With extreme weather events on the rise in frequency and impact, Utilities are already working towards greater network resilience and have continued to improve their agility in responding to weather events. Reacting to the current pandemic event has highlighted the value of having a resilient workforce (as well as resilient systems) to endure any type of event, ideally increasing resilience with each event. Here are some reflections.
Rising to the challenge
We’ve seen extreme weather events around the world becoming more frequent and severe as more than 90% of utilities leaders are well aware. These events don’t stop when a pandemic hits. When I think about my clients, at least one of them has dealt with two storms impacting their customers over recent months, while also managing the tremendous new challenges of COVID-19. Against this backdrop, utilities have truly risen to the challenge, showing the value of their plans and practice when it comes to emergency response.
What’s also become clear is that their emergency planning has been stretched to the max because those plans did not anticipate an event lasting several months or more. That’s new territory and undercuts long-held assumptions about disasters and the cadence of response, including prepare, switch to emergency roles/procedures, experience event, restore, and then back to business as usual. Even the most well-prepared utilities, used to handling higher magnitude and more frequent events, have found themselves having to adapt more quickly than ever before.
In addition, with many employees now working remotely and new procedures for staging crews and so on, every element of the workforce has been affected. Utilities’ people are working in new conditions and dealing with pandemic-related worries and challenges in their daily personal lives, while the next extreme weather event is on the horizon. So how can utilities look ahead and build a workforce that’s adaptable and agile enough to take on whatever the next event looks like?
Put flexibility at the core
Workforce plans and procedures must be flexible in ways that were never previously imagined. Thinking about the current challenge: How do you effectively get your people back to work? Utilities will need to plan for multiple scenarios; for example, piloting the return of some groups, then pulling back or ramping up depending on the results and environment. The operating setting itself is now different and workers’ situations and preferences must be accounted for with plans able to flex accordingly.
The good news is that remote working has largely happened quickly under the pressure of recent months and digital can help shore up the workforce if utilities are able keep what they’ve implemented and accelerate it further. Having at least a portion of the workforce able to continue to work remotely is a cornerstone of a flexible workforce plan either in a specific event or more broadly. Now’s the time to embed those technologies properly regarding people. How? Let’s remember that people’s roles, ways of working and technology usage have rocketed overnight. Now, consider: What training do your people need to make the most of the new tools you’ve given them? How do you fill the knowledge gaps that will inevitably exist?
And thinking more macro: What does this mean for ways of working and culture? Collaboration tools, video conferencing, shared whiteboard systems—they all bring co-workers “into your home.” How does that impact your workers’ lives, and how do you successfully manage that? What new tools and techniques might they need to support their mental and emotional needs through all this change and adjustment to the “new normal?” It’s an entirely new dynamic and one that helps contribute to a more flexible, nimble culture. First you need to lay the foundations with the appropriate training and enablement, plus performance management that recognizes the shift in behaviors that may be required balanced against the need for mental and emotional resiliency that may come at varying paces by individual.
It pays to think big and broad on technology
Looking to the future, it’s clear utilities need to be able plan for any event, of any scale, and even a combination of events at the same time. In this new reality, technology can truly help the organization and the workforce. Look at artificial Intelligence (AI) or augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR). Conceptually they may seem nebulous and hard to understand, but put them on the ground and it all starts to make sense. For example, let’s say you have limited people in the control center due to worker distancing or illness. Using AR/VR, a control center technician can bring in a colleague to “see what they see” through a specialized wearable device to help coach and make decisions. This concept can also apply to training operations personnel remotely and calling in an expert to augment a utility crew member’s knowledge. The crux of it? It’s about taking technology out of the IT department and into operations.
Going back to emergency preparedness: all of this helps with work procedures in times of duress as well. Technology can support everything from employee wellness checks, monitoring worker locations, and risk analysis dashboards for executives to managing shift options and performing contact tracing. While there’s no “one size fits all,” these ideas all support the flexibility and agility utilities will need for the future with workers front and center.
As we look to the future, utilities should focus on the adaptability of their workforce for a truly resilient future. Contact me to find out more about how.