What does the peak hurricane season in the North Atlantic Ocean have in common with kids heading back to school? The obvious answer is timing since the season’s climatological peak of activity occurs around September 10 each season, right around the same time we’re sharing our back to school photos on social media.
A more esoteric answer may be in the way utilities are adapting to restoring power due to hurricanes using some of the same tools and techniques schoolteachers are incorporating into their remote classrooms.
Challenges of remote utility operations
Between 2002-2019, the US suffered over 2,500 major power outages. Nearly half of them were caused by weather conditions like storms and hurricanes for an average of 65 weather-related outages per year. During this pandemic, however, the face-to-face communications and physical meetings to coordinate between utility operations centers and support teams have gone virtual so utilities are working to bridge the last mile of restoration work with web conferencing and specific procedures.
Whether it’s scrambling to get the lights back on or teaching our kids geometry, adopting new technology in a short timeframe and using it to achieve critical tasks is a challenge in the best of times. Add a global health crisis to the mix and both the difficulty and the consequences of failure become more severe.
The unique issues that arise from remote communications are the same whether you’re a utility IT support manager meeting with your distributed team to address key system operational issues during a crisis, or you’re a teacher engaging with students who are now de facto homeschooling. Some of the big questions are:
- How do you tell if you have the full attention of the participants?
- How do you tell if a participant is showing signs of uneasiness or concern that you would normally pick up from in-person visual cues?
- How do you organize the workflow to minimize talk over and ensure that everything is heard and not lost because the connection was lost for 10 secs?
- How do you gauge the energy level of the participants, given they may have been in a seat for the last six hours (“Zoom fatigue”)?
- How do you assess the risk of fatigue-related errors?
Back to the classroom
For utilities, increasing the relevance of remote communication capabilities and tools creates the infrastructure to address the above issues, including sharing documents and collaborating on checklists. The process and culture for remotely ensuring everyone has a specific assignment, leveraging peer validation for critical tasks, utilizing fieldwork communication styles that require acknowledgment via repeating the statement, and other methods are a work in progress.
Some tactics teachers have incorporated may also work well in the new environment for utilities:
- Mix things up – use screen sharing, whiteboarding and annotations to help ease the analysis of information.
- Try incorporating polling to solicit fast feedback, even if it’s just to ask how people are doing.
- In large groups, use a ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ to make sure you’re being understood.
- Figure out what doesn’t need to be done together online and handle it separately.
- Consider recording sessions for less critical information.
- Use the ‘raise hand’ feature on Zoom, Teams or other collaborative products to keep track of questions and comments and avoid talk-over.
- Use chat features to ask questions as they come up and ask team members to enter responses and ideas in the chat.
In a professional environment, the standard operating procedures of these collaborative meetings should be more formalized. Some considerations include the following:
- Use a team to drive the meeting, i.e., someone to monitor chat/raised hands, someone to pause meeting in case of talk-over or dropped communications, someone to capture notes or collaboratively allow everyone to create notes.
- Capture voting on issues online and verbally for key decisions.
- Use status notifications, such as “brb” (be right back), “b” (back).
- Be sure to consider company policies related to recordings.
- Always have a safety message at the beginning of the meeting. This may include issues of individual awareness of the environment, like weather, organizational matters, safety issues outside of work, and so on.
- Leverage cameras when possible to see people’s faces, better interpret their reactions and have a clearer understanding of the meaning behind their words, something difficult to do while social distancing with masks.
Learning from each other
COVID has changed the landscape and as we try to settle into a ‘new normal’ we’re all looking for solutions to adapt quickly and efficiently. We can learn from each other and incorporate best practices across domains. Utilities can take a page from today’s teachers’ handbook when it comes to working remotely to coordinate between operations centers and their support teams. And all of us can learn from each other as we deploy new tools to improve day-to-day operations, allowing for remote support where it was previously not considered without physical presence.