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How the laptop is changing Yorkshire Water's ways of working

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working magazine (UK), May 1998

High up in the hills of the Yorkshire Dales national park, in the moorland region north of Swaledale where the tourists are no longer easy to find and the sheep have the place pretty much to themselves, is Garland Hill.

From springs on the hillside here comes the water which - after passing through a series of treatment stations and reservoirs - supplies the people of Swaledale and the neighbouring dales with their drinking water. Steve Mortimer, as team leader for Yorkshire Water's plant engineers in the area, has the responsibility for ensuring that the water keeps getting through. Since his team began to participate in a laptop PC-based mobile working pilot two years ago (1996), this has meant relying as much on the laptop as on the company waterproofs and wellies.

Steve Mortimer's team covers an enormous area of north Yorkshire, from the Cumbrian border just beyond Garland Hill to the populated areas of the Vale of York to the east. He and his staff are responsible for the intricate network of reservoirs, treatment plants and water mains which carry the clean water down off the Pennines. The job involves monitoring flow levels, water turbidity (in lay terms, the amount of bits in it), its pH levels and much else. (Yorkshire Water separates administratively the clean water supply side of its business from its network of waste water plants).

Fortunately, most of the necessary information for this work is recorded and transmitted by automatic sensors and metering devices across the water network. This data is combined into a computer database known as the Regional Telemetry System (RTS), which identifies problems for the engineers to sort out as they crop up. Until the mobile working pilot, Steve Mortimer and his engineers had to make their way each day to the team's office at Thornton Steward near the small town of Masham to access RTS information, using a desktop PC linked to the company's network. Now each engineer carries a laptop which they use first thing each morning at home to access RTS data and work out their day's itinerary. It means that as soon as they leave home they can be on their way to the first job. The result has been an important saving in the amount of driving - Steve Mortimer himself estimates that he saves 3,000-4,000 miles on about 16,000-20,000 of work travel a year. It has changed the way work is performed: "People are empowered more. It's given people the opportunity to take more decisions for themselves," Steve Mortimer says.

It has also proved its worth in a crisis. The fearsome storms on Christmas Eve night in 1997 created mayhem in the Yorkshire Dales, with many trees blown down and mains power cut off. At one stage 16 Yorkshire Water sites were without mains power. Whilst the engineers laboured to put things right, Steve Mortimer co-ordinated the work by converting his dining room at home in Harrogate into a makeshift office, logging on permanently to RTS to monitor developments. The work carried on more or less non-stop until well past Boxing Day: Christmas 1997 will not be quickly forgotten by all those involved.

Steve Mortimer's team was one of two field teams chosen by Yorkshire Water for the initial mobile working pilot. Recently the company has decided to roll out the programme to all of its clean water field teams, about 36 in all, in an initiative which involves 200 staff and expenditure of close to 1m.

"From the information we got back, there were real benefits from introducing mobile working," says John Ballantine, Project manager for the clean water teams, and a member of the small steering group which has overseen the initiative. The steering group also includes representatives from IT, training, HR and internal audit.

The group was responsible for overseeing the development of a business case for the mobile working programme, including a detailed cost/benefit analysis. John Ballantine says that identified benefits included travel reduction, more efficient use of staff time and better customer service. Interestingly however the cost/benefit exercise, which assumed an average life for the PC equipment of three years, came out showing a small net cost to the company. Nevertheless, Board approval for the programme was received last year.

The steering group has chosen to implement mobile working in two steps, with team leaders being the first to be issued with laptops. The aim has been to persuade them of the advantages of the technology, so that they can then act as 'champions' when their staff subsequently receive their kit. The pilot suggested that there was a need to counter possible scepticism and hostility towards the changes by some employees, particularly those with long service in the pre-privatised water company who might see new technology as potentially threatening to their jobs. Team leaders received their laptops at the end of 1997, with the roll out to team members beginning from April 1998. Not every member of every team will participate, and some laptops will be shared between staff. The actual process of distributing the new equipment has been tied into a training programme, based at the company's training centre north-east of Bradford. "When people go on the training course, they get the kit - they don't get the kit if they don't show up," explains Ed Lawson of Yorkshire Water's IT business unit. Training is tailored to the degree of prior computer experience staff have had, but typically includes one day which looks at Windows and Lotus Notes and a second which concentrates on the laptop itself. One advantage is that the company has previously organised a comprehensive PC and computer training programme for many of its staff.

Training is more complicated than it might be because the laptops can be used in one of three ways: as stand-alone machines, linked directly to the company's network (for example, from a depot), and also in dial-up mode, using a modem and ordinary PSTN telephone lines (for example, from home). LANDial software is used for this last function.

There are also different facilities available, each of which require PCs to be configured appropriately. For example, in stand-alone mode (currently using the Windows for Work Groups operating system) the laptops can run MS Office software and also access Yorkshire Water's comprehensive library of digital maps. These use GIS (Geographic Information System) technology to provide, for example, an overlay of the water mains network on to standard OS-based maps.

Yorkshire Water uses Lotus Notes extensively, both as an internal e-mail service and as a method of accessing key corporate information, including operational manuals, health and safety information and the internal job vacancies database. Mobile workers are expected to log into Lotus Notes regularly from their mobiles. Steve Mortimer says that this method of communication between staff has worked well during the pilot phase, making it much easier for him to pass information out to his team members.

An IT development team is currently experimenting with a technical fix which it is hoped will enable staff to access the company's Operational Management System via Lotus Notes. The OMS is a key operational corporate system which records, for example, repair jobs and customer visits which need to be undertaken.

Finally, laptops can be used to access the Regional Telemetry System, either via a dial-up link or direct from a depot into the company's network.

What has not been possible is for mobile workers to access Yorkshire Water's complete GIS mapping archive via the modem link. The problem is that, even with today's fast modem connections, the quantity of data to be transferred is simply too great. Instead the GIS maps which are relevant to the areas of each field team have been loaded on to CD-ROMs, which can then be accessed whilst machines are in stand-alone mode. Perhaps surprisingly, Yorkshire Water has also chosen not to utilise the opportunities for GSM mobile telephony communications. Ed Lawson says that GSM may become possible in two or three years' time. For the present, however, there are two difficulties: "Firstly, the speed of transfer is slow, so the cost of the call is more. And GSM is expensive," he says. "Secondly, the guys who have got this equipment may be in rural areas, where GSM coverage is not good enough."

Whilst a representative from the HR side of the company participated in the steering group which has established mobile working for Yorkshire Water, the company says that the development has not involved the necessity of changing the employment contracts of the workers affected. In some areas (such as monitoring of hours worked) actual procedures have needed minor changes, with in general a reliance more on trust and less on direct supervision. The trade unions have also been involved.

However, as Ed Lawson points out, the mobile working programme does not raise the same sorts of issues as a home teleworking scheme. "Our programme involves working from home, and not working at home. We see a great distinction," he says. This means, for example, that the company has not felt it generally necessary to consider reimbursing extra costs of working at home or checking home equipment for suitability. A second home telephone line is also not considered necessary for most staff affected.

The laptop itself is a standard Zenith model with ordinary travelling case, though the company is looking at ways of 'ruggedising' the casing for field staff working from their vans. Staff are under strict instructions that any personal use of their PC is not permitted and would be treated as a disciplinary offence. Ed Lawson says that the company anticipates little problem in this respect.

Yorkshire Water has also explored ways of other staff more flexible, and has as a separate initiative issued 300 laptops to office-based staff. An experiment in hot-desking at the company's offices in Bradford, however, generally did not prove successful.

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