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Utility Experts Share Advice For Managing Through The Coronavirus Pandemic

This is a strange time for us all. While many places across the globe are experiencing Shelter In Place orders, our utility employees continue to serve on the front lines to ensure we have safe, and reliable, utility services. These men and women serving us and our communities are heroes.

We've noticed that the best utility managers and operators are brilliant strategists and capital allocators. But most importantly, they are great managers, and motivators of people.

We've asked some of the top experts in the utility industry to share advice that might be helpful to utility operators during this tough time and their answers were consistent, care for and communicate with your team well.

Here's what they had to say: 

Cathy Bailey Executive Director of Greater Cincinnati Water Works

Regular, meaningful communication is key during a crisis. As water professionals continue working in their roles to keep water flowing, it is critical that they are receiving consistent messaging that includes updates about the crisis, highlights of the business functions, concerns of others, acts of kindness, humor, personal perspectives and steps to stay healthy-physically, mentally, spiritually.  Infuse some non-traditional communication practices to help everyone get through it all.  With messaging, it is important to:

  1. Be transparent, share the good, bad and ugly of what is going on;
  2. Provide early messages that occur often, send a daily message if you can;
  3. Be open to questions and concerns, swiftly respond to all;
  4. Be blunt and provide examples that they understand;
  5. Explain personal stories and perspectives that they can relate to;
  6. Add humor, happy photos, or rhymes to bring joy and smiles during a difficult time.

Cathy Bailey is the 1st female director at her utility, which has been around for over 200 years. Before serving as Interim Director, Ms. Bailey worked her entire career for GCWW. She began her career in 1992. Greater Cincinnati Water Works employees provide customers with a plentiful supply of high-quality water, support environmental sustainability, and deliver excellent services in a financially responsible manner. Greater Cincinnati Water Works has been a municipally owned and operated utility since it was purchased by the City of Cincinnati in 1839.

Reese Tisdale - President of Bluefield Research

"I know it feels like the house is now on fire. Once the flames are gone, we must consider the options, including the look and feel of the new structure. The benefit of investing in water & wastewater infrastructure is that it goes well beyond this year’s, if not this decade’s, challenges.        

The immense scale of water distribution and collection networks [in many parts of the world] is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and something that should put things in perspective. We will look back at this time, hopefully, as a bump in the road. It is up to us to make this a turning point at which we make improvements and gains going forward. This includes embracing the impacts and benefits of tools that greater enable remote workforces, advanced asset management and affordability."

"Digital tools and innovation are not made to replace people but rather make them work smarter and more efficiently. We are learning at scale that everything hinges on people."

Reese Tisdale is the President of Bluefield Research, an independent advisory firm that was founded to help companies and organizations address the regulatory, technology, business, and competitive challenges in water. Bluefield was founded on the belief that water is the most pressing issue facing our generation and future generations.

Cristina Ahmadpour - Isle Utilities President

  1. Lead with empathy and flexibility but have a strong plan of action
  2. Remote teams can work if there is trust. Trust starts with transparency.

For weeks the news has started with death counts and unemployment figures and it’s likely someone on your team is impacted whether it’s their partner, family member or friend. Regardless of individual personal circumstances as a result of COVID-19, we are all dealing with the changes to our normal routines and the uncertainty that remains.

It’s important to have empathy and compassion for one another, not just top down but across the organization. This may include flexible hours to care for family or children outside of working hours or using PTO/unpaid time off and encouraging personal growth projects.

In these uncertain times, the core business doesn’t change but how an organization gets there might. It’s important a company has a plan to ensure the team is engaged, aligned and focused on the immediate priorities. This may include how to redirect available capacity towards future projects and getting a head start on those requirements.

I have worked with remote teams for 11 years and managed them for over 4, trust is key. It requires transparency across all levels of the organization. Some tips that have worked for us. Note, these have been in place before COVID:

Cristina is the President of Isle Inc. and serves as Managing Director of Isle’s Americas business. She leads a team that supports the most progressive water utilities in their interest to identify, evaluate, and engage best-available solutions that drive value to their services and business operations. Isle is an independent technology and innovation consultancy that brings together technical and commercial specialists to facilitate relationships.

Adel Hagekhalil - General Manager & Executive Director of City of Los Angeles' Bureau of Street Services

"Public service employees, especially infrastructure workers, such as City of Los Angeles StreetsLA crews, are continuing to serve our residents in protecting the public health and safety. They are not only responding to service requests, implementing renewal of critical infrastructure, they are providing people hope and a sense of normalcy. 

The first priority is our staff’s safety. Our staff have been provided the necessary personal protective equipment to protect themselves while maintaining physical distancing and using hand washing and sanitizing stations. We are asking staff to report to the job site, if possible, to minimize having the crews to be in the same vehicles for long duration. 

We are also adapting our work to minimize impact to residents staying at home while taking advantage of streets and commercial corridors that have less traffic. 

My advice to infrastructure managers is to empower staff, regularly communicate with staff, equip them with the tools they need to be safe and give them a higher calling. In our case, it is enhancing the quality of life for all while saving lives and giving hope."

