People Make a System Resilient

When electric utilities talk about resilience, it is usually in reference to storm restoration or cybersecurity attacks — with a focus on the “technical” aspect of operations. But given all that we’ve been through since early 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, many utilities have taken a more serious look at the “human” side of resilience and what that means for their organizations.

The pandemic stretched us in countless ways — requiring us to balance constant change and challenges in both our professional and personal lives. Many of us had to pivot quickly last spring to learn how to work remotely while keeping the lights on for our communities. Judging from the questions and exchanges (in listservs, webinars, and virtual events) over the past year, it’s safe to say that all the intricacies of running a utility in a year-long pandemic weren’t adequately covered in many utility incident response or business continuity plans. Nor would we expect them to be — adaptability is key to thriving in such circumstances.

We got through when people came together to learn how to adapt to new conditions. We navigated changes in state and local mandates — from wearing masks and keeping people at least six feet apart to limiting occupancy in our buildings — and are now drifting back toward some level of pre-pandemic normalcy thanks to the vaccines. We retrofitted our office spaces to protect our workers and customers. We bought hand sanitizer, bleach, and personal protective equipment by the caseloads. We adapted quickly to new technologies and ways of communicating with each other, perhaps going from never having used any sort of video platform to becoming a whiz at Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Plus, while trying to figure out all the ways to shift to a remote work environment to serve our customers, many also navigated the intricacies of personal demands — such as how to support kids’ virtual schooling or safely take care of our elders.

In short, we have proven our resilience on a new level. What once might have seemed impossible is not only doable, it’s paved a new way of working and living. For example, having the option for regular telework wasn’t always the norm for utilities prior to the pandemic. Leaders have seen their office-based staff rise to the occasion and keep operations going, which has opened the door for many utilities to implement a regular telework policy to provide the flexibility and life-work balance many employees crave. Utilities have found creative solutions for field workers, too, such as scheduling pods of crews to limit contact to keep people safe.

Resilience ripples across the community. By keeping your people working, that keeps the community going — and not just from keeping the electricity flowing. Public power utilities can help local businesses weather the pandemic storm by making it a point to order lunch for staff from local restaurants, buying supplies from the local mom and pop store, or providing opportunities for local businesses to provide services for employees on-site. Such steps mean local workers keep working, which keeps local businesses in business and dollars flowing through the local economy. It’s a cycle of resilience that goes hand in hand — to stand strong, help one another, and support the community — which really is the backbone of public power.

As we continue to move past the challenges of the past 18 months, it will be continually important to acknowledge the resilience of our people and how it contributes to everyone’s well-being. In the HR world, there’s a lot of talk now about increased burnout, turnover, and resignations. As people take stock of their values and reflect on what they want to be doing, they might be also reflecting on how their employers stood by them as they stood by you. Our onus as leaders of organizations is to figure out how to keep the humanized perspective alive in our organizations. Because if we learned one thing, it is that no matter what happens, it is your people that will help you through.