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Mental Health & Wellness In Field Service: Creating a Culture of (Technician) Care

health wellness field service

This post focuses on questions of health and wellness for technicians in field service. We are excited to feature this content written by John Carroll, Founder and CEO at The Service Council.

Merriam-Webster defines humanity as: compassionate, sympathetic, or generous behavior or disposition: the quality or state of being humane bespeaking humanity for the enemy in the midst of a bloody struggle— C. G. Bowers. The quality or state of being human joined together by their common humanity.

As of December of 2020, the novel Coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic resulted in greater than 1.5 million deaths (and counting) according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and more than 97,966 businesses in the United States had permanently shut down, according to a Local Economic Impact Report from Yelp.com (greater than 140,000 were shut down at the onset of the pandemic). As a result, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) as part of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) delved out greater than $520B in loans to help with sustainability of the U.S. economy.

The Technician’s Role Has Changed

The economic and healthcare challenges trickled into the employee experience for many service organizations. In particular, the field service technician’s role dramatically changed.  Day-to-day routines turned into life-threatening events as the risk of COVID-19 exposure directly impacted their ability to perform critical tasks.

We polled service leaders pre-COVID (January of 2020), at the midpoint of 2020 (June) and just this past month their key priorities and initiatives. It was telling that the leading priorities amongst service leaders shifted from technology (digital transformation) to process (also digital transformation) to people (employee experience & engagement) along the 3 pitstops remarked above (January 2020, June 2020 and just recently).

Earlier this month, The Service Council held its Advisory Board meeting featuring service and customer support executives from Southwest Airlines, Schneider Electric, Philips, DELL Technologies, Becton Dickinson, Trane Technologies, NCR Corporation, among others. We structured the agenda around 3 leading priorities:

  1. People
  2. Service Revenue
  3. Digital Transformation

Interestingly, the board did not want to move away from the topic of people. There was an overwhelming sense of care, concern and interest in learning from their peers about innovative methods to not only improve employee engagement and experience, but to improve the mental wellbeing of their people as well.

Why such a great concern for Employee Care?

Earlier this year, The Service Council conducted its annual Voice of the Field Service Engineer (VoFSE) survey which witnessed 725+ technician/engineer respondents. We asked them, “what do you like about your job” and “what do you dislike”. The results:

day-to-day for field service technician

If we focus on the left-hand side of this chart (dislikes), these daily challenges paint a picture which suggests technicians/engineers are being pressured for more output from management (and quicker resolution from customers).  While at the same time being bogged down with paperwork/administrative tasks, and time spent finding information needed to complete their work.

Products Become More Sophisticated And Complex

In addition, these challenges are compounded by the fact that products have become more sophisticated and require greater technical skills (i.e., harder to service), as evident in the chart below:

Product serviced by technicians are becoming more sophisticated

The Service Council has been monitoring an increasingly alarming trend around employee sentiment. Research data from the VoFSE survey suggests employee sentiment challenges are prevalent amongst field service technician workforces. These sentiment challenges are tied not only to the day-to-day job but also with respect to the working conditions in which they are exposed and the relationship they have with their employer and management. This survey also revealed that 61% of responding technicians don’t feel management listens and acts upon their feedback to improve the business. And an equivalent 61% of responding technicians/engineers indicate IT Tools can make their job easier.

These challenges are resulting in a direct (negative) impact on employee experience and engagement. As shown below, technicians/engineers (ages 25-44 which typically makes up ~60%+ of a service workforce) are potentially leaving their job at an equivalent pace (60%).

Voice Of Field Service Engineer

Will Field Service Be Your Career?

Set aside the impact of COVID-19, the job of a technician/engineer is difficult and labor intensive. The job can have grueling long days, dangerous work environments, and elongated travel times. Oftentimes, this includes isolation from their company, but more importantly their families. Add back the impact of COVID-19 to these workplace conditions; concerns of safety, health and wellbeing are now playing into the mix of the many issues facing both the technician/engineer, as well as the employer.

If we look back on the year-over-year trends from the 2020 VoFSE survey, isolation and the feeling of disconnectedness from their company and peers is not new.  In fact, it was one of the top 3 responses to the same question remarked previously: “what do you dislike”. The challenges the pandemic has caused, is not only creating headwinds with respect to employee engagement (& defection) but affecting their emotional and mental wellbeing. This emotional state is also trickling into the customer’s experience and has the potential to significantly damage customer loyalty and retention. Global consulting firm PwC conducted research which suggested customers will churn at a rate of 92% following 3 negative experiences.

What Can We Do Differently Going Forward?

Are we hiring the wrong skillset or persona? Are we not enabling them to be effective and feel a sense of satisfaction in their job? Unfortunately, in many instances, we think the answer may be yes to both of these questions. “Emotional Labor” is quickly becoming an issue caused by both of the symptoms above (hiring incorrectly and not enabling day-to-day work).

The sociologist Arlie Hochschild provides the first definition of emotional labor, which is displaying certain emotions to meet the requirements of a job. If you hire a persona which is not people or communication centric and which lacks interpersonal communication skills. For example, placing them in a role which interacts with customers may require them to work harder to perform effectively in their role. This will wear on this person given it is not an innate characteristic. This emotional labor trend also extends into other aspects of the job including the technical skills required to perform work, collaboration needs and more.

Hire For Will And Train For Skill?

More and more, we hear service leaders embrace a “hire for will and train for skill” methodology. Emerging technologies such as Knowledge Management, Augmented (Virtual, Merged, Mixed, etc.) Reality and Artificial Intelligence are serving to up-skill this younger generation with the focus and emphasis on will vs. skill. However, emotional labor is yet another cause of employee engagement challenges. As is asking someone to perform a task or act in a manner which is counter to their DNA and innate characteristics.

Up-skilling your workforce with tools that supplement their knowledge is also a slippery slope. You can run the risk of too much information which can have an adverse effect on efficiency and engagement. In the VoFSE survey referenced previously, 35% of technicians found their company was sending too much data volume.

How are service leaders addressing employee care?

We discussed with our advisory board during our recent board meeting how they are addressing the challenge of employee mental health and wellbeing as it relates to employee experience and engagement. Below represents a summary of the some of the concepts shared:

  • Establish listening programs (an opportunity for management to listen to feedback directly from a constituency of Technicians/Engineers)
  • Establish peer-to-peer groups (an opportunity for Technicians/Engineers to talk to Peers who can empathize rather than sympathize)
  • Address isolation challenges (establish time-off rewards and collaborative settings for team morale)
  • Consider upcoming transition back to in-office culture (this adjustment will be difficult for many)
  • Create a culture that technology (information access) can supplement not replace
  • Implement technician ride along programs
  • Move from listening to responding (Change Management)

The Service Council will build on this important set of topics tied to employee experience and engagement. A series of research and events are planned geared towards raising awareness to this heightened area of interest and challenge. Further, if anyone from within our community has any of the emotional and mental health symptoms outlined above, we are happy to serve as a listener to your challenges.

Service is Humanity.

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