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How Utilities Can Prepare for Life After COVID

Though the COVID crisis has brought most of the world to its knees, utilities are one of the few industries that are expected and have continued to function properly. They provide critical services necessary for human survival; indeed, utility companies are essential and utility company employees are essential workers.

However, despite current operating challenges, utility companies need to make forward-looking decisions today that will not only secure operations but also prepare them for the future after the crisis ends.

While COVID has presented itself as quite the challenge, there might be far worse challenges in the future. The good news is that utility companies can install processes and procedures that ensure long-term resilience, worker safety, customer satisfaction, and financial soundness.

Let’s have a look at a few strategies utilities can put in place to ensure fewer disruptions post-COVID.

Energy companies have decades of experience managing business disruptions, both expected and unexpected. Extreme weather and natural disasters have kept such companies at the ready so that power can be restored as soon as possible even in the direst of circumstances.

COVID is different. The crisis management structure is different, as stress is not in the form of outages but rather financial risks for non-payment and increased capacities needed for residential areas due to work from home or study from home policies.

These unique stress factors can be incorporated into future crisis management plans.

Utility companies have had to meet the sudden challenge of safeguarding both their employees and the public for essential services.

However, such actions as sequestering control room personnel, remote working, working with permitting agencies and builders, completing projects with fewer employees (as some may have been exposed to the virus), and minimizing worker exposure are all measures utilities have had to rather suddenly adopt under COVID. While safety has always been a priority for utility companies, COVID has forced organizations to do more with less, especially as some tasks that may have been completed in person need to be completed remotely.

Moving forward, some utilities can incorporate these new workflows into their regular processes. For example, COVID may have accelerated the adoption of new hardware and systems, such as smart meters, allowing employees to monitor energy usage remotely and accomplishing more in a shorter amount of time than they were able to in the past.

While many utilities have suspended disconnects for non-payment, these suspensions will not last forever.

Once the disconnect moratoriums are lifted, utility companies can expect a tsunami of both residential and commercial customer bad debt that they will need to deal with.

Additionally, construction work, especially for new service hookups, will require a significant, rapid scaling of operations, and, combined with billing questions, contact centers will experience heavy volume.

As Mike Sullivan, of PA Consulting, discusses in his article on EnergyCentral about managing the COVID-19 journey, now is the time to begin planning for this increased customer interaction. Increased contact center staffing should not be the only solution. Updating information on the website, adding more FAQs, sending customers additional emails, adjusting the menus for IVR, and enabling two-way communications with mobile apps should all be considered in order to address an expected higher volume of inquiries.

Even in times of stress, energy companies should make attempts at strengthening their organizational culture. Nearly two decades of research from management consultant McKinsey has consistently shown that organizational health is a strong predictor of future performance. Healthy companies deliver three-times higher a total return to shareholders and 2.5 times a return on invested capital (ROIC).

In the power sector, companies in the top quartile of organizational health outperform their unhealthy peers with 4.3 times higher EBITDA value and better workforce safety.

As such, organizational health is not simply a luxury when times are good. It can be a way to build an enduring, high-performance culture that can enable companies to survive the worst and excel when normalcy returns.

As with corporate culture, innovation might not seem like a priority right now. However, energy companies were already embracing innovation long before COVID hit.

IBM’s Institute for Business Value points to several initiatives that have already been underway by electric utilities, including the following:

  • Reducing cost-to-serve by 10 to 20 percent
  • Maintaining grid performance
  • Introducing more intermittent renewable energy
  • Mitigating increasing cyber-risks

The adoption of new technologies can help in a post-COVID world. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) can be implemented in the contact center and can reduce cost-to-serve. Additionally, IT can be re-architected to better manage remote assets and increase cybersecurity. Now is the time to double-down on innovation and spurring opportunities that will secure the utility of the future.

While energy companies continue to do their job providing power while protecting the safety of their employees and customers, they can take steps today to prepare for a changed world after COVID. These difficult times will not last and the utilities that are planning for that future will be in the best position to excel once things return to normal.