The COVID-19 outbreak may well define this decade, maybe even this century. As of January 2021, it has claimed more than 2 million lives across the world. And, according to certain estimates, the pandemic could reduce global economic growth by as much as 6 per cent at the current rate. It has also impacted the workspace in many ways. WFH or Work From Home became the new norm but how the traditional Utilities adopted to this paradigm shift is interesting.
When COVID-19 stuck ,the Energy and Utility (E&U) sector did not have the luxury to slash output, infact they became extremely critical to support the world reeling under the pandemic. These organizations have been working silently throughout the pandemic ensuring our lives are not further adversely impacted by non-availability of services related to power, water or sewage. And they did this without any fanfare because traditionally E&U organizations involved in the generation, transmission, distribution, and retailing of power; and their cousins in the water, sewage management and gas sector—have always stayed away from sweeping statements or glamorous marketing blitzes.
They’ve been at the fore of technology adoption, albeit quietly – right from the days of mechanical meters to digital metres, from manned substations to unmanned space stations, and manual field surveys to UAVs – E&U companies have always gently followed the slow and steady, drumbeat of progress, without making a big splash.
This is a testament to their no-nonsense attitude, and it’s especially impressive considering that the E&U industry has been among the first movers to embrace innovative new technologies into their operations. As a result of this proactive, progressive approach, each decade in the last 50–60 years has seen giant transformative leaps for the sector.
And as a provider of critical infrastructure, the industry has always been at the forefront of disaster preparedness and management.
The current pandemic is no different. It is yet another situation where the industry has adapted and evolved quickly.
Concerns around social distancing have forced organizations to move to enterprise-wide remote working, but the E&U sector couldn’t afford that privilege.
Firstly, their work is essential and is the lifeblood of economic systems, and for people working at home or in offices.
Secondly, the nature of the sector demands that a large proportion of operational roles must be carried out on site. They can’t work from home. Instead, E&U companies have responded to the situation imaginatively.
Working from Home to Working from Here (Anywhere)
Work from home (WFH) has almost become a cliché. Even children are now familiar with this term. They ‘learn from home’ by using video conferencing software to join classmates and teachers in an effort to simulate the classroom environment.
For utilities, WFH has instead become ‘Work from Here,’ where ‘here’ refers to sites, substations, powerlines, pumping stations, or even transformer poles.
Several organizations have taken the step of organizing living quarters for essential utility workers so they can perform their vital work while adhering to strict precautionary measures for their health and safety. While this has ensured the continuity of services, it has thrown up its own set of unique challenges.
Essential utility workers rely heavily on strong IT infrastructure and connectivity to perform their jobs. The value of the assets used in the sector, both fixed and movable, and the absolute need to keep things running with minimal downtime, means it is of paramount importance for systems to be functional and secure.
So, we need to look at new ways to connect the dots and provide real, executable solutions to the woes of the workforce within these organizations. It is here where IT and automation can come into play with holistic connected workplace offerings.
A Focus on IT and Cybersecurity for a Bright Future
The E&U sector, like most others, has pushed a lot of transformational initiatives, across most tracks, to the backburner because of the pandemic.
And utility companies have diverted all their efforts toward ensuring their customers continue to receive services and support.
This is extremely important, as even the slightest oversight can cause a lapse in services, which can then have a direct impact on the very reason the sector is so vital—to keep the lights on.
The IT infrastructure that underpins their works needs to be airtight and invulnerable. Even during a pandemic, malicious actors will be quick to exploit any vulnerability, so systems need to be fully secure against a wide variety of cyber-attacks.
But unfortunately across various regions around the world, the money spent by E&U clients on cybersecurity and security, in general, is only a small percentage of their overall IT spend.
The growing onslaught of cyber-attacks and the constant threats on assets of national importance puts E&U companies into spotlight making them vulnerable than ever before.
This pandemic has taught a lesson in humility. We have seen that as the time got tougher, human’s stuck together, albeit 6 feet apart, to fight the spread of the virus. IT heads and CISOs in utility companies have also come to form teams to adopt and execute stringent safety measures, to let the show go on.
And as the dust settles in the wake of the deadly pandemic, E&U organizations will emerge stronger and better equipped to balance customer satisfaction while running a much secure utility organization. We would welcome your thoughts. contributions and suggestions toward shaping a sustainable ecosystem.