PANDEMIC RESPONSE PT. 3: A NEW NORMAL
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Chris Sakr: Welcome back to Pandemic Response. I'm your host, Chris Sakr. Over the last two episodes, we've gone from COVID-19 landing in North America in January of 2020 through the power industry's response and adaptation to the end of 2021, their ever-changing plans, operational challenges and new ways of working. If you've listened, you've gotten to know Debra Smith, Seattle City Light's CEO.
Debra Smith: Prior to COVID, my husband had a work that required him to travel a lot. He did a lot of international travel, but also a lot of domestic travel working with tribes. Of course, we've been now joined at the hips for two years. I used to say probably six months into the pandemic and for quite a while that COVID has been really good for our relationship. That's still true. Don't take the wrong meaning from this, but as I was laying in bed, I thought, you know what, I'm changing my tune. There's nothing good about COVID. I'm no longer useful. There's nothing good about COVID because, personally, as a leader, every day I feel inadequate. I feel hopeful. I feel excited. I feel sad. I feel nervous. I hope you get the range of those emotions because they cover the whole gamut.
Chris Sakr: Processing lessons in real time is hard, and so is looking back when the only place you want to go is forward. As is often the case, the closer we get to some semblance of a finish line, the harder we struggle. Here's Tacoma Power System operations supervisor, Cullen Ritchie.
Cullen Ritchie: A lot of people are looking to get back to normal. That's a natural thing to do. I thoroughly believe that what we've got to do is identify what normal is. Normal is going to look different than it did in 2019. We need to understand that, embrace that and identify that if we're going to go forward successfully.
Chris Sakr: Isaac Asimov said difficulties vanish when faced boldly, but they don't just vanish because of what we've been through. They vanish because of what we take from them into the future however uncertain that is. In this episode, we can't be so bold as to claim this thing is over. Who honestly even knows what that means anymore? No. All we can do is see through the lens of everything that's changed, from pandemic preparedness plans and how we keep employees healthy to how we create new plans, accept new realities and build a future that's better. That's our lens today in this final episode of Pandemic Response Part Three, A New Normal. Locating this pandemic's end is about as hard as identifying its exact beginning, but, in early 2022, COVID took a strange turn. Here's Jason Bucholtz, a realtime operations manager at AESO.
Jason Bucholtz: Earlier on this actually, this year, in 2022, we did have a bunch of staff get sick and maybe even potentially spread through our control room a little bit. I'm not fully sure on that. It definitely took its toll for sure. I would say almost everybody in our control room maybe potentially has had it. For myself, for instance, I had a cold, but I never actually got tested and stuff like that. I just assumed that I had it, and so I isolated myself accordingly type thing. It almost drifted over the two-year process, I guess, where you're getting closer to that endemic state where it's like you're going out of the pandemic, but you're not quite there yet, and everybody is just getting a little sick of it, wants to move on, tired of all the controls in place to prevent anybody from getting sick.
Chris Sakr: While this weird, hazy period affected so many more people than previous waves, I hesitate to say it even months later, but Omicron seemed to signal normal life could start again. Now, I don't know about you, but I knew the pandemic was mellowing when I could start making new plans of my own weeks and months ahead. Of course, for the power industry, waiting around wasn't an option. For executives like Debra, long-term strategy is the primary job. She had to keep people safely working during the pandemic while also figuring out how to look ahead.
Debra Smith: When I had worked prior at Central Lincoln PUD in Oregon at the Oregon Coast's small utility, one of the things that I was most impressed with when I got there was that, during the great recession, they had been ready to do an advanced metering infrastructure project, an AMI project, and they had their plans all ready. They had looked at a number of different options including a power line, but also a full build-out. When our monies became available, they quickly pivoted and said, hey, we have a shovel-ready project here and it's for a full nuts-to-bolts build-out. They submitted that. They got funding, and half of their system was paid for, and it was because they were ready.
Chris Sakr: Way back in April and May of 2020, new projects and long-term planning were on hold. The operative strategy was just get through this. Long before I dared to make vacation plans, experience reminded Debra that being ready for normal long before it came back was key.
