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Utility Lessons Learned Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Chetna Smith's picture
Senior Manager Southern California Edison

Leads and ensures success of programs in SCE’s Demand Side Management Business Program Operations department within Customer Service. Provides thought leadership of the design, implementation and...

  • Member since 2020
  • 2 items added with 415 views
  • Apr 12, 2021
  • 415 views

The COVID pandemic, and our quick reaction and steady response to it, will not soon be forgotten. While the beginning seemed a bit like a scramble, flexibility was crucial to our success. The ability to pivot and become comfortable with change became a necessary daily activity. Nimbly negotiating unforeseeable curves and adapting to challenges as they arrive, all in real time, will remain a point of pride for my team, the organization, and this company.

In March of 2020, we began a stressful chapter in our company’s rich history. While we faced many hurdles, professionally and personally, we never strayed from our primary objective: Finding ways to better serve our customers, who were undoubtedly going through a very stressful time.  Our senior leaders remained committed to connecting and serving our communities during these unprecedented times and we made it a priority to offer support in ways we have never done before.

Various teams around the company took a closer look at existing programs and services, seeking areas where we had the ability to be flexible in supporting our customers, big and small.

  • Being a trusted energy advisor, we found ways to work with customers based on their changing business operations and offered ideas and expertise to guide them through energy related decisions. It was important to maintain the customer relationship / partnership.
  • We introduced customer care activities to relieve some of the stress that customers were experiencing: Suspending service disconnections, waiving late fees and deposit requirements for residential and small business customers for nonpayment. NOTE: some of the services were only available during the peak of the pandemic.
  • Where applicable, we used virtual design and post-inspections utilizing geotagged photos with GPS location info of the facility and other technology. We evaluated the need to run our demand response programs at the start of the pandemic and into the summer of 2020.
  • We educated customers on smart energy conservation to help them save on their bills by promoting rate options and rate analyzer tools which help customers switch to rates that might be better for them with new usage patterns and tips for saving energy while working from home. If customers had trouble paying their bills, we encouraged them to contact our SCE Customer Contact Center on expanded payment extensions and payment arrangements.
  • Edison International donated more than $1 million to local nonprofits. Edison International employees also launched a COVID-19 Relief Fundraiser to help communities impacted by the pandemic. Through employee donations and a company match, more than $414,000 was donated to support nonprofits in SCE’s service area.
  • All while remaining focused on continuing critical outage work needed to protect public safety and reduce the risk of wildfires.

I had two important roles that put me in the forefront of an extremely complex utility year.

  • I accepted a four-month assignment as the Chief of Staff for the company’s COVID PMO. In this role, I was responsible for coordinating activities between different organizations in the company to not only better serve our customers, but to also support our workforce in this changed environment.
  • I returned to my home organization of Demand Response in August of 2020 and was immediately confronted by the extreme and unrelenting heat-wave conditions bombarding the entire state of California. This tested our organization’s ability to work from home, partnering with our customers on grid reliability, and doing our best to keep the lights on for them.

The challenges faced during the pandemic were not all external. With my entire team working from home, our dependence on all things virtual presented a different way of interacting.

Having become so accustomed to seeing my team on a daily basis, working remotely was a difficult and sudden obstacle. Seeing their faces only in meetings where “camera’s on” was encouraged, I knew I needed something more. I started to schedule virtual lunches once a month where we could take a pressure-free moment to connect, play games, or just chat. Personally, and professionally, it helped in many more ways than I expected.

Aside from many frustrating wi-fi connection challenges and having to quickly turn our guest bedroom into my new office, I found I was having work-life-balance issues. A combination of feeling consistently distracted and working late into the evenings because I was now always “at work”. I also struggled with taking ergo breaks. My workouts, which used to be fun classes I would take on my way home from work, went virtual, and without much motivation, they became virtually nonexistent. In fact, in the beginning, my only physical movement seemed to be walking from my office to the kitchen!

Once this new situation became routine, I fell into a much more productive pattern. Meetings became more constructive, and I felt like I was more effective, as I was always available. I could take walks during calls and I even snuck in the occasional zoom workout! I took the necessary steps of scheduling lunch breaks in my calendar to eat and recharge, and I became more productive because of it.

One silver lining, albeit bittersweet, was that I got to be with my sweet little dog, Murray, in the last precious months of his life. All day every day, he would rest by my side as I worked. Those cherished days, otherwise impossible amounts of time spent hanging out with my special little guy, I will treasure the rest of my life.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 13, 2021

Really encouraging how much of your answer centers around finding ways to build up the customer relationship and improve what's being offered/delivered to them! This is a theme we've heard a lot and it shows the importance of utilities as truly being a pillar of the communities in which they're in

Rami Reshef's picture
Rami Reshef on Apr 15, 2021

Thanks Chetna for sharing this engaging and personal look into the life and the mindset of today's utility personnel.  In your discussion of the impact of Covid on utilities, you didn't refer to the fact that the pandemic has caused many people - including  utility managers - to recognize that more frequent and more severe bad weather - often marked by power outages - are at least in part caused by climate crisis, recognition that is driving utilities to accelerate the transition to renewable generation sources, energy efficiency measures and focus on eliminating carbon emissions.  We see that utilities have not only agilely responded to the Covid crisis by extending more and a broader range of customer care services to communities, but their accelerated efforts to increase the ratio of clean energy further strengthen the need for demand response, which also increases the utilities' focus on customers and the central role of flexible service-oriented managers like yourself who are redefining utilities and shaping how they will be able to meet the challenges of the future.

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