How essential businesses can plan for the safe return of employees

How essential businesses can plan for the safe return of employees
By Jaspreet Singh, Scott Aaronson, Michael Greenwell, Matt Silverman, and Jeffrey Adams

Even in the midst of a pandemic, not everything can be done virtually at essential businesses. How can you create back-to-office plans that leverage best practices, minimize risk to your employees, and maintain continuity of operations? And do all of that while focusing on what’s mission critical?  

Join experts from DTE Energy and the Edison Electric Institute for a closer look at the unique challenges utilities and other essential businesses face as they build safe and effective return-to-work plans.   

We’ll cover:

  • How to adapt quickly to shifting public health guidance and data.
  • How to create a back-to-work playbook for managing on-site personnel and hybrid work environments. 
  • How to communicate a back-to-work plan that instills confidence in your employees.
  • Making the case for implementing technologies that help ensure a safe return to work. 


Jeff: Welcome to ICF's insights webinar series. Today's topic is focused on how essential businesses can plan for the safe return of employees. Utilities are an essential industry. There is no option to not work. Our topic today is also how we focus on keeping employees, contractors, those in the supplier network safe as we plan the return.

Next slide, please—a little bit about myself—I'm Jeff Adams, senior vice president within our commercial energy practice, and I oversee our implementation. So the COVID-19 pandemic back in February and March—as we saw it coming to the United States in greater numbers, we had to work with our utility partners, with our trade allies to activate our continuity of operations plans, our recovery plans, virtualize to keep employees safe and your end customer safe as well.

A few ground rules today on the webinar—lines will be muted, as indicated earlier. There's a chatbox, so if you have questions, please submit those. We hope to have a few minutes at the end to deal with some of the questions. We need to let you know we're also being recorded. And we also want to know how we did today and also want to have ideas from those that have been able to attend on what other topics they would like to hear about in the future.

So for ICF, this is our utility service blueprint or footprint. I'm not going to hit all the numbers. You can see the energy experts—over 1,000. You can see the number of energy programs that we support and also our climate-change experts.

I did want to personalize this a little bit. I've been at ICF for over 14 years. I joined because ICF has a unique combination of subject-matter experts, marketing communication professionals, information technologists, data scientists—all under one roof. But they share a common passion of trying to tackle some of those really hard challenges in partnership with our clients.

And that's what the COVID pandemic has done. It's asked all of us to step up, work together, collaborate, and work our way through it. There's no best practice. There's only best guidance, and there's collaboration and communication. We're going to hear a little bit more about that today.

Scott is going to be our lead-off hitter—Scott Aaronson from the Edison Electric Institute. He's covered a lot of ground since 2009 at EEI. He's worked on government relations, cybersecurity. He had the good fortune, I think, Scott, of being in the role that you're in, security and preparedness, and EEI's been very fortunate to have you in that role.

And Scott's going to keep that lens wide at the beginning. He's going to look and talk about from an industry response standpoint, and then he's going to be followed by Jaspreet Singh, or Jas. Jas is the director of supply chain, non-fuel supply chain at DTE—has been there since 2007.

So in the beginning of the pandemic, Jas was the guy that was trying to figure out how to get that PPE and all the other equipment to make sure that workers at DTE were safe. Jas is also going to share with us something that DTE is also a leader in, and that's diversity. And so we wanted to thank Jas for being with us today, as he focuses in on telling us about the contractor and the employee playbook that they've had to provide and shared out into the industry so that we can all learn and lead together through this crisis.

Mike Greenwell—I've had the pleasure of knowing Mike for a few years and working with him—public health, health care, environmental science, communications work at CDC. He's going to ground us in some of those public-health best practices and tenets. And then at the end, Matt Silverman, a senior partner within our full-service agency, ICF Next, is going to share some of the survey results and insights that he's gathered in the response to the pandemic about communications and building trust with your employees. Now going to turn it over to Scott.

