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The last few months have seen significant changes in the way we live, work and communicate due to COVID-19. Routines have been disrupted and for many companies, business as usual has disappeared.

While some of the country is starting to experience an easing of restrictions, cities such as Melbourne are still facing strict lockdowns.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, utilities had to respond quickly to the immediate issues posed by operating during a pandemic – the priority was ensuring the safety of their people while guaranteeing the security of supply and stabilising supply chains, which were disrupted by restrictions on travel and movement. 

In those states that have not experienced any new Coronavirus cases, the focus is starting to shift towards a safe return: how to bring more workers back to their jobs and ramp up operations. 

At the same time, things may never go back to the way they were, and utilities need to consider how COVID-19 will impact their operations in the long term as they reimagine and reform their operating environments. 

Utilities will also need to understand which of the temporary disruptions they have experienced are likely to persist, taking into account the lessons learned by COVID-19 and how they could change operating models.

Digital ways of working enable social distancing

For many organisations, COVID-19 has expedited their digital transformation timelines and accelerated the adoption of digital ways of working. Utilities that embarked on digital programs before the crisis have been more resilient to its shocks, and in a post-COVID-19 world, many will need to reconsider their technology priorities.

The rapid shift to remote working didn’t come without its challenges however, revealing a number of gaps in IT infrastructure, workforce planning and digital upskilling. 

Cloud computing providers, such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, have seen a boost in sales as a result of huge numbers of the population working from home. 

Automation, artificial intelligence and robotics are another area ripe for investment, as utilities seek software solutions that enable remote monitoring and inspection of their assets. Robust cyber security products and services will also be essential as more assets are managed online.

In addition to the range of digital transformation technologies, there is still a strong pipeline of the more traditional utility work, no pun intended. Ongoing maintenance and repair of assets like pipelines, pumping stations and powerlines are still being undertaken during the pandemic crisis, and these critical works must continue to ensure the many Australians working from home, and hospitals and supermarkets, benefit from essential services that are safe and reliable.

Even as restrictions and lockdowns ease, utilities will want to maintain organisational agility and there is growing interest in hybrid working models. For this to happen, utility leaders will need to embed remote working in their organisational culture and consider the long-term virtualisation potential for different teams and roles.

Customer interactions move online

Utilities also need to enhance their digital customer engagement to stay connected to customers. There is a general trend of customers moving online, with some online activities growing by more than 40 per cent.

When the crisis hit, utilities had to change how they typically interacted with their customers. With offices closed and customers staying at home, digital channels became much more important. 

The pandemic has resulted in huge numbers of customers facing financial hardship, paving the way for utilities to offer more personalised solutions, including special support programs, flexible payment plans and tariff adjustments. 

Opportunities exist for companies that offer products and services that drive customer acquisition and engagement. Many utilities are looking to improve the performance of their websites by offering multiple self-service options and ensuring the site is optimised for use on mobile devices.

Customers have individual needs and utilities that acknowledge this with targeted communications and solutions are guaranteed to reduce customer churn. 

Customer Relationship Management systems, social media integration, and apps and portals that provide customers with access to real-time consumption data are more important than ever to enable the delivery of hyper-personalised, omnichannel digital experiences that anticipate customer needs and desires for superior cost savings and empowerment. 

One way for utilities to move forward with their digital transformation journey is to join hands with leading digital services providers that can help them adapt to the new normal and the long-term implications of the pandemic, while improving operational efficiency and the customer experience.

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

©2020 utilitymagazine. All rights reserved

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