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Innovating in a COVID-19 World

image credit: (C) 2020, Danielle Marquis. All Rights Reserved.

This item is part of the Customer Care - Special Issue - 05/2020, click here for more

My husband and I went to college together; we’re familiar with “working together alone.” It was how he wrote his thesis on McCarthyism and I wrote mine on Post-Soviet Russia, two feet apart on a hand-me-down couch in a cramped upstairs apartment in a sketchy part of Schenectady, NY. Headphones firmly planted in ears.

But until COVID-19 hit, we never really worked from home together, except for the occasional snow day. And on those days, he was more likely working from the couch with Sports Center on in the background, while I toiled along like usual in my home office.

Fast-forward to present-day. Two plus months into our “new normal,” we work two feet apart in my home office: me at a standing desk, him at the desk that was originally put there for our kids to do homework when they got off the bus.

They no longer need it because they do online school from their beds.

Our worlds have all collided in ways we couldn’t have imagined in early March when I got the email from HR telling me to come home from my current client Innovation Summit trip, and to cancel all other travel for the next two months. I’ve had to convert multi-day collaborative workshops into virtual sessions, become a super-user of digital whiteboard tools, mentally prepare myself for six hours of video meetings a day, buy my dog a bark collar, and rotate three different pairs of headphones because I now wear them all day.

But the most surprising part? All this togetherness and change has helped me lead my team to innovate in unexpected ways.

Learnings from Healthcare

My husband works in healthcare IT for the state of New York, so they’ve been at the epicenter of this pandemic. It’s an interesting thing to listen to in the midst of my day-to-day—even with the headphones in… He talks very, very loudly.

Healthcare is one of the most rapidly evolving industries in the midst of this crisis, and its adaptations can be used as a reference for utilities. Within weeks, hospitals had to simultaneously accelerate deployment of telehealth and virtual visits, chatbot assessments and remote health monitoring; refocus attention on vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and underserved; face safety concerns for staff and a shortage of protective equipment; and do it all in the face of a global pandemic. Sound familiar?

The industry wasted no time adapting. Innovation abounded and speed ruled the day—AccuRx, for example, developed a video consultation service (over a weekend!) and make it free for all frontline staff. Their solution didn’t require patients to download anything and didn’t require fancy webcams in order for the doctors to use it. This public health emergency put a spotlight on the value of being able to connect with patients where they are, and with their own technology, to help assess and triage symptoms. Stories like this inspired me to lead our Innovation Lab team to act quickly and develop new solutions for the utility industry through a series of Innovation Workshops for ideation and Innovation Sprints for prototype development and user testing. We didn’t complete our prototypes over a weekend, but we did develop both a virtual audit and dynamic kit-ordering portal in a week—something that seemed impossible just a year ago.

Much like utilities who are quick to adopt virtual solutions now, health systems that are leading with “digital front door” innovations will be best positioned to respond quickly and move past the impact of this crisis to their bottom line and savings goals. Those who act quickly will have already made the investments and become familiar with using the technologies, which will have staying power in the long term. Even those that are currently scrambling to deploy virtually connected tools will gain insights that can be used to continuously improve these products in the long term. This is why we’re committed to collaborating with our utility partners not just to ideate and develop new virtual solutions, but to continuously improve them as we all learn more about this new reality. We don’t view virtual solutions as a temporary Band-Aid, but rather a fundamental shift in how we design demand-side management programs.

While healthcare might have been slightly more prepared, the utility industry couldn’t have predicted that the biggest disruptive influence in our lifetime would be a virus. We expected technology to disrupt, but not this. Now, across industries, we’re in a situation where we need to make our services more accessible, convenient and engaging for consumers, without touch and without face-to-face contact. To deliver services today, we must focus on developing intuitive, transparent and on-demand experiences. We need to develop tools focused on service provider search, match and scheduling. We need to improve centralized apps and offer relevant tools within standard workflows. And we need to offer digital transactions in the same way consumers are used to in every other part of their lives. By taking an integrated digital approach to engagement and navigation across a sprawling utility portfolio, we can improve the customer experience and enable more streamlined and effective service coordination.

