Maintaining safety in the field during COVID-19

April 15, 2020
Amanda Del Buono interviews ServiceMax's Stacey Epstein for tips for managing field service workers during the coronavirus pandemic

While many are able to work from home during the current pandemic, field service workers by nature don't have this option. In this special edition episode, Amanda Del Buono is joined by Stacey Epstein, chief marketing officer and customer experience officer at ServiceMax, to discuss how organizations and individuals can stay safe while keeping essential equipment up and running.

Visit the new Field Service Job Finder from ServiceMax and Krios at


Amanda: Welcome back to Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce. I'm Amanda Del Buono, and this is the second special edition podcast focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on manufacturing workforces.

Although some personnel can work from home, field workers are still needed on-site to maintain many operations, but how do we keep those workers safe? What should their employers be doing for them, and what should they be doing for themselves to stay safe, and how can we make their jobs easier during this trying time?

To answer these questions, ServiceMax's Stacey Epstein, chief marketing officer and customer experience officer, is joining me today. ServiceMax provides field service management and real-time communication solutions.

Thanks for calling in today, Stacey.

Stacey: Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Amanda: So, can you just start out by giving us a snapshot of how field service workers in various verticals are grappling with the impact of coronavirus? Are there verticals that are maybe feeling more pressure than others?

Stacey: Yeah. I mean, it's definitely been an interesting addition of stress to the system obviously for all of us in the world, but especially for manufacturers. And I think that it sort of put manufacturers in one of two extremes. On one extreme, you have the industries that are basically shut down, the non-essential items that people aren't going out, people aren't consuming and factories are having to close and shut down. Also, many factories are having to shut down due to the stay-at-home order. I just saw that Tesla was a manufacturer that's having to furlough employees because they aren't allowed to come into work due to the stay-at-home policies. So, you've got some sectors of the industry experiencing an extreme slowing even to the point of shutdown. On the other hand, you have the healthcare or the medical device industries that are just absolutely in dire need of moving as fast as they possibly can. So, it's the other extreme of manufacturing and medical devices, an industry that we really cater to.

So, we see it heavily, those field service workers are absolutely critical, essential part of the workforce. We just take the most basic example of ventilators, like we've got to not only produce as many of those as we can to the point even where some of those factories like Tesla are trying to change their ways and create new types of equipment that they haven't made before, but also we’ve got to get those installed. We have to keep them up and running in hospitals. So, I think a lot of people think about the challenge of manufacturing, whether it's testing equipment, ventilators or whatever, vaccine machines that develop vaccines. It's all kinds of different things that are just ramping up and we think about the manufacturing side of it, we don't always think of the field service side of it, which is, "Okay, now, we've created thousands of new ventilators, but they're on the shop floor. How do we get them into the supply chain? How do we get them into the hospitals, installed, up and running? How do we fix them when they aren't working?" And that's the job of those field technicians. And so, there's been a much heavier reliance on those field workers who are out there making sure those actually work at the end of the supply chain.

Amanda: Right, right. Well, in previous episodes of this podcast, we talk about workforce development a lot and the key to workforce development is communication. But it seems to me that, at this moment, communication has got to be more important than ever. What advice do you have about keeping the communication flowing between the service workers or the field workers and their management or whomever? What advice do you have for them to be constantly in communication or improving their communication? Or are there different things that they need to be communicating about that maybe they weren't before or they don't usually?

Stacey: Yeah. And we at ServiceMax have a piece of our solution called Zinc, which facilitates communication and really helps get real-time knowledge to workers that are in the field. And it's been quite successful for us, but there have been many times over the course of the last few years when our buyer says, "Yeah, it looks really good, but, you know, it's just not mission-critical in terms of what we're looking at today." And that has just...another thing that has taken a drastic turnaround is that everyone's not in offices where they have access to people and information that they need. So, not only do you have your field service workers out in the field, but you also have the people who have the expertise and knowledge to help them. You have them just in their homes, but you can't prevent that communication from happening because that's how problems get solved, questions get answered and the work continues to happen. So, giving those technicians a way to get to the real-time information they need has become just mission-critical.

Again, communication's not a nice-to-have anymore, it's an absolute imperative for these field service workers, especially as the whole industry is shifting to focus on the current need, which is healthcare. So, again, those non-essential items, I mean, they're not being purchased, they're not being installed, and so, you have workforces that are shifting to do something that they haven't done before. So, if I've changed my manufacturing facility to produce ventilators or whatever it is that I've now shifted my focus, I've got a whole workforce of field service engineers or technicians that aren't necessarily trained or up to speed on how to do that. So, we're asking a lot more of our field service teams and we absolutely need to be giving them the ability to reach out when they have a question to send a message to a hotline and have a one-on-one text conversation or even do a live video, which you can do in Zinc.

