Delivering energy and water to millions of people during a pandemic
As providers of essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic, our customers are responsible for the delivery of vital services to the communities they serve – making sure the lights stay on and access to reliable gas and clean water is not disrupted.
Similar to everyone else, our customers have had to adjust to the new normal. This means dealing with unique challenges so they can maintain services while achieving the highest safety standards for workers.
We recently held a virtual Customer Advisory Board roundtable to discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on daily operations. Here are the tips and strategies we uncovered that may be helpful to your organization:
Be prepared (but be flexible)
Energy and water utilities have always had emergency response plans in place, including mock drills to ensure they are ready and able to respond. However, this preparedness is largely based on incidents that cause major outages and interruptions in service.
Because the COVID-19 situation is unprecedented, our customers have had to pivot quickly and adapt their plans accordingly. By adjusting infrastructure and devising new processes in the moment, they have been able to serve their communities without disruption to the services they provide.
Safe and functional environments for workers
Without the people to maintain the services, there would be no services to maintain. Thus, the first priority was to ensure all workers could self-isolate while performing their jobs. This meant converting large workforces to a work-from-home model, when many had never done this before.
One of our utility customers purchased laptops for every worker who would normally use a desktop computer in the office. They also purchased a supply of smartphones for those who needed to receive calls, for example, people who worked in dispatch or call centers.
It was also essential that each worker have adequate internet connectivity to access browser-based applications for dispatch work and to monitor asset infrastructure.
Trust your IT teams to build a plan and manage all the moving pieces. Whenever possible, make sure the work is done remotely to minimize risk to employees.
Maintain accessibility to systems and information
This wholescale adjustment was a big challenge for IT teams who had to set up staff as quickly as possible – without compromising security.
One customer saw an increase of 5X in their IT support calls, from an average of 40 each day to over 200. Another customer was able to quickly set up a system to redirect call center inquiries to personal home and mobile numbers so issues could be resolved as quickly as possible.
Brainstorm with your IT teams to determine how your organization could best respond in a similar circumstance. Along with your emergency response strategy, this plan should be incorporated into your data security strategy.
Protect workers with responsive and flexible protocols
Many standard procedures needed to be adjusted, with new protocols to ensure worker safety. For example, most of our customers have a large number of employees who work in the field, with many sharing the same company vehicle. In order to achieve physical distancing, vehicle assignment procedures had to be adjusted.
Some of our customers chose to limit vehicle assignments to a single worker. This worker would start their shift from their home, travel to the work site in the vehicle, then take the vehicle home with them at the end of their shift. This meant other crew members had to use their personal vehicles to travel to the work site.
These types of adjustments required additional protocols such as safety and cleaning as well as policies for off-hours usage and personal reimbursement. Consider using an app to track personal vehicle usage so employees can be properly reimbursed.
Leverage your existing technology to accommodate the new normal
All of our customers are able to use their Mobile Workforce Management and Location Solutions systems to push out safety reminders and to create work orders with safety checklists incorporated. This means that workers in company and personal vehicles are able to easily access updated procedures and protocols, including standard equipment required for the day, as well as new processes and cleaning supplies to keep them safe.
These systems can also be used to send batch messages to workers and crews to communicate new procedures and protocols as the COVID situation evolves. This will ensure workers in the field have the freshest information so they can safely perform their work.
Whenever possible, use the infrastructure you already have in place to share information and manage new processes. Your employees are already familiar with these systems so there will be no learning curve.
Smart and safe customer support
Our utility customers have put a hold on most planned work, focusing on emergency responses and connections for new customers or those that had moved.
As new issues arise, assessments are conducted to determine if a situation requires a worker to access a customer’s home. One of our water utility customers came up with a simple yet effective way to determine an appropriate response. They ask their customers to photograph water leaks to aid in the assessment. This visual cue allows them to know in advance whether or not a home visit is necessary.
Although you should focus on reducing touchpoints between workers and the public whenever possible, ensure safety protocols are in place for those scenarios when a home visit is required.
Open and transparent communication
Sharing information and updates with the public remains a priority for all of our customers. One municipal utility is working with their city government to share social media and website posts to further extend their communication network. Working in partnership with other community organizations will allow you to reach more people with timely information.
Although most of our customers have not noticed a change in call volumes for outages, there has been a significant increase in billing inquiries. Be prepared to adjust resources to accommodate this shift in how your customers will contact you.
Our thanks and support
During the response to COVID-19, there are thousands of utility teams and workers on the front line supporting their communities and providing essential services. We applaud their efforts and thank them – and their families – for their hard work.
Send us an email with any tips or guidance you may have that would be helpful as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. We will share new ideas and experiences from our customers as we continue to adapt to our new normal.
Stay safe and well. We look forward to seeing you in person again soon.