Learnings from K-12 Education

My kids, like most, are struggling to adapt to online learning; just a month ago, most of their teachers still hadn’t transitioned to Google Classroom. Even though our district provides middle school students a Chromebook to call their own, the pre-pandemic transition to technology in the classroom has been slow.

“How am I supposed to complete a crossword puzzle that was uploaded as a PDF and can’t be emailed, shared or printed, mom?”

I taught online for six years at various colleges, back when online learning first became a thing. I am fairly certain I only got those jobs because I was brave enough to figure it out. That experience has taught me enough to know we can’t simply take what worked in a classroom and deliver it online. It’s why many of the work my kids’ teachers assign simply can’t be done in a digital environment. This has implications for our industry’s workforce training and delivery of education programs—both of which have historically been done in person. Like education, our industry has been slower to transition to e-learning options, whether it’s for workforce development, industry training or energy and water education programs.

In the days and weeks following our programs being put on pause due to COVID-19, we collaborated with school districts to convert classroom-based education programs to direct-to-student programs, ensuring spring programs were implemented as planned. As we gear up for the fall school programs, we’re able to shift the workbooks and kits mailed to student homes to a self-paced e-learning program we developed. In programs with field staff, we collaborated with utility partners to take advantage of downtime to train staff with our e-learning modules, thereby keeping them engaged and employed, while ramping up new virtual audit program designs that would get them back to work. E-learning and virtual services will allow us to reach more customers than ever, with a more diverse workforce than ever. Experienced field staff who may be physically unable to work in the field are excellent candidates for the provision of virtual services. And hiring and training becomes easier when geography is no longer a limitation and travel is no longer a requirement.

Conclusion

My Mother’s Day this year featured takeout brunch in my jammies and a video watercolor tutorial of a fox while I sipped a mimosa. My son’s birthday this year featured a montage of personal video messages from friends and family near and far. Both different, but both special in their own way.

Like all industries, COVID-19 has given the utility industry an opportunity to capitalize on existing digitization trends and reimagine program designs. It will ultimately benefit both our businesses, by opening up new markets for demand-side management, and the customers we serve, by providing a more customer-centric experience. Leaning more heavily into digital marketing and virtual, e-commerce and customer engagement solutions will help us develop the programs of the future, while keeping our staff and customers safe today.

Our world isn’t the same and it probably never will be. We all thought tech companies and juggernauts like Tesla would be the major disruptors in our industry, but it ended up being a virus none of us were prepared for. We’ve had to reimagine skill sets and develop innovative solutions to help position our clients for the future of a customer-focused and increasingly virtual world. I believe we’ll all be better off as a result.

Danielle Marquis, Esq.'s picture

Thank Danielle for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 20, 2020 10:25 pm GMT

Great insights, Danielle-- love the idea to looking cross-sector to see where innovation ideas can be borrowed and adapted. And with such an unprecedented event as COVID, we could use as much brainstorming and avoiding of re-inventing the wheel as possible. 

Do you think these months will somehow change the expectations of what's possible from  utilities by utility customers? 

Danielle Marquis, Esq.'s picture
Danielle Marquis, Esq. on May 21, 2020 2:57 pm GMT

Thanks, Matt! I do see this current situation changing things in the long term. We've been doing user testing on the prototypes we've built and customers LOVE virtual solutions. Not just because of COVID, but because they're busy and virtual solutions better fit their lifestyle. None of the customers in our user testing even mentioned COVID as the reason they wanted to participate in virtual solutions. Instead, they said things like, "This is great because I won't need to deal with 'the dreaded appointment window.'" Even though we're literally all home right now and waiting around all day for an appointment has never been easier or more convenient, yet people still don't want to do it. I found that fascinating. Virtual solutions will expand our potential market for DSM to an entirely new subset of the population.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 21, 2020 4:28 pm GMT

I found that fascinating. Virtual solutions will expand our potential market for DSM to an entirely new subset of the population.

That definitely sounds like a gamechanger-- thanks for the follow up!

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