We’re all Zoomers now. Even before COVID-19, remote collaboration tools like Zoom, Teams and Hangouts were becoming more prevalent for both personal and business use. With the abrupt shift to remote work dictated by the pandemic, these platforms have become indispensable for day-to-day business operations and will most likely continue to play a role as many continue to work from home.
However, these platforms only go part way toward addressing the challenges associated with managing wireless construction projects. The business of deploying crews to build towers and small cells is loaded with risk because of the tight coordination required across multiple in-house and external players to complete projects on time. Inaccurate site details, weather conditions, missing tools and materials, dependencies on third parties and other challenges combine to stack the odds against a successful deployment. And if this wasn’t already complex enough, the balancing act has become even more precarious with the new constraints imposed by COVID-19.
Wireless Is Leading the Way
A recent survey by NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, found that almost 75 percent of their members have had some employees move to remote work while still managing the same workload.
“This has crystalized what most of us already knew,” said Todd Schlekeway, NATE president and CEO, “which is how essential our industry’s services are. NATE member companies have crews on the front lines deploying and maintaining communications infrastructure that enable new forms of collaboration technology, such as tele-health, distance learning and other emerging services.”
Moreover, the volume of work, while facing some near-term delays caused by permitting and site access challenges, is expected to ramp up significantly. CTIA projects that over 700,000 small cells will need to be built by 2026 to keep up with the increased demand in broadband communications service for consumers, businesses and connected devices.
Because of this, many wireless construction companies have been rethinking how they use digital technology to manage their business operations. Legacy applications and spot solutions, such as spreadsheets, email, accounting systems and basic timekeeping tools, are not optimized for the additional complexity that comes with managing a high volume of small cell deployments, let alone the challenges associated with moving to a remote workforce.
Emerging Software Solutions
The good news is that an emerging category of software called field operations platforms, such as the FieldClix software platform, are designed to address the unique requirements specific to managing field operations for wireless construction (discussed in more detail in the October 2018 issue of AGL Magazine).
These software platforms come with many “out-of-box” capabilities that can be rapidly deployed with minimal configuration, including crew scheduling and resource management, workflow management, mobility tools, budget tracking, timekeeping and payroll automation, material and asset management, invoice management, and reporting and analytics.
Typical benefits that come with field operations platforms include enhanced planning capabilities to help minimize project risk, standardized processes to improve team alignment and collaboration, real-time visibility into field activities and daily updates on project status and costs. Companies deploying these platforms are seeing field productivity improve by up to 30 percent and a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in profit margins.
Adapting to the New Normal
Dan Denda, the president of Ironbo, made the decision a few years ago to move his company onto a field operations platform. He is seeing unanticipated benefits now that his employees must work remotely. “With FieldClix, we’ve been able to move full steam ahead without missing a beat. The software allowed us to establish standardized workflows across the organization, which gives our employees immediate access to the tasks, information and documents they need to manage their day-to-day responsibilities.”
Before the spread of COVID-19, Dan had as many as 30 people working in his offices. He’s now down to a skeleton crew of six to eight. “I’m not sure how we would have handled the sudden shift to remote work without a field operations platform,” Dan said. “Like many others, we didn’t anticipate this situation and, fortunately, we had an emergency backup plan we didn’t know existed.”
For Dan Kunz, the COO of Crosslink Wireless, COVID-19 has created new logistical complexities in managing his field deployments. “We have to limit our crews to two people per truck and are facing issues in remote locations because of limited access to food and lodging,” Dan explained. “We also need to make sure our crews have access to personal protective equipment and are following new safety protocols while traveling and on site.”
For Kunz, these challenges emphasize the importance of planning vs reacting. Kunz’s project managers are making use of their field operations platform’s scheduling and dispatch capabilities to plan deployments in more detail and make sure their field crews receive automated updates with timely information about locations, site access details, required equipment and safety protocols.
Kunz’s budgets have also been affected by these new operational constraints. “You’ve really got to manage your costs, or the project will get out of control very fast,” Kunz said. “Using a tool like FieldClix, we get automated reports from our field teams, so we know what job they’re working on and can see how that project is doing compared to where they’re supposed to be.”
Dan has started to make use of this data to request additional fees from his customers. “We’ve been able to take our jobs, show our increase in project costs, go in and sit down across from our clients and get to the actual price we need in order to do these jobs to stay profitable.”
Keeping an Eye on Safety and Costs
Kent Smith, VP Operations at Wireless Services, is heavily focused on indoor and venue-based wireless infrastructure installations and is seeing new revenue opportunities open up as a result of the increased need for remote monitoring and security across the health care landscape.
It used to take Kent’s accounting team over 45 days to close their books. These delays affected his ability to manage the financial health of these complex programs.
“We’ve now moved all our financial workflows out of email and into FieldClix, which allows us to maintain tighter control, even with our teams working across the country,” Kent said. “With COVID-19, it’s even more important that we get a handle on our costs, and FieldClix is giving us this information daily and providing increased visibility into many areas where we can begin to improve our efficiency.”
Even more important is the need to maintain a safe working environment for his field crews. Kent relies on his field operations platform to provide visibility into their daily movements. “Our field teams are moving in and out of many venues, including hospitals, and we rely on the real-time data to help us communicate with them and watch out for their safety while making sure they have information at their fingertips to comply with both CDC and venue protocols.”
Accelerating the Adoption Curve
A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that construction has lagged behind other industries in the adoption of digital tools. They estimated that productivity gains greater than 30 percent are possible with the adoption of these new technologies.
Schlekeway said he believes the current pandemic will accelerate the move to digital tools. In fact, NATE currently offers the STAR Initiative mobile app to support site safety audits and is transitioning to virtual courses for a number of their training and educational programs.
We still don’t have a handle on how long COVID-19 will be around, and more importantly, the degree to which remote work will become a norm in the long term. One thing we know for sure is we will all be managing through this uncertainty for the foreseeable future. Field operations platforms offer a proven solution to help maintain stable and profitable business operations with distributed teams working in the field, in the office and from home.