Debra Smith: We knew that we had this group of employees who were super high performers. They'd come here because they wanted to be part of Seattle, transforming the energy space for this part of the state or this part of the region. All of a sudden, we told them to go home. They were people who were super comfortable with the technology because they tended to be younger, millennials certainly. We gave them really exciting work to do. We did. We created a team. Actually, I think there were two channels. We used agile project management. We had an employee at the time who was very skilled in that methodology of managing work. We invited the national labs to join us. PNNL had team members on both of our project teams, and we said, "This is a six-week project. In the six week period, what we want you to do is we want you to figure out what are the suite of projects that will provide Seattle with a modern grid capable of handling the electrification of the future." They did it, and we call it Utility Next. It's our Utility Next portfolio. Every one of these 17 projects has a charter, a high-level budget. The idea was to create pieces of work, to have it in chunks. Depending on what funding streams became available, we would be ready and able to compete for those funds. That suite of projects remains our backbone. We've been working with Washington State Commerce. We've been working with DOE and, because we had folks from the lab on our team, they were able to help us shape the projects so that they were fundable and relevant and had the components that would make them most attractive. That is our basis right now for attracting infrastructure funding. It made a big difference because what it did was, at the very beginning of the pandemic then, it helped us create a really solid vision that we would use and that we are continuing to use to define and create our energy future, which is the name of the business strategy that all of this work falls under in our strategic plan.
Chris Sakr: Debra enabled a competent team to set City Light up for when opportunities became available. As the company-wide strategy evolved into getting business back on the rails through 2022, that hard, early work on Utility Next is getting folded right in, but what about older strategies, namely, those dusty, old pandemic response plans that were constantly getting updated?
Cullen Ritchie: 13 years ago, each of the operator consoles had either two or three computers on it. Whereas, today, if you walk in our control room, you almost have to put on sunscreen because of all of the computer monitors. The tools have changed drastically in the last 13 years. That previous plan was built towards that era. It was not taking into account even the current business practices and the current tools and the current staffing that was required. As we took that skeleton and put new meat on the bones, we were very careful to not make it COVID-19 specific, but to create space to where, be it a year down the road or be it a hundred years down the road, we have a pandemic response plan.
Chris Sakr: Brett Hallborg, BC Hydro's senior system control manager.
Brett Hallborg: As we move out of the pandemic, there's been a lot of provincial health orders and a lot of regulatory stuff that's changed to the point where this is now being foundationed into this communicable disease plan. There'll be things like sanitizing. It'll be around things like sick leave policy and staying home if you're not feeling well, all these types of things which I'd say most of us already know, most of us were already doing, but now they're being laid out, and you have to have documented plans around them.
Jason Bucholtz: I don't know if it's the utility industry as a whole or what, but I was definitely always raised with that kind of tough mentality and suck it up, buttercup, or whatever it might be. I would call it a culture change. It's definitely occurred around everyone's health. What used to be, "I can tough it out. I'm going to come in with a runny nose or a cold," or whatever it might be, the expectation now is that you better stay home or else you're going to have a whole bunch of peer pressure from your coworkers to get out of the office real quick moving forward.
Brett Hallborg: The other things that are going to probably stick with us for a while, all our sanitation protocols. Many of those will be scaled back a little bit, but they'll stay at the same time. Just having all the sanitizing stuff on site and enforcing the usage of that will continue to happen. Most of the other protocols and other things that we did will go away.
Chris Sakr: Some protocols may go away, but like Cullen said earlier, there's no way around it. The future is going to look very different than 2019 and a lot quieter.
Brett Hallborg: We're about 7,000 strong as a corporation. A percentage of those will work from home indefinitely. There's also what refer to as a hybrid model, and that's going to be in the office some days of the week and out of the office for the other days of the week because, again, the rule will support that. Then there's the pure resident model, which means that your job can really probably only be performed from the office, so that's where you need to be.
Cullen Ritchie: A process was put in place where each individual employee could request to work remotely 100% of the time, never work remotely or somewhere in between. Each of those applications have been going through a vetting process and reviewed for that individual and that individual's job function.
Brett Hallborg: It will probably live on for some time because there's lots of opportunities there with reduced office lease costs and other things that can be taken advantage of by rolling out a model.