I mean, certainly, you could also do it in something like FaceTime, but with Zinc, you know it's secure and you can get them to the right expert. With FaceTime, you don't really even know, "Who do I call," right? But if you use a hotline and you can know that you're getting to the right expert, you can do a quick video call and say, "Hey, I'm trying to install this. I've never done it before. Am I doing this right?" And they can get help in real-time. Then that system can be live and experience full uptime in ways that it just wouldn't have happened if you didn't have that line of communication. So, I think what, again, what we all thought of as, "Yeah, you know, communication's important. But what's more important is that I'm tracking parts and that I'm scheduling my technicians properly," and now it's come to, "Hey, if I can't communicate with my field service team, I'm maybe not able to even get the job done." So, it's just become absolutely critical.

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and at least people are seeing that and hopefully acting on it and maybe instituting different technologies or methods to do that like you had mentioned.

Stacey: Yeah. Exactly.

Amanda: So, if I'm a field service worker, what sort of support should I be requesting from management in order to keep safe and minimize my potential exposure to coronavirus? And do you have any advice on what steps field service workers could be taking on their own?

Stacey: Sure. And we've had a lot of dialogue with our customers about this. Again, I think we're all...I was saying yesterday to some of my colleagues as we're continuing to work through the situation, there's nobody out there saying, "Oh, well, you know, when this happened 10 years ago, here's what we did." Like, literally no one's ever experienced this before in the world. So, I think we're all facing new situations and everybody's evolving. We've been doing lots of dialogue with our customers and the heads of service and manufacturing at many of our companies and we've had these conversations of, okay, you know, the field service workers are, by nature, not stay-at-home or shelter-in-place. So, really having to think through how do we keep them safe in a world where they're not even really supposed to be out is a big topic. And so, we've talked about it a lot.

I think from a management perspective, there are things you could do. One is consider a swing shift model where you're scheduling the technicians to service the equipment only while security is on-site and the field service engineer is then given clearance to enter the building during off-hours, right? So, if you've got to go service a piece of equipment, can you go service it while there's the least amount of people on-site in that organization? Staggering the crew, so,  limit crew members one per truck versus sometimes they'll have two or three people but if you can keep them siloed, maybe that's better. They're not mingling with each other on-site. I mean, we have a technology feature called Checklist that you can implement to ensure that field engineers are following new protocols, right? And before COVID-19, there were certain checklists that a technician would have to go through to make sure they had done the job properly, but there are now a lot more requirements and as it relates to the safety and the health of the teams.

And so, adding new checklists to make sure that they both follow but also even understand that you’ve got to get those checklists out to the team and if there's not a way to have them follow it in technology, they may not even know what it is. Even little things like our iPad app allows a customer to sign the work order when it's been completed, but you probably don't want that customer touching the technician's iPad 10 times a day, right? So, maybe now's the time to bypass that signature option and let the technician just check a box that says "bypass signature option" so that you don't have hands touching iPads. I mean, it's little things like that that can, I think, really help stop the spread and keep these technicians safe. And then, of course, there's the most obvious, do you have the proper personal protection equipment in the field? Can you supplement the PPE you're providing and give more protection? Do you have hand sanitizer in the truck? Do you have sanitizer and effective soap in the office? It's just little things like that to help remind these technicians to really keep themselves safe and healthy on the job.

Amanda: Well, and kind of, I was curious as we've discussed these things that they can be doing to both communicate and stay safe, what percent of organizations do you think are equipped with the right technology to effectively stay in touch remotely with their field service teams and maintain safety and operations?

Stacey: I mean, I think it varies. There are certainly, if you look at the medical device industry, health and safety has always been paramount for them and certainly, they understand things like PPE. I mean, some of our customers have labs where they've been working on vaccines for every pandemic that's ever happened, Ebola, SARS. And though they haven't lived through something with this enormity before, it's not entirely new. And so, they have procedures in place. But I would say, a big chunk of manufacturing is just wholly unprepared and it's no knock on them, I think we're all feeling like, you know, I know for me, on my home life, I was unprepared. I'm learning as I go, you know, homeschooling and working a full-time job, like none of us really prepared. So, it's no knock on manufacturing but I think everybody's scrambling to try to get in gear.

I do think communication is one area where people have just been underprepared, and again, it hasn't been seen as a mission-critical function, as long as they can have access to parts and to work orders, that's all they need. And now, we find ourselves in a situation where they need that real-time knowledge, that help, that expertise, and without a mode of communication, they can't have it. So, I think a big percentage are unprepared as it relates to communication. I also think there's this whole notion of equipment data or asset data, different industries call it equipment versus asset. But understanding the health of the asset and being able to remotely diagnose and potentially even fix the asset or the equipment off-site. The companies that were forward-thinking and had implemented remote diagnostics or IoT to have data to really understand and have that 360-degree view of their assets, those are the companies that are ahead of the game right now.

