Mobilizing Workers, Focusing on the Benefits

A year ago, the Pew Research Center conducted a number of surveys about mobile devices. Researchers found 94 percent of U.S. adults age 18 to 29 and 73 percent of adults age 50 to 64 own a smartphone. According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 50 percent of U.S. adults own tablet computers—a device introduced by Microsoft in 2000, and later, some would say, perfected by Apple.

After implementing a technology, you need people to use it broadly to bring efficiency to operations. Tablets, cellphones and smartphones have brought efficiency to our personal and professional lives, which is why the Pew Research Center’s statistics show widespread adoption of this technology. There is always a subset of people who simply want to try and own the latest technology. But when people understand how a technology can benefit them, that’s when adoption truly takes off.

What are the challenges to getting field workers to adopt mobile technology and how can a utility overcome these hurdles?

Fundamentally, utility professionals know mobile technologies improve efficiency. For example, during a presentation about improving damage assessment at DistribuTECH 2018, Brad Baugh of Alabama Power highlighted the problems with multiple handoffs of maps and information between storm coordinators, damage assessors and field crews. Anyone who’s worked a storm understands the difficulty and delays interpreting handwritten assessments, especially when evaluators come from the ranks of non-engineers and aren’t as familiar with the infrastructure, operating procedures or equipment. Who among us wouldn’t see the benefit in automating that process with mobile technology? Yet, our industry still lags behind other businesses when it comes to fully mobile solutions.  

A 2016 McKinsey & Company report on the making of the digital utility noted that “digital optimization can boost profitability by 20 to 30 percent.” The report goes on to say that utilities can get there by adopting, among other things, mobile technology for employees. So, with all these potential benefits, how can utilities broaden mobile adoption among their workforce?

Here are a few ways in which I’ve seen mobile technology take hold among field workers and benefit companies.

As the Pew research noted, adults age 30 years and above have adopted mobile technology at slightly lower rates than 20-somethings. Those experienced line workers who don’t quickly adopt technology have seen younger line mechanics packing smartphones and downloading apps. The competitive side of an older worker’s personality can kick in and make him or her dive into mobile technology, not unlike peer pressure.

Picture a lineman’s rodeo. The people with a lot of stripes on their sleeve want to prove they can still climb a pole as fast as younger workers. In the same way, more experienced line mechanics are trying mobile tools to show they can master the technology just as easily and as well as their younger co-workers.

Some experienced workers will take the opposite approach:  They’ll turn over responsibility for using mobile technology to a younger crew member. It’s not unlike how the “new guy” on a line crew gets tapped to carry the equipment. While mobile technology isn’t quite the same as shouldering equipment, in the mind of a supervisor or foreman, the newly hired person is the one who carries whatever the crew needs.

A generation ago in the utility industry, getting someone to adopt a way of working was as simple as stating: “This is the way it’s done if you want to work here.” Now, the most effective way for utilities to sell their workforce on adopting a new way of working, including mobile technology, is to show the benefit. For example, several years ago automated callout replaced manual processes across the utility industry. These manual processes slowed the assembly of crews, extended the outage and pulled employees away from their families for extended periods of time. Today, automated callout can be handled with a smart phone allowing the employee to quickly respond to the call with a simple tap of a button.

Imagine the damage assessment process Baugh described above. A worker approaches a pole. The line mechanic gets out to inspect equipment. It’s wet, cold and windy. The worker climbs back into the truck, has to take off gloves, find paperwork and maybe call dispatch. With mobile technology, the worker approaches the pole and picks up a smart device, which identifies the asset. The worker quickly taps a few screens and makes notes about the condition. Within a minute, the worker has captured what might have taken five minutes or more with a manual process. And the data immediately travels back to a storm center for managers who want a real-time look at conditions. There’s a clear benefit for worker and supervisor alike.

While most utility crews have a mobile data computer, or MDC, in their truck to get dispatch trouble tickets, the MDC isn’t a fully mobile solution. The benefit of a fully mobile solution is having the ability to do anything a crew can do on paper with a hand-held device, while in their vehicle or the field receiving and sending real-time data.

There may be rare cases where there isn’t a clear benefit for the employee to adopt mobile technology. Instead, the advantage accrues to the organization. To spur mobile adoption in those instances, utility managers might explain to field workers how an uptick in company profitability can translate into acquiring better equipment or boosting salary and benefits.

Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operational Services for ARCOS LLC. Contact him at


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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at

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