The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has crippled businesses around the globe, including utility companies. Shuttered businesses, combined with the cancellation of large-scale events, is resulting in decreased revenues for utilities that supply power, water, natural gas, and data.
Utilities will continue to face significant challenges in the months ahead. Maintaining optimal operating efficiency will require a greater reliance on technology and the ability to adapt to constantly changing situations.
Here are four ways utility companies are meeting challenges head-on.
1. Protecting employee health to ensure continuity
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced utility leaders to split their concerns between operations, revenues, and employee welfare. In response, many companies have required administrative employees to work remotely. For operators and technicians making round-the-clock repairs, some utility companies have sequestered them by scheduling work in one- or two-week rotating shifts. Others have begun employee screenings, including temperature checks.
Protecting employees also extends to mutual assistance programs, where utility companies send workers and equipment to help other utilities affected by natural disasters. After deadly tornadoes recently struck parts of the southern United States, visiting workers wore personal protective equipment and practiced social distancing guidelines as prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
2. Easing the burden for consumers
Utility companies need revenue to grow and maintain their systems, but during the pandemic, many are choosing to put their customers ahead of revenue by temporarily suspending power, water, and gas shut-offs for customers who cannot pay their bills. Other utility companies have either waived late fees or allowed customers to set up payment plans or extensions.
Because many schools are closed, data companies are offering free and/or low-cost internet service to assist home-learning efforts. Other providers have promised free Wi-Fi to help their customers in need.
3. Relying on tech to enhance operations
Technological innovation is common throughout utility companies, but during this crisis, it has a dual purpose – improving efficiency while ensuring employee safety.
Utility companies that have phased out traditional power meters in favor of automated smart meters are reaping the benefits of safer operations and reduced employee exposure. Smart meters relay information from a home or business back to the utility’s customer service center. The meters also allow customer service centers to either cut off or restore a customer’s power remotely.
For water and gas utilities, mobile meter inspection apps allow workers to capture and store meter information on mobile phones and tablets, even in areas with unreliable network coverage. Engineers can keep working, and when the devices re-connect to the server, the stored information is integrated with customer service systems.
These are just a few examples of how utility companies are putting a greater reliance on speed and efficiency to perform essential services during the pandemic, while also protecting the health of employees and citizens.
4. Increasing communication with customers
During a crisis, no matter how large, people expect open and honest communications from utility companies. In particular, will citizens who can’t pay their current utility bills maintain their access to power, clean water, and data during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Utilities are relying on their own websites and traditional media outlets to share information with customers and are also utilizing text alerts and social media to stay connected.
In other cases, they are leveraging the simplest and oldest device of them all – the telephone. For example, some U.S.-based utility call-takers have transitioned from answering questions about accounts to providing information about the economic stimulus package approved by Congress.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already forced utilities to not only take a hard look at their daily operations, but also how they function during a crisis. Fortunately, most utilities will weather the storm by bolstering communication, relying on technology, helping their customers, and safeguarding employees. Those who have invested in robust and flexible technology will be ready to adapt and sustain. As Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”