Digital communications platforms can provide an enormous amount of value for a dispersed workforce – allowing teams to exchange information, including calls and text chats as well as video and images of work, and for managers to track precisely where staff are and to direct them as efficiently as possible.

However, remote workers also face challenges that wouldn’t typically be experienced by an office employee sitting at a desk, with a stable Wi-Fi connection.


Technology is great – until it goes wrong

Staff engaged in construction work, in inspections or on maintenance tasks will often be in areas with poor mobile signal, and hence no internet – such as in cellars, down drains and behind thick stone walls (not to mention areas that are simply too far away from a mobile phone mast to get reception).

This naturally creates difficulties in providing two-way communication in real time, when one party will inevitably be cut off on occasion.

This can create problems – such as when two individuals are simultaneously trying to edit a piece of information, but one is offline and hence their changes aren’t being synchronised. This conflict will mean that, without realising, the two are at cross-purposes with each other and will end up with two different, incompatible versions of what they are working on.

One approach to deal with this problem is to establish processes that minimise the issue.

Creating workarounds

For example, if the rule is set that HQ will not override job information while staff are out of the office then it ensures that the original information and the communication thread is preserved without any risk of it being overwritten. Of course, if there are updates needed for the task then these can be communicated by email or text, but with the consideration that staff may be out of reach at any given moment.

At the same time, specific jobs can be flagged as being ones in which workers are particularly likely to be out of contact for some time – whether because they will be underground, for example, or because they are heading to an area of notably poor reception.

There are also technical fixes that can be deployed, such as carrying a secondary device which can be used as a wireless hotspot. This can then placed at a midpoint where it can receive signal while also reaching the worker, who might otherwise be cut off from the surface (for example putting a mobile device at the top of a flight of stairs into a cellar or at the top of a vertical shaft).

A more comprehensive solution

Communications platforms built for remote workforces can provide a more tailored solution to the challenge, for example allowing users to save information in the app in an offline mode and to then retrieve it when the network is available.

To illustrate the problem, Google Docs is extremely useful, until you discover that you can’t edit documents while offline – or worse, you find that you can’t call up the information you need until you get a connection (you can of course switch documents to offline mode – but you’ll need to be online to do that).

Considerations for effective online/offline communication

Offline access is a core feature of Okappy, which minimises the amount of data used in order to ensure that information can be sent to and from the device, even when the network is poor or intermittent.

The platform also takes into account other practicalities of a remote working environment – for example displaying the true quality of the data network, which may be poor or intermittent even if the device says that it has a good signal. In addition, the app works to minimise battery strain during use; to minimise the data transmitted to reduce cost; and to minimise the amount of memory used by the app, to ensure that it is flexible and easy to use in the field.

The team have worked to make it simple, intuitive and responsive for users – even though a lot of complicated things are in fact going on in the background

If used effectively, Okappy isn’t about tracking engineers as they go about their work. Instead, it should empower remote staff, giving them access to more information and to improved communication channels, hence allowing them to demonstrate their expertise and putting them in a position to make informed decisions.

All this enables jobs to be done faster and more flexibly – and going underground is just the start of the story.