Adel Hagekhalil is a registered civil engineer with the State of California and a national Board-Certified Environmental Engineer. Adel is responsible for managing, maintaining and upgrading the City’s street network including streets, sidewalks, trees and bikeways with focus on safety, mobility and sustainability. The Bureau of Street Services was recently branded "StreetsLA" and is part of the Department of Public Works family responsible for preserving, protecting, maintaining, and renewing the City of Los Angeles' (City) street network and urban forest.

David McGimpsey - Denton's

"Don’t forget the people -- your employees, clients and other stakeholders.  When the COVID-19 crisis wanes, and it will, please hold dear the paraphrased wisdom of the late Maya Angelou:  people may not remember the details of what you did or how you did it, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.  You want that to be a good memory. Be compassionate."

Dave McGimpsey co-leads Dentons’ Energy practice, where he counsels clients on regulatory and transactional matters involving utilities, water and energy. Dave advises clients on a broad range of issues including business and regulatory strategy, formation, mergers, project certification, rate cases, financing cases, wholesale contracts, extension contracts, service territory, land use and more. He has handled major rate cases and significant utility acquisitions.

Founder and Executive Director at Moonshot Missions

"A coronavirus strategy has to start with protecting your workforce.  Yet this is also a time to adopt approaches that are necessary now – remote sensing, virtual monitoring and automation – that will permanently improve performance and reduce costs, and will prepare for the coming financial squeeze and the next crisis to come."

George Hawkins is the former CEO of DC Water and previously held positions in federal, state and local government, as well as non-profits and teaching roles. Moonshot Missions works with communities to identify and customize suitable projects within a roadmap that increases cash flow and may even reduce customer rates, while solving significant environmental and public health challenges.

Melissa Meeker, CEO The H20 Tower

"In any emergency, communication is critical. Embrace virtual collaboration and communication tools to stay as connected as possible.  Be purposeful and intentional when you meet and you’ll be amazed at how well you can resolve issues together.

Melissa Meeker is the CEO of the H20 Tower. Melissa has over 25 years of experience in water resources management, with an emphasis on alternative water supply, development and research, workforce development, and public engagement. The mission of The H20 Tower is to be a thriving ecosystem of water innovation fueled by imagination, informed by research & powered by pioneers.

Peter Lake - Texas Water Board Chairman

"My #1 piece of advice to operators is that your operation is critical, and the most critical part of your operation is your team – so take care of your people first, and encourage them to take care of each other."

Peter Lake was appointed as Chairman of the Texas Water Development Board by Governor Greg Abbott on February 22, 2018.The mission of the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) is to provide leadership, information, education, and support for planning, financial assistance, and outreach for the conservation and responsible development of water for Texas. Our mission is a vital part of Texas' overall vision and the state's mission and goals that relate to maintaining the viability of the state's natural resources, health, and economic development.

"Take care of yourself. This is going to be a deeply stressful time as your community relies on your work. Part of taking care of yourself is finding tools and solutions that allow you to spend time on the core elements of your work, and eliminate the extraneous stuff that takes time but adds little."

Tom acts as Vice President of Programming for Imagine H2O, running the Accelerator as well as building out our policy, global and leadership capabilities as they scale. Imagine H20 is the leading ecosystem for water innovation & entrepreneurship. Their mission is "Empowering People to Develop & Deploy Innovation to Solve Water Challenges Globally". Ziptility is one of 13 companies in their 2020 Global Water Accelerator and recently presented in their Demo Pitch Day.

Executive Director of Alliance of Indiana Rural Water

"For any operator who hasn't staggered their work forces, they should do so. Only one employee/person in a work truck at a time.  Make sure employees are disinfecting several times a day especially between shifts i.e. cleaning doors, countertops, other common areas."

"Reach out to their neighboring systems and keep in touch. They may not need assistance but they may just need to talk to someone."

"For anyone who is not using a SCADA system or some sort of technology, this would be a great opportunity for operators to talk to their boards and councils about how a SCADA system would benefit their utilities. You can basically operate your system from home."

Connie is the Executive Director for the Alliance.  She joined the Alliance in February 2012.  Connie has over 20 years of previous experience as a utility manager and served as a clerk treasurer for 13 years prior to that. The Alliance of Indiana Rural Water is a non-profit membership association of over 800 water & wastewater systems and related professionals and Indiana's ONLY representative to the National Rural Water Association.

Co-Founder and COO at Waterworth

"Now is a good time to dust off those financial models and make sure they’re up to date so that you can develop some best/worst case scenarios. Also a good time to revisit organizational cash reserve policies – it may be too late now to build reserves to help with the current situation, but now is a good time to build justification for thinking more carefully about what the reserve policies should be so they’re in place next time there’s a crisis."

JP has worked side-by-side with water suppliers, building models and providing expertise to help local governments with asset management, long-term financial planning and utility-rate setting. Waterworth is a web-based platform that enables you to optimize water rates and save for infrastructure upgrades, so that you can achieve financially sustainable water and wastewater systems. Plus, it’s backed by professional support for when you need it.

Ziptility is here to help and proud to stand with the utility crews that operate on the front lines to provide us safe and affordable utility's. Click here to read the note from our CEO.

Letter From Ziptility CEO - Managing through pandemic.
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