And it's, I don't know what percentage it is, it's definitely a smaller percentage. But those companies who have invested in having that data about their assets and about their equipment are the ones that are winning because they can see service records, they can do remote diagnostics, they can do preventative or even predictive maintenance to keep the assets, keep the uptime as high as possible. Then they don't even have to send technicians into the field. And so, all of those concerns are waived. And I think there are definitely fewer that have taken that step to digital transformation and hopefully, we'll see more of it now that we've all experienced what we're experiencing.

Amanda: Yeah. You beat me to it. I was going to ask, we had a...kind of leads to my next question, but our sister podcast Control Amplified had been discussing how even in some of the process manufacturing fields, oil and gas, and things like that, they're starting to see a larger uptick in interest in digital transformation because some of those are areas where you have to have people. So, leading into my question, on Monday, Control Amplified released a podcast where they were talking about the early impacts on process automation and control. And one of his guests had mentioned that he's heard some stories of workers essentially camping at power distribution centers to ensure that they're healthy and that the facilities can keep running, because obviously power distribution is essential. I'm wondering if this is happening in other places where people kind of have to stay there to make sure that their manufacturing operations are running appropriately. Have you seen that? And what advice would you have for people managing field workers who have to be there and maybe have to put aside some of their other personal life?

Stacey: Yeah. I mean, as I stand here in my nicely heated home, I do have to, first of all, give a shout-out to those workers who are putting themselves in those situations just to keep the world running for us. I mean, the image of these workers camping out and not going home just so that they can keep the power grid running is pretty powerful, pun intended. But, going back to my prior statement, I do think that if we had all, and by "we," I mean the entire industry, if we had moved faster on our digital transformation initiative and we could have many of those assets and that equipment sending data and storing data and predicting their own failure. And I mean, eventually, and this is a little further in the future, but eventually not only will we have remote diagnostics but we'll have enough intelligence in this equipment that it even can take actions to repair itself. Then we wouldn't have to put people's lives at risk by having them camp out at power facilities.

And again, I mean absolutely no knock to the industry, I mean these are big initiatives and they take time and they take thought. But I do think that now that we're learning what the world could look like given emergency situations and who knows when the next one could be, it could be another 100 years, we're also not even out of this one yet. I do think that really considering digital transformation and IoT-enabling devices and really understanding the equipment and asset data so that you can do things like Remote Triage and potentially even fix machines remotely, I think we'll be in a better place. And even when there is no pandemic and the world, I know it'll be a new normal, but when the world gets back to this new normal, it'll still be better for the health of our world and also the health of those technicians who may or may not even need to go on-site to fix something.

Amanda: That's interesting. I'm thinking that in a lot of our coverage at Putman Media, we're seeing that the manufacturing industry is really learning that lesson that you had said where we need to be investing in IoT and digital transformation and maybe we were dragging our feet too much. And I'm curious on your thoughts because you had mentioned earlier that you're dealing with people working on stuff that they don't normally do. And to me, that shouted an opportunity for, like, AI goggles in the field or things like that. Do you see those types of things being implemented more after something like this where we can just send out a new software to the AI goggles so that they can work on the piece of equipment with that assistance right there in front of their eyes?

Stacey: Yep. I mean, you hit the nail on the head. I think that the companies that were ahead of the game in their digital transformation, and I keep using that phrase, and I know it's a big catchall, but by "digital transformation," I mean all the things we're talking about, whether it's AI or IoT or remote diagnostics or even having a modern field-based communication app that your technicians can get connected to experts in real-time or you can broadcast important information to them on a phone versus email that they never read. All of those things, I mean, companies are in varying stages of maturity in adopting those. And I think the companies that are far along in the maturity curve of implementing those digital transformations, those are the ones that can really respond well to situations like this. And this is a big situation that is affecting everyone in the entire world right now, and it happens once in a century. But there are little things that happen all the time that, again, once we go back to the new normal, it doesn't mean that we're not going to be needing to respond to situations. I mean, a situation at a power utility can happen, you know, it can be struck by lightning, can be causing fires. I mean, we've seen this happen, I'm in California and we've had all kinds of problems with our utilities and the fires that were caused by a downed power line and emergencies happen. And I think the more a company has been ahead in thinking to adopting these new technologies, the better equipped they are to move on a dime to handle unforeseen circumstances and help abate them. And we're seeing it right now.

