Going remote: From closed doors to opened opportunities

Rarely does a crisis in the electric sector happen to every utility at the same time. But COVID-19 offered exactly that type of crisis. As businesses across the country began to shut down in the face of the pandemic, utility management had to rethink traditional job processes and break the seal on “open in case of emergency” procedure plans that had been waiting in the event such a crisis came on.

For employees who began working from home, public power entities put into play a number of practices, policies, and technologies to alleviate some of the complications that came with a swift transition to teleworking.

Establishing a policy

“It was Monday, March 16, when everything changed here,” said Tracy Reimbold, vice president of human resources and administrative services at American Municipal Power, Inc., or AMP, a multistate joint action agency headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. “We came in that morning and made the decision to close the office, never imagining that we were looking at this taking place as long as it has. As everyone went home, we had to start making sure everything was right for us to make this work for a while.”

Before the office closure, AMP had only two employees who did regular telework, because they performed specific functions in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., that required remote status. Field employees who travel to facilities and member communities were doing a minimal amount of work from home.

“We didn’t have a telework policy in place because, outside of some one-off occasions for individuals, people didn’t telework,” Reimbold said.

The situation was similar for the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority. When it became clear that the pandemic was going to impact the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Authority activated its Incident Command System. The incident command team, along with its safety department, developed protocols and procured personal protective equipment to ensure the safety of employees on the job. At the same time, the Authority realized that it would be important to remove as many employees from its locations as possible and transition them to telework. The idea of a telework policy had been discussed but repeatedly shot down. The mindset was that there were too many risks and fears surrounding a remote workforce, said Sabrina King Léonce, VIWAPA’s director of human resources.

She identified a number of key reasons utility managers worried about remote work, such as quality of service, new costs, accountability, security, productivity, lost collaboration, communication, risk, and governance.

Meanwhile, her colleague Julius Aubain, VIWAPA’s chief information officer, had some tough conversations with management about the technical side of launching remote work, bringing up the topic often, well before the pandemic changed the calculations being made.

Though buy-in was tentative across utility leadership, there was interest from new CEO Lawrence J. Kupfer. When King Léonce came onboard, Kupfer told her that he wanted to rethink business practices and be open to change. This direction gave Aubain and King Léonce an inroad to begin to put together a telework policy and a plan for implementing it when the time was right.

“We had a meeting of the minds,” King Léonce said. “Julius had the background on what had happened before, and I was coming in new, so we put our heads together — him on the technology side and me from the employee-management side — and crafted this policy. We knew that this was a change that was necessary; we just didn’t know when it could be put in place.”

Having the plan set out ahead of time would prove fortuitous; not too long after they crafted it, the pandemic began, and the fears that people had voiced about telework had to be put aside. “The fears hadn’t diminished; people just had to get used to it, because there was no other option,” she said.

“The policy we’d already created hadn’t been approved, but this forced it to become approved policy,” Aubain added.

“On day one of the office closing, we were lucky to have the policy ready to go,” King Léonce said. “We just needed a couple days to do a quick scan over and then could do a training for all of the leadership on the topic. From there, within days, we could do the big rollout to the entire authority.”

Top-notch leadership also played a key role in getting a telework plan hammered out at the last minute for AMP, Reimbold said. “We had to get the policy figured out while people were heading home.”

Enabling technology

As luck would have it, AMP had already switched all employees’ computers to laptops, offering one less hurdle to the technology capability for employees to do remote work. “We were lucky that we had changed out all of our computers to laptops, so we could be sure on March 16 that everyone was going home with a laptop computer to use,” said Reimbold.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t still work to do to fully enable remote capabilities. “We had to make sure that everyone had the necessary VPN access to do their work once they got there,” she said. “Our IT team was there working last minute to make sure everything was right for every employee before the end of the week.”

VIWAPA wasn’t as lucky from a technology standpoint: Only a few members of the staff had been issued laptop computers. Rather than having employees carry home large desktop computers or connect to secure networks with their untested personal devices, Aubain and his team sought different approaches. They rolled out a remote desktop solution for each user to allow access to work computers from home devices. This created a secure connection without allowing any direct access.

