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December 4, 2023 | 4 Mins Read

How Flexible Can Field Service Be for Technicians?

December 4, 2023 | 4 Mins Read

How Flexible Can Field Service Be for Technicians?


By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service

Here is something that a lot of people who shifted from office-based to remote work during the pandemic won’t find surprising – a new study from Censuswide and Fiverr International (a freelancer service) found that a lot of workers are most productive outside of normal business hours, and a majority of respondents said their current work arrangement/schedule was not working for them.

A few caveats, of course. The survey is mostly focused on office-based and freelance workers, so field service managers may look at this data and (justifiably) say, “So what?” But the data points do point to a general dissatisfaction with the way work is scheduled, and given the staffing and retention challenges faced by the industry, we should all be looking for innovative ways to balance employee scheduling needs with customer demands.

So, some data from the research:

  • About a third (32%) of respondents said they prefer to work from home, or to at least be able to choose where they work each day.
  • Somewhat counterintuitively – given all the complaining about how demanding Millennials and Gen Z employees are – Baby Boomers were tops in preferring remote/work-from-home scenarios (40%), while just 29% of Millennials and 32% of Gen X respondents cited remote work as their preference.
  • 28% of Millennials who said they preferred remote work said it was because of childcare needs.
  • A little more than three-quarters of respondents said they could complete their current workload in a 4-day week.
  • The big one, though, is that 76% of respondents said their current work arrangement did not meet their ideal preferences. Entry level workers were about 20% less likely than the most senior employees (directors) to report their job met their ideal work preferences.

Field service businesses, of course, usually pride themselves on a service-anytime-anyplace approach to stay competitive – stuff breaks outside of normal business hours, and peak demand can be tough to predict in a lot of markets. But technicians face personal scheduling obstacles, too, and a lot of them are not necessarily preferences and are outside of their control. For entry-level and middle-aged technicians that have kids, childcare is not only expensive, but in some cases just unavailable. 

In fact, there are 100,000 fewer childcare workers than there were before the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. School schedules do not map well to work schedules in most cases. A lot of current scheduling practices are holdovers from a time when one parent stayed home, but those days have been gone for decades. Employers are going to have to reckon with how their employees juggle work and family time, or they will continue to lose good employees.

In addition, a lot of younger employees have not bought into what is sometimes referred to as Hustle Culture. They prefer to put hard barriers between their personal time and work time and are not as willing as older workers to put in extra hours, for example, to move up in an organization. (Gallup has data on this, but there are plenty of articles about the phenomenon, including one I wrote here.)

Balancing Always-On Service with Employee Satisfaction

But how flexible can field service really be for technicians, given that customers often require or demand service on weekends, service in the evening, or may need technicians working at their facility for more than 8 hours to repair critical equipment?

I would say service organizations probably can’t offer the same flexibility that an office-based role can, they can most definitely be a lot more flexible than they are now. It just requires an openness to accept that circumstances have changed and lean in to creativity and technology to figure out how. 

We’re beginning to see examples of companies leading the charge. My favorite example was shared by Mitie Fire & Security at our Birmingham, UK Live Tour event in May. Mitie uses IFS Planning & Scheduling Optimization, an AI-based engine that was put in place to automate scheduling and dispatch but is also being used to give flexibility to the technicians. The company has begun allowing technicians to choose their own start and end times since PSO will simply factor that in as another criteria and optimize accordingly. This allows technicians to feel more in control of their days, the company has experienced no negative impact and shared that it’s only helped with employees’ mental health. 

Plenty of service companies dispatch from home – technicians take their service vans/trucks home every night, and head straight to their first assignment from their own driveway. Rotating schedules can help provide some time off during hours that techs may need to tackle childcare (or eldercare for their parents). Organizations can be more flexible about breaks to accommodate childcare — it's not uncommon to see plumbing trucks or taxis in the pickup/dropoff line at some schools. When you start allowing yourself to think differently, you will begin to see opportunities to increase flexibility for your teams. 

It wouldn't hurt to ask your technicians what kind of schedule they want. That doesn't mean you have to give them exactly that, but by mapping their requests to customer requirements you could probably come up with at least slightly more workable schedules. Don't forget that your technicians are people, first and foremost. What do they have to schedule around? Is it childcare? Family illness? Hobbies? If you can find a way to work with employees when something comes up (a sick child, for example), it is ultimately a more productive approach than the shift-swapping or loss of paid hours that the technician has to organize on an ad-hoc basis. 

Have you had any experience trying to increase the flexibility of your field service organization when it comes to work-life balance for employees? Drop me a line and let me know what you did.