Scott: All right. Hey, thanks, Jeff, and thanks to ICF for the opportunity. And first time I've ever been called a lead-off hitter—as my dad liked to say—I really do love my dad, but he said I was blessed with a lineman—or a D-back size and lineman speed. That shows you how much speed I've got to be a lead-off hitter.

All that said, first of all, appreciate the opportunity. Second, as Jeff mentioned, what I want to do is provide that industry-wide perspective of how we came together at the beginning of the pandemic to really work collaboratively, share wisdom, because nobody had lived through this before, so—unless you've been around in the late 19-teens, in which case you've got some experience. But I'm not sure how germane that is to the way that we operate today.

The framing I'm going to use, just because I think it's a simple way to talk about the pandemic, is before, during, and after. And before anybody corrects me, I get it we are not after the pandemic. So maybe a better way to talk about it— before, early days, and then today. The other thing I wanted to do is just give a couple of maybe foundational statements or themes that I'm going to come back to throughout the course of the conversation and that the other speakers are likely to riff off of as well.

So the first thing I'll say is my name is Scott Aaronson, and I am the vice president of security and preparedness for the Edison Electric Institute. EEI represents all of the nation's investor-owned electric companies, but there are also independent power generators, municipal systems, cooperative systems, the Canadians. It is an international North American grid.

So being able to bring everybody together under the auspices of something called the Electric Sector Coordinating Council has been really critical as well. The ESCC brings together CEOs and senior government officials from all of those segments of the sector to prepare for and respond to all hazards, recognizing that the pandemic is unique.

If we had a bumper sticker, it would be “unity of effort and unity of message,” as the industry and government work collaboratively to prepare and protect against all hazards. We added to that bumper sticker “unity of effort, unity of message, unity of guidance.” And I'm going to talk about that in some detail as well. We can go to the next slide too, by the way. Thank you.

Another statement that I'll make is — we are critical infrastructure. And I'm not treading any new ground here, but that means we don't have the luxury of not being operational. So how do we operate with all contingencies, against all hazards, to make sure that we can keep the lights on and the gas flowing?

The last thing I'll say—and this came from an epidemiologist public-health professional early on in the pandemic, and I've used it ever since—so credit where it's due. But a pandemic is a dial not a switch. What we mean by that—we're all living in this now for several months—is it's not binary. Oh, we're in a pandemic—OK, now we're not.

We are seeing hotspots that evolve from different parts of the country, different parts of the world. We are seeing different truths on the ground in different places, and different reactions as a result—so thinking about pandemic response not as some binary—we're in it or not—but instead, really, do we ratchet up or do we ratchet down based on the circumstances we're dealing with?

All right, so that's the foundational statements. We're critical infrastructure. It's a dial not a switch. And really, this is about all hazards, but in this case, a pandemic does present some unique challenges. So the before days—I think it surprises people to learn that this sector—and many actual—many sectors who do continuity planning, contingency planning—actually use pandemics as a sort of foundation.

That's because pandemics actually present a really good thought exercise, that is, until you actually have to live through an actual pandemic. But the thought exercise is this: A pandemic deprives you of supply chains. It deprives you of facilities. It deprives you of people. How do I remain operational without supplies, facilities, people, and with other sorts of challenges that are going to drag on as interdependency with other sectors? Things like that.

So what we have done with this thought exercise through the years—you can go back to H1N1, swine flu, avian flu, SARS, MERS, etc. All of those things that happened in the late '90s and early 2000s actually developed pandemic playbooks for the industry. What's interesting about that is those playbooks are terrific, but the details of a pandemic really matter.

In this case, with COVID-19, you have a pandemic that is highly contagious in asymptomatic patients for up to 10 days. That's the bad news. The good news is it actually responds pretty well to physical distancing, to mask-wearing, to simple hygiene. Wash your hands. So that dictated the things that we were going to need going into the pandemic. Fortunately, we had that foundation. We had those pandemic plans, but those had to be adjusted based on the reality of COVID-19.

All right, so now let's talk about the slide you see on your screen and what we're calling during phase, or the early stages. What we had to do as a sector—because, as I said, nobody had lived through this before—was to bring a group of people together to look over the horizon at what might be a challenge. We didn't want to be flat-footed because we don't have the luxury of not being operational.

