Leading with Compassion While Pressing Forward with Transformation

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) cares about its customers and meeting their needs. Every summer, it collaborates with the County of San Diego to provide “Cool Zones” in locations such as libraries and community centers so citizens can beat the heat and save on energy costs. The company also advises customers on energy efficiency measures and how to help avoid utility scams.

Amid the uncertainty and challenges created by the pandemic, SDG&E has taken many actions to help protect customers and employees, such as providing payment arrangements for customers in need and adding extra precautions for employees in the field.

Compassion Counts

“Our biggest concern is staying connected with customers and employees in the new world of working from home,” says Laura Atkinson, director of the Customer Information Systems Program at SDG&E. “We are using technology to stay connected, but that does not replace personal engagement.”

Atkinson finds people are much more compassionate and understanding during the crisis. Raising two girls as a single mother, surviving cancer, and having a demanding career, she knows how important it is to prioritize what needs to be accomplished — both professionally and personally. “It’s important to give back to others,” she says, referring to her management style. “I talk to my team a lot about balancing their work and home lives.

She goes on to explain that in the past, the office was mostly a nine-to-five operation. At the start of the crisis, the company asked 2,400 employees to work from home and implemented additional measures to keep field staff safe.

“We’ve gone through a big shift since then,” she explains. “Previously, the office was where you went to get work done. Now, we’re highly focused on outcomes and individual employee work flexibility. We have been able to demonstrate how to accomplish our objectives, regardless of physical location.”

These are big changes in the world of utilities, an industry undergoing rapid transformation. Faced with competition from non-traditional energy suppliers, utility companies must address climate change goals, reduce emissions, and support smart city programs as they seek to create value for their customers, communities, and shareholders.

Principles for Transformation

For the last three-and-half years, Atkinson and her team have been busy replacing SDG&E’s 25-year-old customer information system with SAP software. The goals include streamlining business processes, optimizing customer engagement, increasing regulatory responsiveness, and implementing a cloud-based platform for future innovation.

“The first step was to get the entire company to embrace the guiding principles for change,” says Atkinson, who believes that embracing change is key to successfully transform from being a utilities company to becoming an energy service company.

The project operates on four principles. First and foremost is customer focus: SDG&E must serve its 3.6 million customers better, faster, and with greater agility. Second is empowerment, because Atkinson’s project team of 400 must make decisions and move at a quicker pace. Third, the team should implement best practices and focus on outcomes. And the fourth principle is “buy over build.”

“Configuring standard SAP functionality is more sustainable than customization,” says the IT expert.

Regardless of the crisis, SDG&E’s transformation will set it apart from most utility companies that operate on a brick-and-mortar philosophy. Previously, employees got their information from bulletin boards. That is no longer the case as work processes are more automated. Digitization also provides greater visibility through the use of dashboards that feed data to all stakeholders, providing a real-time view of the company’s operations.

It is not all work and no play at SDG&E. The team was quick to pivot and adapt to operating in the virtual world. Atkinson says that leaders at all levels within the organization are making a point to reach out directly to individuals to ask how they are doing in these uncertain times, and to help ensure people understand that it is okay to take a break and have some downtime. The team has incorporated fun, light-hearted activities to keep people connected, such as hosting bingo games, virtual happy hours, a drive-by pizza party, and playing Family Feud.

Atkinson is keen on teaching the next generation about the benefits of technology. “We’re living in interesting times,” she says. “We need to listen more carefully in the virtual world, where we can’t always pick up on nuances like body language.”

Her advice to women on a career path in technology is to set priorities, balance personal and professional goals, and learn to say no to certain things. One of her own takeaways from the crisis is the need for a shift in mindset. For example, she questions whether people really need to be physically in the office: “We need to challenge our own measurements. With a greater focus on outcomes, we need to measure the work itself. It’s how you get it done that counts.”


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