with some of the big FM providers, including Interserve, Mitie, Compass and Graham, which use its solutions for a variety of different tasks, from health and safety tracking all the way through to a range of field service management solutions. He adds that some of the leading FM supplier systems are looking to the firm to help enhance their CAFM systems; for example, making the software interact better with end users and be more adaptable to back office changes.
He says: “We’re not working in direct cooperation with the CAFM systems suppliers yet, but we do integrate with them where ever we go, within healthcare, government, transport, etc.
“What we often find though is that there is a gap between the information they have and making it mobile ready. They might hold the contract information but not the asset data, or hold the asset information but not the service record.
“We can supplement this information in order to make a field worker capable of doing the job by helping to manipulate and store the data. For example, where a security guards is on a site where there is a regular checkpoint, the system would record every checkpoint time, and the location of the person as they do their rounds. Alongside proof of attendance, you can calculate how much time each round should take. This means [for FM] you can price contracts more accurately by interrogating the huge amounts of data you gather across the system.”
“At the front end, there is an increase in efficiency, the ability to allocate work better and have more time to actually do the work. If a mobile solution can offer speed, efficiency, proof, consistency, these are the elements which remove the need for discussion or error and make sure a task is done in the same way all the time.”
He argues that for the FM market and particularly large-scale repeatable tasks such as security and cleaning that is a big deal.
“I heard from a large brand in the FM space, which believes there is a 40 per cent efficiency gain in using IoT sensors to organise on-demand cleaning. With the FM market having such tight margins, why would you not take advantage of that as the tech investments are miniscule compared to the gains? The worker spends less time doing admin or paperwork and the suppliers are more efficient, with jobs all traced and tracked.”
Like many digital suppliers, Totalmobile has responded to the COVID-19 outbreak, with new or amended products such as Remote Assist, a solution to help organisation provide remote support to their customer base. Instead of having to send field engineers out to fix an asset, the technology provides video diagnostic technology that reduces the number of unnecessary site visits.
The solution creates a shared live video stream that can be viewed by the support team or engineers who can then walk through the problem virtually with the customer, discuss potential solutions and if possible, assist the customer to remedy the problem.
Explains Darragh: “This also has a long-term gain because if you can cut down on physical visits you can reduce your costs. If you do send a worker who doesn’t recognise the tech they can connect to someone else in the back office who knows the system. This helps improve first time fix rates by delivering a new layer of efficiency, and with the Covid situation by reducing the need for multiple visits.”
With more and more security and maintenance staff working in empty buildings, another solution is a lone workers device that equips a field worker with a device that allows emergency access to support via an alarm call centre.
The FM sector isn’t renowned for the early adoption of the latest tech, and one of the reasons has been a suspicion by stakeholders, from boardrooms to occupiers who are concerned about a ‘big brother’ use of AI in managing people and buildings.
“I would like to demystify AI” says Darragh. “It’s really just about computers making intelligent decisions. Our scheduling tech learns that one route is faster than another, that one job takes so long, and in the background assesses the time taken to adjust it next time if necessary. It’s the ‘see it learn it’ approach and there is no reason to be nervous, we’re just tuning the system to be better.”
With the employment of IoT within sites, he says a sensor may monitor a meeting room and by attaching rules that automate the restocking or cleaning process creates a job to the point that the only person who needs to know about the job is the person doing it.
“It’s the flow of create the work, do the work, finish the work. That’s just a more efficient way of all of us going about our job and doing what needs doing, not because the contract states that it does.”
In terms of future innovation, of an organisation of 220 people half of Totalmobile staff work in development, most of whom are based in Belfast. Future innovations include developing a range of new wearable tools such as googles which could recognise an asset (such as a boiler) – bring up its service history and enable the engineer to access more information using hand gestures.
Predicts Darragh: “We will get into wearables. As the cost comes down and people find real practical use cases it will, like IoT, filter in, but it will probably be at least four or five years before it’s run of the mill.”
But within FM he explains there are already; “Some thought-provoking conversations are going on already with them looking at more wearables and IoT. For the service providers to take that leap of faith, Covid may accelerate the process as the FM sector looks to rethink how it does things. There will always be a focus on cost and technology can be utilised to deliver more demand-based services which will be more efficient and help operators rebuild some margin. So, I believe within the next couple of years, there will be real thrust for the adoption of the latest technologies by FM providers, both hard and soft.”