For both VIWAPA and AMP, teleconference software has proved key, with staff relying on it to see each other on calls, still feel able to reach each other quickly, as they previously could by looping by an office, and making use of the software’s chat function to get quick responses on items rather than flooding overburdened email inboxes.

Teleconferencing has proved especially advantageous for VIWAPA. “As an example, we have HR offices on two different islands that would often require that I travel between the two to connect with the staff at each,” King Léonce said. She noted that the shift to telework isn’t just helpful for her efficiency — it also gives employees more opportunity to work together. “Now, instead of splitting time between St. Croix and St. Thomas, I have the entire team meet face to face.”

Encouraging engagement

Once the remote work setup was in place and the company’s telework policy had been hammered out, the next step was to make sure that employee engagement wasn’t lost. For both AMP and VIWAPA, having never had a remote workforce or regular telework meant that all their existing engagement activities were built around in-office interactions.

“We recognized that we couldn’t lose that connection,” said AMP’s Reimbold.

Before the office closure, AMP senior leadership would hold quarterly meetings with staff to update them on what was happening in the company and explain upcoming changes and news. To keep up with staff needs in an unusual time like the pandemic, CEO Jolene Thompson, who assumed the role in April, decided to convert the quarterly event into a virtual town hall and increase it to every two months.

“With a new CEO, it was important to not lose those first few months of Jolene getting to interact with all of the staff and hear from them on what’s going on,” Reimbold said.

“This was always a really useful meeting to go over everything with staff, but the office closure actually made one improvement: Now all staff could be there,” she said. Reimbold explained that the in-person town halls had been effectively limited to the employees at AMP’s headquarters, leaving out field staff and people working at hydropower facilities or other operations roles who could not work away from those locations.

“The employees appreciate it because they are getting consistent interaction with the CEO and executive management team that they weren’t getting before,” she added.

On top of the town halls, Thompson hosts virtual “coffee chats,” which are half-hour meetings between her and up to five staff members over video chat. The idea, said Reimbold, is for employees to talk about anything they want to bring up and to get to know each other.

“[Thompson] wants people to understand that, even as CEO, she is still very accessible to them, and I think this is a good way to have done that, giving everyone that ability if they want to use it to talk about anything from work to football to their dogs,” said Reimbold. “It’s great having this way to get to know the new CEO in this personal interaction.”

These activities, plus technology that enables employee connections, are integral to keeping a happy and healthy staff under these conditions, Reimbold said. “While we’ve lost that ability to do a face-to-face in person, communication needs to be a strong focus regardless of what our format is.”

Having this connection isn’t just about productivity, but also wellness. “We can all do our jobs remotely, but at some point we still need to be connected as people,” explained Reimbold. “We have employees who live by themselves, we have employees who might be dealing with things at home — the more we can support them, even if it’s through a five-minute conversation, the better off we are in the long term.”

Lasting changes

Both organizations said these changes have created improvements that can become permanent.

“Honestly, I think you’re getting more production out of many employees than you did before,” Aubain said. “Gone are those in-office distractions; no one [is] coming by your desk and taking you from what you’re trying to focus on. I know many people are getting deeper into their work and end up working longer hours than they did in the office.”

“I foresee this to be the future of the authority,” King Léonce added. “When we put together the policy, we had been ready for the pushback, only to have this create the easing into it that was needed to prove its value.”

Working remotely this year has helped the authority take a different look at how it makes use of its office footprint and understand the way people respond to remote working, said King Léonce. “Both from a productivity and an efficiency standpoint, this has been a prime example of how to continue providing services to your customers under unusual conditions while testing out something that might be advantageous under normal conditions,” she said.

For a public power utility, where service to the community is key, the pandemic meant more than just closing the doors of buildings — it meant rethinking every part of the business plan to ensure that customers could rely on their electricity provider to keep them powered through what would be months of at-home work, school, and entertainment.