Moving to remote working has presented challenges for businesses everywhere. But imagine if you’d been building a nuclear power plant when the pandemic hit.

That’s the situation one leading energy supplier found itself in as the COVID-19 crisis broke. The company recently joined the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) UK Utilities Virtual Round Table, alongside representatives from electricity, gas, water and telecoms utilities, to discuss lessons from the pandemic and the new reality for infrastructure projects in the sector.

As organizations continue to react and adjust to the challenges of COVID-19, delivering capital projects such as power plants remains critical to securing a robust and resilient future. And, as speakers at the event discussed, those businesses that respond to these challenges in a rapid, agile manner stand the greatest chance of navigating this complex new landscape.

Thinking differently

Mobilizing the workforce was one of the topics on the agenda and, of course, the utilities sector wasn’t exempt from the mass shift to remote working forced by the pandemic.

Technology had to be prioritized to the most critical teams, infrastructure had to be set up to ensure everything kept running smoothly and that data such as customer accounts could be accessed safely and securely. And the roundtable speakers were in agreement that the crisis had demanded they think differently – and fast.

This brought about new approaches to onboarding staff, including getting new starters to work in small groups in a Microsoft Teams Room for the duration of their workday. If they have a question, they look up and ask someone, just as they would if they were in a physical office. Laptops had to be acquired and distributed at scale. For one telecoms company in attendance, it meant moving staff to the right capital programmes at the right time and retraining those staff virtually.

Pause for thought

But it wasn’t just at head office that this new mindset had to be employed – rapid action was required in the field, too.

The telecoms firm, for example, had to move to enable the connection of London’s Nightingale Hospital – which had been converted from a conference centre – to the NHS network. A job that would usually take between 30 and 60 days was completed in two.

Quick thinking at scale was also required in the energy sector. The safety of workers at the nuclear power plant project was paramount. But how do you get 5,000 people to practise social distancing on a building site? The company settled on splitting the workers into two teams, bringing site capacity at any given time down to 50%. And while this was a big reduction in manpower, pro-rata productivity actually increased – giving the organization pause for thought about optimum staffing levels.

To enable the connection of London’s Nightingale Hospital to the NHS network, rapid action was requited. Source: Shutterstock

Rapid methodology

So what’s the secret to the effective execution of these kinds of solutions?

For the telecoms company, it was encasing its rapid decision-making in a clear structure and sticking to it.

Everyone involved in every decision was aware of their role in the process and what was required of them, and review sessions were held to ensure the model was always resulting in the best outcome. This allowed it to make the right decisions against its capital programmes – and the rapid methodology has been a “huge win”.

Another speaker, representing an energy start-up, agreed that it’s not possible to cling to old decision-making cycles in a world that’s moving so rapidly.

As a relative newcomer to the industry, it has digital technology at its heart and a flat organizational structure. Senior management trust their teams to make key decisions, while being available when needed. This has both sped up decision making and freed the senior team to make critical plans to drive the business forward.

Placing technology at the heart of business can help efficiency in decision making, Source: Shutterstock

A new mindset

Adapting this rapid methodology requires a major shift in the mindset of every person in the organization, the roundtable heard. And leadership, which has been so crucial during the pandemic, will continue to be a vital factor – senior management must lead from the front in demonstrating the value of making decisions at speed.

Giving employees flexibility and empowering them to do their jobs well is also an important cog in a well-oiled delivery programme, participants at the virtual event were told. It has a direct impact on productivity, because when there are always people available to deliver things on time, projects are more likely to hit deadlines and be on budget.

But how can this momentum be sustained when the heat is off and attention turns to longer-term or strategic moves that might not be so time-sensitive?

It would be easy to go back to the norm, the speaker from the leading energy company said. And indeed, in a sector like utilities, there are important governance and control processes that need to be followed. But the organization is trying to use the evidence of what it has achieved in a short space of time as a “why not?”. Before the crisis, it had touched on digitalization, through various initiatives. But now it’s asking what else, and how else? The mindset has really been changed, he explained.

As another speaker concluded, where previously they’d been hearing “we can’t”, now it’s becoming clear that “we can”.