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Q and A with Bobbi Schroeppel: What is the future of work from home at NorthWestern Energy?

Oct 07, 2020 |

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Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a series of stories prompted by questions NorthWestern Energy’s Pandemic ICS receives from employees. Find all the series stories on the COVID-19 page.

This spring, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, NorthWestern Energy asked nearly half of its workforce to immediately begin working from home. Most of those employees remain working from home as the company continues to work under Phase II of NorthWestern’s Responsible Re-entry Plan.

Employees have asked about the future of “work from home” at NorthWestern. While no one can predict what the future of the pandemic will be, we asked Bobbi Schroeppel, vice president of Customer Care, Communications and Human Resources to share some insight from the ICS. Bobbi was appointed Incident Commander of NWE’s Pandemic Incident Command structure by Bob Rowe in March, 2020.

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Amie: Bobbi, before we get into your thoughts on the future of work from home, could you talk a little about how we got here and why the ICS sent employees home in March?

Bobbi SchroeppelBobbi: We sent employees home for one overarching reason – to help protect the safety and health of all NorthWestern employees. By sending as many employees home as possible, we were able to implement greater social distancing within our facilities to help protect those who are not able to work from home. We all know along with mask wearing and hand sanitizing, avoiding gatherings and social distancing are key to stopping the spread of COVID 19. Removing as many employees as possible from the workplace was and remains a key part of protecting those employees who cannot work from home, as well as those who can work from home.

Amie: How have the various types of jobs been impacted by this pandemic – some work from home, some work from office, and some from the field?

Bobbi: Overall, I have been so impressed with the flexibility and cooperation we have seen from employees, whether they are working from home or not. Work continues to get done. Customer service levels are high. We have had to find new ways to interact, such as Zoom meetings, and we continue to learn and adapt. While I think we all look forward to the day when we are not in pandemic mode, there are some new ways of doing business we will want to carry forward. Employees who are not working from home are being impacted because they are more socially distanced and are seeing less of their co-workers. Changes have been made in the operating areas of the company to reduce the need for in-person contact and/or to limit contact to the extent possible. Other employees have been separated into back up locations and in some cases they work as a crew of one. Work-from-home employees have had to settle into living and working in the same location, and generally only see co-workers via technology such as Zoom. I never thought I would see the day when almost all of our customer service representatives are working from home – but here we are and to this point, it is going fairly well.

Amie: How might school reopening impact our employees and the COVID response?

Bobbi: Personally, I am worried about the impacts of schools opening. In fact, we are already seeing it. Children are bringing the virus home and I think this is going to continue and perhaps worsen as we head into colder weather. I hope I am wrong, but I think those with school-aged children need to be prepared for schools closing again at some point.

Amie: I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but I do know you’ve been watching the pandemic situation very closely. Do you have an educated guess as to how long the work-from-home employees will remain in that mode?

Bobbi: We are constantly monitoring developments and data from the scientific community. We’ve communicated that we expect to stay in Phase 2 this fall and will continue to evaluate. Depending on the data, it is conceivable moving to Phase 3 may be well into 2021. I think better and more rapid testing, better treatments and some kind of vaccine are the game changers. Given how contagious this virus is and as learned recently, the lack of long-term immunity (you can get it more than once), I feel COVID-19 is something we will be living with for years at some level. I think as a society we need to resign ourselves to the fact we all need to do what it takes to control the spread, regardless of personal feelings about things like mask wearing.

Amie: Why did the safety professionals return to our facilities in Phase 2 of the Responsible Re-entry Plan?

Bobbi: The safety professionals are an important part of helping us keep employees safe in terms of the traditional way we think of safety and from the virus. They have the training and skillset to help us with our on-going COVID-19 response. When we looked at who would re-enter the workplace as part of Phase 2, we felt getting the safety professionals back in the workplace and out in the field was something we needed to do. Safety is job one for all of us. And a large part of a safety professional’s role is difficult to perform from home.

As important as it is for the safety professionals to be in the local areas and field, it is also imperative that other operating supervisors, managers, and even engineers continue to perform frequent field visits and safe interactions with our field personnel and crews.  Field visits and safety observations can easily be conducted utilizing social distancing along with mask wearing, and maintaining communication and relationships with our field employees is critical.  Setting the right example and encouraging/requiring compliance with our COVID protocols is more critical now than ever.

Similar to safety professionals, we will evaluate other work groups for return to office, based on business need as we continue in Phase 2.

Amie: Things feel different right now for all of us. People are having to adjust to a lot of changes.  What should an employee do if they have concerns that a coworker is not following proper protocols?

Bobbi: I would say they should handle it like we would ask any concern be handled. If comfortable, you can say something to the employee directly. You can talk to your supervisor or you can contact HR or a safety professional. One of the things supervisors and the safety professionals are paying attention to is adherence to mask-wearing protocols. Consistency in wearing our masks when we need to be, will contribute to getting this virus under control and giving all of us the freedom we value as Americans.

Amie: What has the company done to account for the fact employees may have additional needs for time away due to pandemic illness or exposure?

Bobbi: Early on we put in place a special pandemic leave policy providing up to 80 hours of paid time off if the need is COVID-19 related. The majority of the leave granted under this policy has been for quarantine purposes. We, of course, have our existing short-term disability leave benefit and Paid Time Off which could apply in certain situations. As COVID-19 wears on, we will try to be as flexible as we can in supporting employees who may need time away due to COVID, against the backdrop of business need. We will continue to use our existing interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be made in the same manner we have been using it for years when an employee is in need of time off or some type of accommodation to allow them to perform their job.

Amie: What else can NorthWestern employees do as the pandemic wears on?

Bobbi: This event has gone on for over six months and understanding it may be a while longer, I encourage everyone to stay the course, follow the protocols, and do everything we can to keep people safe, keep the economy going, and protect others we are close to.  As we move into the colder months, people may become frustrated with everything pandemic-related, and thus let their guard down.  We’ve already seen friends and family gatherings creating a significant mode of transmission as people are naturally more “comfortable” in those settings, but to stay healthy, we must all continue to take the right level of precaution for the settings we find ourselves in.  The risk of the virus does not go away during a lunch hour or when we finish the work day.  We need to protect ourselves both on and off the job.

Amie: Do you have anything else you’d like to add, or any additional concerns?

Bobbi: I would like to thank all of NorthWestern’s employees for their support, flexibility and adherence to the additional safety protocols we have put in place. It concerns me when I see COVID-19 turned into a political issue – it is not and the virus does not care about politics. The role our company serves in our communities is critical, and every one of our employees is important to fulfilling our mission. The only way to stop the spread of the virus and to save lives, is for all of us to do our part.

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