How we’ve been testing low-code tools to transform Royal Greenwich’s street services operation

Senior Product Manager Dan Harper-Wain introduces our work to build a suite of low-code tools, to help our street service operation run efficiently.

 

Our staff want to focus on running the service, not administering it

Royal Greenwich’s street services are responsible for waste collection and street cleaning across the borough. The service has a small back-office team of supervisors, who support the frontline staff that collect refuse and keep the borough’s streets clean and tidy.

The project’s discovery and alpha phases focused on this back-office team, their processes, and how they interact with frontline staff. We saw that supervisors want to spend more time supporting and coaching their teams, but are held back by a range of administrative tasks, such as:

  • establishing which staff are available

  • producing rosters for upcoming shifts and amending them as availability changes

  • organising and communicating overtime

For instance, staff holiday and absence information is currently siloed in a corporate HR system. Supervisors transcribe this information manually onto paper roster sheets for each shift, in order to find cover for absences in teams.

We estimated that, collectively, supervisors spend around 2,300 hours per year on these kinds of tasks. They’re repetitive tasks, which involve accessing, collating and communicating data, which makes them ideal candidates for digital solutions.

 

Our needs aren’t unique, yet we struggled to find suitable off-the-shelf products

Managing staff availability and rostering isn’t a problem unique to Royal Greenwich. A whole range of organisations, from bars and restaurants, through to fire brigades, have similar needs. So we started the project by assessing existing products on the market.

We talked to supervisors, frontline staff and service managers to build our understanding of the main pain points and user needs. We refined this by prototyping and testing a few early examples of rostering tools ourselves, to understand the nuances of our supervisors’ needs. We then used this information to assess a range of off-the-shelf products, through hands-on demos and requirements analysis.

Surprisingly, we struggled to find products that met enough of our users’ needs. Many tools focussed on hourly staffing levels (such as organising cover for restaurants or bars), which didn’t fit the service’s operating model. They often lacked support for important parts of the process, like staff signing in and out of their shifts, or recording changes to the service (such as closing waste collection rounds due to absence or bad weather).

Some of these products met most of our needs, but:

  • Had complex interfaces, that would make them harder for staff to adopt

  • Weren’t fully accessible, which would exclude our staff that have disabilities

  • Weren’t open or modular, which would make it harder to address other use cases (such as managing our vehicle fleet) in future

 

Low-code platforms offer a more flexible alternative

Whilst analysing these off-the-shelf products, we also explored the feasibility of using low-code tools to create an in-house alternative. We tested out several platforms (Microsoft PowerApps, Zoho, and Quickbase) to understand their capabilities, flexibility and accessibility.

This exploration highlighted PowerApps, as a tool to create robust, accessible applications for mobile, tablet and desktop. We produced a proof-of-concept of a staff rostering tool for supervisors, which was based on one of our earlier prototypes.

Screenshot of a Figma prototype, that allows supervisors to assign staff to waste rounds by dragging their names into available gaps

Prototype, generated in Figma

Screenshot of a PowerApp, that shows which staff are currently assigned to each waste round, and allows the user to select a date

Proof of concept, generated in PowerApps

 

This gave us a good level of confidence about the platform’s ability to support a usable, accessible set of tools for our staff. Crucially, having control of the software and underlying data lets us iterate the products over time, as we tackle the various challenges on our roadmap. Finally, we expect the costs of developing these products to be broadly equivalent to the off-the-shelf alternatives we explored­—even when accounting for the cost of staff time to develop and maintain it—due to the relative speed and simplicity of low-code.

 

We’re creating a minimum viable rostering product, to test our assumptions

Our discovery and alpha phases suggest a lot of potential in this approach. But we won’t know for sure until we stand up a working version of the product, in order to understand how usable it is for staff, and how feasible it is to maintain over time.

In the longer term, we envisage a suite of three products, that meet the needs of different groups:

  1. A mobile application for frontline staff that shows staff their assigned duties, lets them to sign in and out, and volunteer for overtime shifts

  2. A tablet and desktop application for supervisors to view staff absence, handle rostering, track and record progress, and organise overtime

  3. A set of dashboards and reports for service managers to monitor service performance and trends

Screenshots of three proposed products next to each other. The first shows the mobile application for frontline staff, which shows the interface for a driver signing in for their shift. The second shows the tablet and desktop application for supevisors, which shows which staff are currently assigned to each waste round, and allows the user to select a date. The third shows a data dashboard for managers.

We’re starting by creating a minimum viable product, that contains the core elements of the supervisor application. We expect it will:

  • Display real-time staff absence data through an integration with iTrent, our corporate HR system

  • Automatically generate upcoming rosters, based on default staff allocations

  • Highlight gaps in the roster

  • Allow supervisors to make changes and act on last-minute absences quickly

This approach lets us test some of biggest risks (such as the ability to get timely, reliable absence data from our corporate HR system), before committing further investment to the products.

 

We’d love to hear from you

Our initial focus is on Royal Greenwich’s street services operation. However, we can see opportunities for reuse in other council services that have similar rostering and staff planning needs (such as parks, caretaking, and housing). We’ll make any products we create openly available to others. So we’d love to hear from you, if you work in a service that might want to use or develop them further.

Equally, we’re keen to hear from organisations that have built similar products with Microsoft PowerApps. Royal Greenwich has already developed a number of products using the platform. This will be one of our most complex use cases and we’d love to exchange learnings with others, so please get in touch if you work in a team that has done something similar.

 

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