Again, you can change your shop floor and you can be creating med devices instead of cars. But that's not where it is. You still have to get those into the field. And the other med device providers, their field service technicians are just completely tapped out. You know, we see a lot of our customers now who have always made med devices and they're advertising they need field service technicians like crazy. So, where a lot of industries are furloughing or laying off people, the med device industry is dying for field service technicians who are skilled enough to install and maintain the equipment. Now, if you had AI, if you had a communications solution, then you could hire a less-skilled worker because you know you can give them the assistance they need remotely. So, I do think that these forward-thinking companies that got ahead of the game in digital transformation are the ones that are able to deal with the current situation. And I think it's just going to happen in the future. And I think companies and industries will really rethink how fast they move and hopefully, will accelerate this digital transformation going forward.

Amanda: Yeah, yeah. I think I got us a little bit forward-thinking, but I want to bring us back to dealing with our current crisis. So, we talked a lot about how organizations should be thinking about keeping their workers safe, but there's more to your worker, they are people. So, what considerations should they be making for their employees' personal lives and/or how are union contracts coming into play in this area?

Stacey: Yeah. That's near and dear to my heart and I also think as we have these dialogues with our customers, they're all happy to report that they're all really thinking of this, too. I mean, if nothing else, our world is united in fighting against a common foe. So, it's been so great to see, you know, one of our customers, Medtronic who is sharing their patents for their medical devices and just the selfless acts that are happening in big business and in industries that mean that we all care about each other. And I think a lot of what we've talked about with our customers is, number one, to try to understand and consider the unique personal situations within your workforce. We've got kids at home and not everybody has school-aged kids. I do, I have two girls in elementary school and I am constantly faced with this conflict of I've got a full-time job, my job hasn't slowed down, if anything, it sped up and yet I have two elementary school kids at home that, not only do they need to continue learning, but I mean, they still need supervision. And so, it's a real conflict for me personally.

And then I think of those field workers who are still on the job doing something crucial, as you mentioned, potentially camping out at the job site. How do we take those lives into consideration? How do we help them? Some are caring for elderly family members that they really just can't expose. And so, maybe if you're having to make a choice of who goes into the field and who doesn't, you have to look at those situations. Are they in that risk category? You know, somebody who had asthma or was immunocompromised in the past, maybe it wasn't an issue in sending them out to job sites but certainly, it is now. So, it comes down to really looking at the individual situation and trying to reassign those individuals to the tasks that would reduce risk of infection. So, I mentioned earlier, remote triage or being an expert that is staffing a hotline in Zinc so that you can answer the questions. You know, if you're a super technician but you can't go in the field for whatever reason, why not be a resource to all those other technicians who need your expertise and give them a quick way to do that communication with them? If you really take the time to understand the individual needs of your workforce, you can then create a staffing model that not only helps you achieve your goals but also is taking into consideration what that individual employee needs.

This is not a week-long thing, I mean, our schools are out for the rest of the year. We're still fighting this day-to-day, and I think we got to hunker down for a while. So, taking the time to really understand those unique needs is really crucial.

Amanda: Yeah. And definitely making sure we remember that workers are people, I think, is always very important. Well, to kind of close out, I was wondering if you have any resources that you would suggest that our listeners go to or anything that you are looking at that can kind of help people cope with the situation and manage their field service workers.

Stacey: Yeah. And we're doing a lot, a lot of it is in concert with our customers and helping them as they're responding. I've mentioned Zinc a lot, it's our communication solution for field service teams and that's where you can connect them with experts and tap into real-time knowledge. We are offering Zinc free for three months to help anybody who needs a communication solution during this pandemic.

We're just about to announce a job board. I mentioned earlier, you've got industries like med device that are really needing to staff up and you have other industries that have had to completely shut down operations. And so, it means there's been a real shift in the supply and demand of technicians and we know both of those industries because they are our customers. So, creating a job board to help connect companies that really need to step up with the companies that have had to let people go and hopefully, get everybody back to work on the things that are important until we get to our new normal. So, we'll be launching that field service-focused job board sometime actually in the next week. And we can certainly tell you guys about it once it goes out.

And, you know, just other things we're doing internally, keeping our platforms stable. I mentioned things like Checklist and Remote Triage, which are all part of the ServiceMax solution and, you know, helping customers who are in the process of implementing get live, help them create their checklists so that they're following safety procedures, things like that. So, we're trying to do what we can. We're always open to ideas. So, I would love to hear from people as they listen to this podcast and, certainly feel free to reach out to me. I'm at [email protected] and I'm happy to take ideas or continue to dialogue one-on-one.

Amanda: Well, great. Well, thank you so much for calling in to chat with us about this. We're really hoping to be able to help our listeners keep up and deal with the issues surrounding managing a workforce in a pandemic like this that, like you've said, you know, none of us have ever encountered before.

Stacey: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Amanda: Well, thank you again and thanks to our listeners for tuning in today. Stay safe out there, everyone.

For more, tune into the Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce podcast.

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