The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the world around us as large portions of economic and social activities have shut down or been curtailed. Some things people often take for granted are absent.

But the electric power supply is not one of them.

Expectations for electric utilities have not changed. Safe, reliable power is still needed. If equipment fails or a storm comes through, customers still expect speedy restoration of service. If a new house is built, people still expect the power to be connected. There is no concession in terms of the reliability of the system and access to service that customers expect.

In the face of these contrasting values, how do utilities continue to manage and maintain the same reliability and service their customers have come to expect? The good news is that utilities are already accustomed to managing disruptions. Granting that the present circumstances are unique, electric utilities have extensive experience working through rapidly evolving scenarios like tornadoes, floods, wildfires and other weather and system fault events with huge impacts on electrical infrastructure.

The catch is retaining the people power to get through those challenges. It is commonplace for companies to say their most valuable resource is their people, but the pandemic has complicated utilities’ ability to access that resource. Reports suggest that as much as a quarter of some companies’ workforce is unavailable because individuals exhibiting any symptoms — a cough, a runny nose — that might be attributable to COVID-19 must self-isolate. Like the general population, the rest of the workforce is likely equally exposed to anxiety about catching the virus and dealing with the rapidly changing world.

So how can utilities navigate these unique circumstances while meeting unyielding expectations? Continuing to operate, maintain equipment and perform repairs are the most important aspects of reliability. Several measures can help mitigate the challenges to continuous service.

In the Office

It begins with putting communications and education in place so employees and customers know the company’s direction and how it is evolving. This should come directly from senior management. Employees should have a clear understanding of what is expected and the rules of engagement — how routine activities should adapt to social distancing guidelines. Who can work remotely from home, who needs to be at the office and who needs to be in the field? For example, the roles of control room operators and maintenance crews are critical to day-to-day operations, and their functions can’t be performed from home, so they need to be in their native workplaces with enhanced safety guidelines.

As part of the crisis response, leadership should carefully evaluate and establish which operations and resources are critical, delineating priorities and clarifying whose presence is essential. Management should also see that appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizers, masks and other essentials are made available. Enhanced frequency of cleaning and sanitizing routines in office spaces might be advisable. Some companies are conducting health screenings and staggering entry at entrance points to maintain appropriate physical distancing. It’s useful to have an employee self-wellness checklist in place to help determine when additional screening is prudent. Another good measure is having workspaces sanitized on daily basis to minimize chances of the virus spreading when people touch surfaces.

In the Field

Naturally, operations, maintenance and repair activities require keeping some workers in the field, and precautions must be taken. There are several innovative approaches and technologies than can help minimize the field presence. If a site inspection might normally involve multiple individuals, it might now be possible to send just one with virtual reality-equipped cameras, allowing others to view the site remotely. Drones can be another option for canvassing some sites and gather information.

The ability to allow portions of the workforce that do not need to be on-site or are not performing critical roles to work from home depends on access to adequate tools to continue being effective. Companies that have robust remote access tools that rely on cloud computing in place have an advantage; others can use this time to identify gaps in their stack and review best practices so they can better position themselves for future disruptions.

In Summation

Communications are at the core of an effective response. At the beginning of a crisis, the common first reaction is to accept that people will do what they need to do. As the crisis continues and lasts longer than some may have expected, the ongoing uncertainty takes a toll on the psyche. Maintaining open communications from trusted individuals helps reduce anxiety and lets people — employees and customers alike — feel that they are being looked out for and kept up to date.

Ahsan Upal is a regional manager with Burns & McDonnell responsible for Canadian business development and leading engineering, project management and regulatory teams for major electrical distribution and transmission projects across Canada and the United States.