Jason Bucholtz: The amount that we use in all our control rooms and how we're having certain controllers show up at one control center and other controllers showing up at a different control, at times, they're like half and half. We'd have two operators at our backup location and two at our primary location. That actually created quite a bit of flexibility as well from scheduling perspective, and we might leverage that moving forward. Not haven't really determined whether that's going to be the case or not, probably, moving forward, maybe reduce the amount of staff that's in the control room at any given time, trying to cut down on the noise and cut down on the distractions a little bit. I do feel like that was noted multiple times by different operators as a benefit.
Debra Smith: We actually added a senior level person which we didn't have, a utility technology director, who started in very early 2021 who's been making huge changes in how we approach things. I think the year that went, that came before that solidified our need for that role because we have a federated world. I receive a lot of my technology services from the City of Seattle, but it became clear that we needed to have more control, and so we found a way to repurpose. Because there's no new anything, we found a way to repurpose resources so that we could create this group.
Chris Sakr: Tony Martinez, [inaudible 00:12:32] training coordinator.
Tony Martinez: If it gets deep enough to the operators, one or two operators get sick enough to where they are not able to cover shift, okay, can you do your tasks from home? If it got to that point, all of our supporting software, communications to the RC, different things like that, are available to an operator as well on their laptop or by some other means.
Cullen Ritchie: One of the things that we're prepping for is virtual conference capability in all of our conference rooms. You may have a meeting where three or four people are in a room together and three or four people are attending it remotely, not only having the tools in place to do that, but having the etiquette in place to be able to support that.
Tony Martinez: We've already incorporated Teams video conferencing into some of our emergency notifications. We use a software called Everbridge. Again, if there's an evacuation of the control center, if there's active shooter, it's that emergency notification, if you will. We're incorporating Teams into that Everbridge notification as well. It's evolving. The new normal, if you will, is going to take a little getting used to, but I think it's going to be better for everyone at least in my shop so far. We've seen the positive side of it.
Debra Smith: I do not believe future work will ever mean that we are all in the office, those of us who are office workers, but I believe that, for utilities, there will always be a place-based component because it's the nature of our work. One of the biggest challenges we have ahead of us is working with our remote employees, employees who have been remote, to develop a new relationship with work in a hybrid situation that works for all of us.
Chris Sakr: In March of 2022 when we recorded these interviews, another big shift was about to happen. The following month, utilities were set to start letting people come back on site. Most were operating a reduced work week and those flexible schedules. At the start of part one, I said COVID-19 means different things to different people. Well, so did coming back.
Tony Martinez: Everybody's been coming back slowly. Again, we didn't have that inrush, if you will, of people just wanting to come back to the office.
Brett Hallborg: Will I say I'm excited about it? The answer to that is probably a little bit yes and no. Will it be a relief? There's a resounding yes to that because many of us can go back to just our day job instead of our day job plus as a pandemic response person.
Chris Sakr: Among the myriad changes to business as usual, one constant for every shop was the industry kept hiring. If you're one of those new faces, my hat goes off to you. If you're not, imagine what that might have been like or what it might still be like now.
Cullen Ritchie: In the next month or two, a lot of the utilities are going to resume what we call DON, disconnection of services for nonpayment, and reconnection of set services. I realized a few weeks ago that half of my system operations staff had been hired since the last time we did that. We've got what I would say some old business procedures and practices that we need to dust off, make sure they're accurate and get them trained.
Chris Sakr: Phil Mayson, manager of training and compliance delivery at AESO.
Phil Mayson: These are people that have never met face to face, and they've never actually spoken unless we put them in a breakout room together. At some point, when the COVID dust has cleared and we have a little bit more under our control, we will probably go back to those large in-person training events where operators from around the province can get together and learn from each other and then break bread over lunch and just get to know each other a little bit so that, when they're talking to each other on the phone, they know who that person is, they know what some of the issues in their control room are, they know what they have visibility of, and the communication is a little bit better.
Chris Sakr: Whether you were new to control rooms or to the industry as a whole, the learning curve was steep in getting to know your compatriots, the folks next to you who can lend a helping hand or just smile and tell you, "You're doing a great job. Don't worry." That has to be rebuilt. While I wish that missing human contact just affected new hires in some way, it kind of hit everybody.
