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Mobile apps for field service adapt to meet deskless needs

Old habits die hard, but mobile field service apps have staying power as they secure and ease communication and reporting across various industries and business sizes.

Mobile apps for field service have entered phase two of their evolution, with vendors changing gears to improve the features important to field workers.

The need for reliable and secure communication has driven the adoption of mobile apps for field service across many organizations in different industries. Field service apps can help workers that don't rely on desks to achieve many tasks, from filing daily reports to analyzing how employees communicate. Even for basic capabilities, such as sending messages, mobile apps have made field service work more efficient.

"Every industry will ultimately adopt these applications for several reasons," said Jim Robinson, research director at Gartner. "The big one is the real-time communication, but also just digitizing all of these other elements that had traditionally been done on paper."

Mobile field service apps shift gears

Early mobile apps for field service focused on connecting office personnel to field agents using expansive native apps with many features -- without investing in making these apps usable from a field worker's perspective. As mobile technology developed hybrid and progressive web apps, and thereby decreased costs, mobile apps began to evolve, according to Robinson.

Now, vendors have started to slim down mobile apps to fit the needs of specific jobs, said Andrew Hewitt, an analyst at Forrester Research.

"There's a lot more other alternatives in terms of building those, [making] them easier and cheaper and more targeted to the individuals, so that's why we're seeing the growth," Hewitt said. "We're going to see this take off even more."

Communication and security are key

Ehrhart Griffin and Associates, a civil engineering and construction management firm in Omaha, Neb., has been using Raken, a construction management app for field reporting, for about two years. Prior to the app, managers would spend a lot of time writing daily reports, said Matt Jackman, a construction manager at the firm. The app enables workers to file a report in only a few minutes, with pictures showing their work and any problems.

It doesn't really make sense on mobile to have all these granular capabilities like you would have on a PC.
Andrew Hewittanalyst, Forrester

"It doesn't really make sense on mobile to have all these granular capabilities like you would have on a PC," Hewitt said. "The value of mobile is being able to really capitalize on short, quick casts and what we call glanceable moments."

With Raken, users can track a project's progress, share that information with clients and have reliable documentation to protect against liability lawsuits. The first report Jackman created and sent to a client elicited a strong response.

"They were just very impressed, so it made us look that much better," he said.

Jet AirWerks LLC, an airline parts supplier in Arkansas City, Kan., turned to communication platform Zinc for more secure and reliable communication. The need for a secure platform became urgent when a virus attacked the company's ERP system and email server, CEO Keith Humphrey said.

Zinc also helped solve two issues where group text messages were failing to reach Jet AirWerks employees' smartphones, and that lack of communication caused multiple people to work on the same problems without realizing it. The app offers group communication channels so everyone can see where problems are and who is working to fix them.

Raken field management app
Raken, a construction field management app

Humphrey has also gotten rid of staff meetings, which would take over two hours, by holding report pitches through Zinc.

"Everybody knows what's going on, plus we have a record of what's been said," Humphrey said. "Zinc is a verb now. You know, 'Zinc that.' It's become a pretty integral part of how we do business."

Companies need to consider the security of mobile apps for field service workers, especially when it comes to contractors, Hewitt said. Contractors usually use personal devices, so organizations need to have a way to distribute apps securely.

For instance, Zinc uses enterprise-grade encryption for all data at rest and during transit through partnerships with security and infrastructure providers. Data stored on Raken requires user authentication to be viewed, and Raken uses network traffic filtering to protect against data leakage. Both apps use offsite ISO 27001-compliant data centers.

Future of mobile apps for field service

Apps that do not just move desk work into a mobile device, but that instead answer specific problems, are the ones that will succeed going forward, Robinson said. By 2020, 75% of field service organizations will deploy mobile apps with capabilities beyond simple data collection, according to a Gartner field service study.

Companies with workers who want to do things the way they have always been done have some difficulty implementing these apps, Hewitt said. But as more millennials join the workforce, there will be greater acceptance.

The Jet AirWerks team, which Humphrey describes as a young group, already texted each other before Zinc started solving specific communication issues, for example. And Ehrhart Griffin and Associates' already used smartphones before the firm implemented the mobile apps for field service.

"It's very user-friendly, so when they show somebody how to get the app and where to go and how to enter their reports, that's the last time I have to show them how to do it," Jackman said.

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