The FIFO (fly-in/fly-out) lifestyle has become a way of life for many Australians. It affords many benefits to employees such as not having to relocate families to regional or remote areas, extended rest and recreational time at home, career development opportunities, and of course, lucrative remuneration.

In recent years, however, there has been much said and documented on FIFO workers health and wellbeing including mental health. As a result, mine operators are actively looking at strategies to support FIFO workers and to minimise the negative impacts on worker health and wellbeing.

A Code of Practice for Mentally Healthy Workplaces has been developed (currently in draft) providing the mining, resources and construction sectors with guidelines and benchmark practices to foster positive health and wellbeing for onsite employees.

One of the simplest strategies for mitigating factors that could weigh on FIFO worker health and wellbeing in the workplace is the provision of high-quality communication systems, which can also provide other flow-on benefits.

1. Employee Health & Wellbeing

A paper by the Australian Institute of Family Studies has shown that one factor leading to feelings of isolation and disconnect is caused by a lack of communication with loved ones which can be attributed to poor availability of telecommunications, mobile coverage and internet within the worker’s rooms.

The Best of Both Worlds research report also states that the ability for FIFO couples to talk and maintain communication over the period of a work rotation could be seen as a key factor in relationship survival. This is further supported in the paper by the Australian Institute of Family Studies which maintains that FIFO families need to be able to communicate regularly, privately, effectively and spontaneously.

With evidence mounting, the argument is strong that technology can be harnessed to strengthen strategies that focus on worker wellbeing.

Employing technology to deliver quality in-room communication services and high-speed WiFi would allow the worker to use their wireless-enabled devices for video calls, emailing and internet access to regularly keep in touch with loved ones, supporting healthy and functional relationships.

2. The Resident Experience

Access to advanced communication technology means FIFO workers can not only maintain contact with their family and friends, they would also be able to do things they enjoy when their work day is done.

Technology advancements now enable mobile phone coverage by utilising in-room WiFi to facilitate what is known as ‘voice over WiFi’. This means mobile phone calls and text messaging can be made without the presence of a telecommunications carrier cell

In addition, today’s wireless devices provide far greater connectivity. The availability of high performing WiFi – within the privacy of the accommodation rooms – would support modern day apps that allow streaming of entertainment services such as Netflix and Stan, social networking, and importantly, maintain communication links with loved ones.

One study cited that where FIFO workers and their families had access to communication technologies, they reported using social networking sites (eg Facebook, Instagram) and real-time video applications (eg Skype, FaceTime), received and sent emails, and regular phone contact to help them stay actively involved with their families.

It is evident the resident experience can be heightened through the availability of high-quality communications and high-speed internet which helps maintain communication links and a connection to the ‘outside world’.

3. Attraction and retention

Research on the FIFO lifestyle in Western Australia’s Pilbara region found a common theme amongst new-to-FIFO workers was inadequate communication with their families once commencing work. The study also found that many couples take around six months to figure out if the FIFO lifestyle is suitable for their family.

While conventional mine operations may allow for some level of connectivity for workers in and around the mine site, planning for advanced communications systems could also impact positively on recruitment.

Taking into account the cost of hire, training, workplace disruption and more, the implications that staff turnover has for human resource management and workforce planning would be adverse. The ability to keep in touch with family and friends and be entertained while off-shift could be seen as appealing incentive for attracting and retaining staff, particularly in a competitive labour market.

Building a strategy for mine village communications

Whether in the early stages of village design, or considering improvements to an existing village, a key focus should be understanding the use cases and services that are required now and in the future.

Each accommodation village would have different requirements for the communication system which would be influenced by the camp’s purpose, location, size, planned operating life, shift patterns, HR requirements and budget.

A strategic approach would include the development of an architecture roadmap for the delivery of services and infrastructure to these mine villages in alignment with the business needs. Whilst it need not be complicated, an architecture provides a reference framework for village communications – the services and required infrastructure, the technology roadmap, and lifecycle considerations – which would correspond to a deployment program providing a holistic view of village communications.

For some of Australia’s biggest mining projects, advanced communication services are a must. For others however, the level of connectivity might not be cost-effective right now however, could be considered as part of the mine camp’s longer-term strategy.

For this reason, a high-level view and well-planned approach is fundamental in addressing the immediate and future requirements, and to ensure a successfully executed communications strategy.