Jason Bucholtz: In Alberta here, we couldn't even go for, say, a beer with your friends or whatever type thing either, right? You didn't even have the opportunity to go and sit in a pub and socialize because many of your friends are at work. I think, definitely, the mental health side of things, I don't know how you can measure that, but I would definitely say that, a hundred percent, there is that impact of that.
Chris Sakr: Just because we're reentering whatever this new normal is, it doesn't mean the hits won't keep coming either. Work life is still life, and policies aren't just paper. However two people feel about them, the fact is that's two people who feel something.
Debra Smith: We approach the vaccine mandate. At this point, I think there are right now maybe 30 employees who are being involuntarily separated. There's another maybe 20 who've chosen to retire in lieu of. Every employee who's being separated had the option and the right to a one-on-one conversation with me, because I know I've had probably around 40 of them, and just to love on these people as best I could, to respect them, to honor their choice. I've had some really hard things said to me in these conversations. I've also had people. One employee who has recently separated, he and his wife sent me a note yesterday wishing me a happy Easter. I'm going to cry. That has been the hardest part of COVID for me. See, I am. I'm going to cry because what I've come to believe during this two years is that... and it's what's got me through a lot of really tough situations is to say everybody's doing the best they can. Everybody's made really hard decisions that none of us felt qualified to make, and that is the role of leadership. I mean, that is my job. My job is to make decisions and to create an environment that where people can come to work and do their very best every day. Hopefully, you're engaging your head and your heart. I don't think anyone could have led and gotten through the last two years without doing both, even people or leaders for whom in the past that was different. I've learned a tremendous amount about people, and I would not want to do it again. How about that?
Chris Sakr: Between 2020 and now, the power industry's people boldly faced an unprecedented and uncertain pandemic. It fundamentally changed their business, and the lessons they take forward from these difficulties will shape the future just like they shape the lives of everyone involved.
Brett Hallborg: I don't really want to think or reflect about the sleepless nights and the difficult situations that we had to work with.
Cullen Ritchie: The Center for Disease Control put forward guidance for what they call critical infrastructure workers. I feel like that, if they had not done that, we would've had a hard time getting our voice heard, that we have people that have to report to work every day or everything you're doing is for naught because you're not going to have power and water.
Phil Mayson: A plan could not contemplate everything, but if you get a bunch of smart people together in a Zoom call or in a room and you start talking about what-if scenarios and asking each other questions, can we do this, can we do that, those people in that room will figure out a way.
Tony Martinez: When I first started in the industry, if there was a failure, it was embarrassing. You did not want to share that with anybody. Now, the thinking has changed, and so lessons learned are definitely very beneficial. Yeah, it is unfortunate that you are going down that path, but you don't want anybody else to go down that path if it's preventable.
Chris Sakr: From when the Earth stood still into this strange new normal, one thing went unchanged. Power stayed on.
Brett Hallborg: There were some stressful moments. Not to say that I get compensated and the amounts that I want to get compensated for taking this type of stuff on, but, at the end of the day, we basically worked through the pandemic, and our end-use customers, the people we serve, really have no knowledge of anything that went bad.
Tony Martinez: The operators, the field personnel, the plan operators, they know who the backbone of each company is and they know what each person does and how important they are. They did. They stepped up to the plate, and they've been making it work for the last two years.
Jason Bucholtz: Just from what I saw when we got the controllers back after a year and a half and some of the excitement just going on through shift turnovers, it was uplifting to be honest.
Debra Smith: I don't think I would trade it. I said I didn't want to. I wouldn't want to do it again, and that's true, but I feel proud of myself, and I feel proud of my team.
Brett Hallborg: We should just all be very proud of ourselves and pat ourselves on the back for keeping the grid secure.
Chris Sakr: You may never have known why your light stayed on or even thought to ask, but now we can say thank you for keeping the world turning, for making so many other lives easier even when they got hard and, above all else, thank you for doing all this not just as professionals, but as people.
Debra Smith: I believe that one of the jobs of a leader is to love their employees. My employees all know I feel that way. The best or only way to show your employees that you love them is to make sure they get home safely every day.
Chris Sakr: You didn't just keep the lights on. You did something for the rest of us to emulate when we face difficulties boldly. From boardrooms to breaker units to difficult decisions, sleepless nights and with no guarantees it would ever end, you took care of each other. I can't think of any greater lesson than that.