As the holiday season approaches, I was recently reminded of a conversation my dad and I had over 30 years ago. I said I wanted a watch for Christmas. When my dad asked why, I told him it would help me know how long it would be before I finished school and when it was a Friday (Me then: “Yay, I get a break!”).
I still own the watch, and for decades I have marveled at its efficiencies and mechanical sophistication, and by its ability to do two things very well: be accurate and reliable. It told me the right time and date consistently and reliably day in and day out.
Fast forward 30 years to the same conversation I had with my son. He told me he would like a watch for Christmas. When I asked him why, he told me to play music, check his fitness levels, control our home, make phone calls, allow us to know where he is—oh, and to tell him the time and when it was Friday (Me now: “Uh oh, what’s he going to break?”).
Smartwatches have added a whole new level of interaction and multi-functionality that as recently as 5 years ago was unimaginable. I believe the same holds true with the function of utilities and the folks who work for/with them.
Future of work for utilities
If you compare the marketplace that a utility operated in less than a decade ago with the one in which they operate today, it very much reflects my smartwatch conversation. I still want my utility to provide safe and reliable energy, but now I expect a little more interaction on my terms. I expect my utility to provide guidance on where I can save money, maybe advise me on my distributed generation options, and deliver insight on when there is an expected service disruption, and (more importantly) when I’m expected to get my lights back on. While my expectations may seem reasonable, the implication for a utility is significant. I believe utilities are facing a race against time to change their future work operations, especially considering new constraints being introduced by the pandemic.
I’m going to focus on three areas that I believe will underpin changes to utilities’ future of work: digitization, customer and culture.
If you think of my expectations as a customer, most of my needs are being met by utilities today. The difference is that, like the smartwatch, I want them all in a package that I have readily available to me. By joining up the data that supports utility operations, customer and a wider partner ecosystem, I believe utilities will provide the services and insight that we all desire. For instance, technologies that enable a digital twin to model asset performance, predict organizational impacts and provide external context to show the impact of weather or simulate external assets will become more of necessity.
Taking the digital journey a little further, imagine if a utility field worker or design engineer had a "digital place" that allowed them to visit a facility virtually to learn about its operations, review history information and find impact of new infrastructure. Would that person be more effective when they are physically onsite? Combining data from such assets as a geographical information system (GIS), enterprise asset management (EAM) platform, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) platform, along with satellites and drones may sound like futuristic functionality. Perhaps is not so far away as you might imagine.
Customers’ expectations have shifted. Thanks to highly customer-centric digital experiences, everything from how we shop online to how we order rides and pizza, has made us more information hungry. Successful companies spend a lot of time and effort differentiating on the services they provide to their customers. But how can a utility that currently controls most of the market protect and differentiate on customer service? If you cannot beat them, join them!
The technology companies that have redefined customer service and in-home smart devices are already eyeing up the utility market. They are identifying how they move from the home, out to the wider grid to sell energy. Perhaps one day, I will choose to buy my energy from an aggregator that can provide the same service I get today but that also allows me to sell spare capacity to my neighbors. Today’s cloud service providers could easily be tomorrow’s distributed energy providers. Would you prefer to buy your energy from Amazon and its significant ecosystem of technology partners or from your utility?
To try to counter this strategy, many utilities are focusing on becoming the customer’s preferred energy advisor. If my utility could provide forecasted warnings of outages, advise on appliances that are inefficient or perhaps functioning incorrectly, services to lower my energy rates based on time of use or in return for more control over my electric vehicle, then I would likely have more loyalty toward their product and services. This would be especially true given the many years of safe and reliable service they have provided me.
These customer initiatives will have a significant impact on the future of work within a utility’s network and retail operations, and will be crucial to the success and relevance of the utility in a customer’s eyes.
The utility industry is quite unique in its ability to support other utilities in times of need. One only needs to look at right now, at one of the most active hurricane seasons in history, combined with the pandemic work constraints. In these challenging times, utilities’ support and co-operation has never been more evident. I would like to offer 2020 as the perfect example of why the utility industry offers a high level of agility and innovation while continuing to offer safe and reliable service to its customers.
If any lessons learned have come out of the pandemic, the need to adapt quickly and to be able to work more collaboratively in a de-centralized structure certainly rank high. As we think about the future of work for utilities, I wonder whether the pandemic’s greatest lesson will be applying this new normal to our everyday wok patterns. The ability for a field worker to collaborate more with the back office, with the grid assets, external supplier/ contractors and bring your own device (BYOD) mobility now seem to be obvious areas to exploit.
Bringing this all back the story of my Christmas watch, times have not just changed, the pace of change itself is speeding up. Utilities cannot rely on just being as steady and reliable as a well-crafted watch – we expect much more. The future of work for utilities is now, and it’s time to change.