With a sizeable chunk of the UK workforce required to operate alone in remote geographies and high-risk environments, employees increasingly work in isolation. But, despite the obvious challenges of hazardous conditions, unsociable hours and often poor mobile coverage, some organisations’ support for vulnerable lone workers remains sub-optimal.
Lone working has a particular resonance in manufacturing arenas such as energy, oil and gas, chemical plants and distilleries. In these disparate environments, employees are often required to work on-site at the isolated extremes of production plants, or off-site in the seclusion of the field. Yet whilst physically they may appear cut off from the rest of the world, companies cannot afford for lone workers to be disconnected from the rest of the workforce; they must be available any time, any place and anywhere.
Surprisingly, there is no specific legislation that governs lone working. The Health & Safety at Work Act makes basic provisions – the most pertinent being the need to provide equipment and procedures to control the risks of lone working. But in the main, companies’ processes to support mobile working do little to reflect the wholesale transformation of the ICT landscape.
Many still adopt primitive check-in procedures where lone workers telephone base at agreed intervals to report their whereabouts. Conversely, some companies deploy a ‘buddy-up’ methodology where remote workers operate in pairs, to safeguard against delays and mitigate the risk of unreported incidents. But these methods are flawed and inefficient. And in emergency situations, where speed of response is critical, they are also potentially life-threatening.
Organisations are increasingly deploying lone worker solutions to improve visibility and contact with their mobile workforce. The breadth of these tools is considerable. Solutions can provide positioning information to help users locate lone workers, alarm systems for when employees find themselves in dangerous situations, and no-motion sensors to provide alerts when a lone worker may be injured or unconscious.
For workers operating in explosive atmospheres containing gas and dust, intrinsically safe handsets are available to minimise the risk of unwanted electrical ignition. And since the technologies to support mobile working have proliferated to include GSM, DECT/IP, WiFi and Private Mobile Radio, companies can now reach lone workers regardless of geography, terrain or mobile blackspots. As a result, they can tailor their solutions accordingly. The goal of maintaining uninterrupted connectivity is therefore easily achievable.
Lone worker systems are a sensible attempt to provide round-the-clock protection for remote workers. But, aptly, on their own, they are not enough. The cure for isolation is integration.
Too often, lone worker solutions are commissioned in isolation from an organisation’s broader communications strategy. As such, they lack interoperability and true connectivity. In reality, standalone systems are a self-fulfilling prophecy; they stand alone. Without integration into a company’s unified communications network, lone worker solutions are as isolated as the workers they are designed to protect.
Value of integration
Companies’ continued reliance on ‘island solutions’ means many are missing out on the far-reaching value of integrated communications – and the benefits go way beyond Health & Safety compliance. By stitching lone worker provisions into the fabric of company-wide communications, organisations can drive operational and commercial gains.
Unified communications offer major economies of scale. Rather than buying disparate systems, companies can exploit existing infrastructure and significantly reduce the speed and cost of implementation. Operationally, fully integrated solutions can help plant managers become more responsive to problems in the production line, thus improving organisational slickness. And geo-locational asset tracking technologies can empower managers with increased staff visibility and enhanced performance metrics, improving resource management and driving productivity.
The benefits are not confined to operations. Unified communications can also improve sales and marketing – giving customer service teams instant access to mobile workers, enabling them to respond to customer queries with agility and immediacy. This collaboration can have a direct impact on customer loyalty, brand reputation and commercial growth.
So how do you get there? Organisations seeking to improve connectivity with their mobile workforce should look at the bigger picture. Lone working is just one piece of a bigger communications jigsaw – and the puzzle is unlikely to be completed by the patchwork procurement of individual solutions.
The best approach is to assemble a cross-functional team of stakeholders from across your organisation, and examine your business’s diverse communications needs. The considerations are simple, but the answers are company-specific. How do employees currently communicate? How could that be improved? In which areas could people be at risk – and how can those risks be alleviated? Where could functionality be enhanced to bolster health and safety compliance or drive operational gains?
And once you’ve identified your challenges, how do you tailor a system and implement actions to drive meaningful change? The most effective plans are often developed in partnership with independent specialists that can design customised unified communications strategies, and adapt them in line with changing market dynamics.
With human and commercial risks at the heart of the discussion, an integrated approach is key. It is only through a full examination of your entire communications infrastructure that you can develop a system that keeps your people safe and your business productive.
Forget the notion that nothing works in isolation; the UK’s burgeoning reliance on remote workers provides tangible proof to the contrary. But it’s hard to argue with a minor modification: nothing works well in isolation.
For an optimal performance that protects workers, integrates operations and drives commercial gains, a unified communications strategy is undoubtedly the safest move for a mobile workforce.
Lone workers will, by definition, always remain physically isolated. But your communications systems do not have to be.
Klaus Allion is Managing Director at ANT Telecom.