Surviving COVID-19: How new (and existing) technology can help utilities thrive in a post-pandemic world

image credit: Clevest
Carol Johnston's picture
VP Clevest R&D Clevest an IFS Company

Carol Johnston has over 20 years of product marketing and product management experience delivering mobile workforce management, outage management and meter reading solutions for utilities. She is...

  • Member since 2016
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  • Sep 14, 2020

When the pandemic struck, no one anticipated the impact it would have on all aspects of our lives – from work to school to play. The simplest activities and pleasures were no longer so simple. Coffee with a friend, strategy meetings with coworkers, school days – everything changed.

For the utility industry, charged with providing essential services to the public, trying to maintain business as usual amidst the upheaval was a challenge. Fortunately, many organizations were able to leverage existing technologies already in use to help them keep the lights (and water and gas) on.

In a recent discussion, part of an Energy Central webinar series, industry and technology leaders from Memphis Gas, Light and Water, Clevest, Message Broadcast, and Darwin Labs, shared their perspectives and experiences during the initial phase of COVID-19.

Meeting New Challenges with Existing Technology

Many utilities were already using digital technologies such as mobile workforce management systems. These solutions proved to be invaluable during the initial stage of the pandemic, providing a wide range of capabilities to satisfy newly mandated safety and health regulations. These included:

Scheduling: A proper scheduling engine absorbs work from multiple sources providing real-time insights to worker availability, current locations, and other attributes. During the pandemic, if a worker called in sick or had to self-isolate due to potential exposure, administrators could immediately make adjustments. More importantly, the utility could quickly check historical scheduling records to determine potential cross-over with fellow crew members.

Automated Location Tracking: The tracking of vehicles and crews is a core safety requirement to counter the danger many workers face in the field. During the pandemic, utilities were able to leverage this location information for contact tracking. With breadcrumb trails, date / time, and GPS, any potential exposure could be tracked so that proper containment protocols could be followed.

Capacity Planning

Scheduling on the fly relies on accurate information from the overall operation. With rich data insights, administrators can easily reprioritize and refocus the workforce in the moment. During the pandemic, administrators had to accommodate unexpected worker absences. Using capacity visualizations and other tools, they could easily reassign tickets to work crews in the same general area to maintain productivity.

Customer Communication

With so many moving pieces during the pandemic, existing service schedules were often disrupted. With a workforce that was already over-burdened, utilities relied on existing technologies from Clevest and Message Broadcast, to automatically communicate with their customers. Along with appointment adjustments, utilities could keep their customers informed of all COVID-19 related information including bill payment options, scam alerts, and other important news – with no impact to existing customer support channels.

Based on actual customer use cases during the pandemic, Message Broadcast provided insights and lessons learned, including the need to lead with empathy while engaging with customers who were already under a great deal of stress.

Memphis Light, Gas and Water

Memphis Light, Gas and Water is the largest 3-service municipal utility in the United States. During the pandemic, it faced a variety of challenges, including adjusting to a work-from-home model.

While keeping its essential services up and running, the utility had to ensure workers had the equipment they needed to work remotely. The company also had to introduce new protocols into its workflows to enforce social distancing, safe customer interactions, and ongoing communication of COVID-19 information.

Fortunately, the utility is modernizing its operation, applying a two-phased approach to the rollout. “We’re shifting to a digital operation, reducing paper wherever possible,” stated Michael Faulk, IS Manager, Memphis Light, Gas and Water. “Following COVID-19, people don’t want to use paper anymore.”

The project will equip the utility to better manage future disruptions. Administrators can implement responsive scheduling for work and route optimization as worker availability changes in the moment. GPS capabilities will allow them to satisfy contact-tracking requirements, and field workers can manage their schedules and interactions via mobile devices (versus paper forms), providing digital record-keeping for real-time data insights.

These initiatives will ensure the Memphis workforce stays focused and productive while adapting to all of the changes following COVID-19.

New Technologies Utilities Will Need in the Future

Some changes during the pandemic were transitional but others will become a part of the new order moving forward. First and foremost is the responsibility to protect employees, customers, and the public from future pandemic threats.

Some utilities are turning to technology to achieve this result. For example, Darwin Labs produces a health check application that can detect any viral infection including COVID-19 symptoms.

Workers are required to voluntarily answer a set of questions and self-test at the start of each day to ensure they remain safe and are not presenting any symptoms. The data that is collected is anonymized in accordance with privacy laws. In the event a test result is positive, an authorized member of the company’s HR team will be informed and will communicate with the worker, helping them with next steps.

The utility can also take immediate action to contain the situation. This could include contact tracking for the worker, disinfecting workspaces and vehicles, and notifying co-workers and customers who may have been in contact with the employee.

The Future is Now

With newly mandated safety and health regulations, the onus is on the utility to prove it complies and is actively protecting its workers, customers, and the public. Supplementing existing technology with new solutions built specifically for this purpose will provide the industry with the real-time responsiveness it will need to overcome the next pandemic.

Access an on-demand version of the discussion to hear the full story.

Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Sep 29, 2020

An interesting article with useful examples. We can clearly see that one of the few positive impacts of the pandemic is that companies were forced to move to a more flexible, distanced and home-working model in months rather than years, with the opportunities for reduced emissions, lack of commuting for workforce, reduced fees for expensive office property.

The vulnerability is of course digital security and that needs to come to the forefront - as home-workers and mobile workers face cyber threats that perhaps they didn't when in a central, secure location like an office or power plant.

Carol Johnston's picture
Thank Carol for the Post!
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