Nick Helman, Operations Director for Egton, highlights some key areas for supporting and enabling a mobile workforce. Allowing them to work effectively whilst remaining connected to colleagues and the wider organisation.

“Office based with occasional travel.” This is the sentence that has been in my job description – and that of my team’s – for as many years as I can remember. This sentence might seem innocuous to many, but until fairly recently, there was a direct correlation between an individual’s location and a team’s productivity.

When I was office based, everything I needed to run my teams and provide them with the support they needed to drive our business was available. I had access to data on personnel, dashboards that showed details on our operational teams, management reports, supplier and customer information, and much more besides – all of which I could make available to my team. And just as importantly, it allowed my team and me to connect to others across the business, giving our colleagues important information on our activities while we gained invaluable access to others’ expertise and knowledge. As such, decisions were made in a timely fashion, underpinned by easy-to-access and valuable data.

This wasn’t the case when we were away from the office. For many years, all we had to hand was a mobile phone with limited email capabilities. This led to many stressful journeys, where one phone call was made after another and where important decisions had to be made without direct access to the data we needed. Being a data-driven person, this was personally far from ideal. Too often a long day would be finished off with a trip back to the office, where we tried to complete a day’s work in a couple of hours before heading home.

I’m happy to report that all of this has changed over the last few years. This is thanks, in part, to some changes in habits. But it’s mainly down to improvements in a broad spectrum of technologies that help us stay connected when we’re out and about.

Knowing what habits to change and what technology to introduce requires careful consideration – there is no single correct route. For me, there are three clear needs of the remote worker that have to be addressed to help them work effectively.

Engagement

Feeling part of a business is crucial to an employee’s overall wellness – and their happiness directly affects any engagement they have with end users and customers.

As a result of remote working, staff members can often feel disengaged as they aren’t part of the decision-making process. In my case, being on the road reduced the amount of time I was able to dedicate to the personal development of staff, often leaving team members behind the times when it came to new policies or processes that we needed to adhere to.

Remote workers must remain engaged across the board. They should be involved in overarching interests – like a business’ vision and long-term strategy – all the way down to the day-to-day activities of teams.

But communication must not be one way, as is far too often the case. Remote workers must be heard. It’s important teams get into the habit of having some dedicated time to talk together. It’s key to arrange this time well in advance, normally for the beginning or the end of the day. And it’s important to keep these talks structured to get the most out of them. I have a weekly meeting with my team where we alternate between operational and strategic agendas. This allows us to keep the conversations short and focused, which is far better than having remote workers hanging on a conference call or video link for long periods of time.

Managing a mobile workforce

Access to information

It seems obvious, but access to up-to-date data is really important in helping remote workers make well-informed decisions without having to call into the office. But there are technical challenges to this, like the security issue of data leaving your network. Network connections can also be problematic, both in speed and reliability. Also consider the practicality of displaying rich data sets on small screens, as well as technology that has limited local processing power.

None of these issues are insurmountable – but they do require thought. In terms of connection types, one that has worked really well for us is ‘always on – sometimes connected.’ In essence, this means that when our devices can connect, they will. Any relevant data is synchronised by sending locally held data back to base. We also receive updates back from HQ. This means that when we’re in an area with no connection, we still have the ability to update our local records and see the latest set of information from our last sync.

There aren’t many days when a remote worker isn’t able to sync three to four times a day –this is enough to keep them and the business up to date. It’s a popular model used by many of the applications we take for granted, like Facebook and email – it’s also the model EMIS Health uses for its EMIS Mobile application. So, when you look for a new tool to support remote workers, it’s well worth considering something that will support ‘always on – sometimes connected.’

Keeping your organisation compliant

Compliance is the element that so many organisations forget. It’s great that your remote workers are now engaged and have access to the information they need to make decisions, but what happens when you make a change to part of their job? Perhaps you change the order of processes, or maybe there are now seven checks to perform before making a decision, instead of five. How do you let your staff know? And how can you be sure they’ve received the update and they’ve understood it? This isn’t an engagement plan, nor is it a case of sharing data. This is a system that ensures the services your remote workers are providing are constantly meeting the ever-changing requirements of your business and its users. For organisations that work in regulated markets, this is about as important as it gets.

There’s a lot involved in getting this right, such as detailed change and release management processes. It’s about fostering a culture that understands the importance of compliance while digging into the finest of detail to understand any failures. One of the solutions we put in place was to borrow a lovely process that our colleagues in sales were using to introduce new products and services to customers. In this case, customers received a simple communication via email that let them click a few buttons and delve into detail if they wanted. This was then followed up by a phone call and, if required, a one-to-one meeting. We now use a similar process internally to keep our team – including remote workers – up-to-date with changes that occur in the business.

Making mobile work for healthcare

So all this seems like a lot of hard work. Is it worth it? And how does all this relate to healthcare?

The NHS needs to do more for less. It needs its teams to be at their most productive in order to provide the best patient care possible with limited resources. Let’s not forget: a large proportion of NHS staff are – or should be – remote workers.

So yes, it’s worth the effort. But you need to work out what you want to achieve, whether it is increased productivity or better patient care (though it’s often the case that an improvement in one area will benefit another). The above pain points will look different to each organisation, so take the time to understand what is preventing your team from effectively working outside of the office.

Finally, make sure that you have the right support. This can be in new processes that you’ll need to build to promote changes in habits. Additionally, it’s about finding the right technology that underpins what you are trying to achieve. Make sure that these become embedded as part of your everyday working practice.

With these considerations in mind, you should be well on your way to improving your organisation’s remote working capabilities.