And so what we did was we brought together what are colloquially known as tiger teams. So you're going to hear me talk about tiger teams and SPOCs. The tiger teams were taking experts from all over the sector, and from government, and from other sectors to focus on those eight boxes that you see on your screen. The SPOCs—the Single Points Of Contact—SPOCs—were individuals at each of EEI's member companies only, who were sharing wisdom and experience in real time.

And so we were convening the SPOCs, at first, like twice-a-week basis, then weekly basis. Now it's once a month. But we have this community of people who look across all of the different business units, who are able to see what the challenges they are facing are and how we might be able to solve them collectively. The tiger teams were the center of gravity on these eight things that you see on your screen to make sure, again, that we weren't flat-footed.

So let me go through each of these just real quickly to give you a sense of what we were doing in those early stages. So for example—and I'll take control center continuity and generation facility continuity at the same time. How do you keep these really important assets, these nerve centers of the energy grid of North America operational?

Do you sequester those employees? Do you have aggressive testing regimes? Is it just simply about PPE and physical distancing and then sanitizing the—remediating the facilities after shift changes? Is it about decentralizing operations to minimize the inevitable impact of a positive case in a facility?

Well, the answer's kind of all of the above. And so what we were able to do was crowdsource from all across the industry, not best practices—we don't know what the best practices are—but recommended practices for how to remain operational. We are literally writing the book on the COVID-19 response as we live it.

And on the next slide—which you don't have to go to yet—I will do a quick pitch for something that became known as the EESC resource guide—so again, not best practices, but planning considerations and recommended practices with respect to control-center continuity and generation-facility continuity.

I'll let Jas talk in more detail about supply chains, but what we have seen is supply chains among our critical manufacturers, among some of the other sectors that we are dependent on—the public-health sector and PPE, sanitation equipment, on and on—was being strained. Now, the good news was, at least for our sector, at no point did those supply chains break. But we continually pulse the supply chains to make sure that they are not breaking, looking over the horizon so that, in any inevitable complication, we are not caught flat-footed.

Re-entry to the workplace—I'll get to that in a second, because that seems to be evolving, given the resurgence in the virus. Maybe the more important one to talk about is mutual assistance. I think many of you are going to be familiar with the concept of mutual assistance in our sector. We go to where the damage is. We send people from all over North America into affected areas.

This year has been an historic year, from named storms in the Atlantic, derecho that we had that ripped through the Midwest, the wildfires we're seeing in the West, the ice storms we saw in late March, early April up in the Northeast.

By having COVID protocols for how to do mutual assistance, how to contact trace, how to minimize the number of people in a truck, how to decentralize those staging areas so that we're not bringing hundreds or thousands of people to one area—by having those plans in place, I can brag on the industry that, even with an historic response to storms, we have not seen a material uptick in cases among our highly skilled, hard-to-replace workers.

That is allowing us to continue to remain operational, even in extraordinary circumstances. I'll give you a quick number: 26,000 people responded to Hurricane Laura, which devastated Louisiana earlier this year.

Of those 26,000 people that responded, there were 26 new cases after the fact for an incidence rate of 1 in 1,000. Even I can do that math. That's less than the surrounding community, and again, can be pointed to—the benefit is from the planning considerations and the mutual assistance of protocols that we had written in place before we actually had to do a mutual-assistance response.

All right, so we'll go to the next slide, which will be my last. Thank you. And as I said, I want to brag on the industry. Hundreds of people from all segments of the sector literally wrote the book on COVID-19. This has been translated into at least two languages that I am familiar with, and it has been shared with a lot of other sectors and has provided the foundation of other sectors' planning as well—not best practices—planning considerations and recommended practices based on our lived experience.

You, too, can look at this resource guide. Go to And it's public. It is for you. There's no pride of authorship. If it is valuable to you and your organization, by all means, use it. All right, the last thing I'm going to talk about—and then I will shut up and turn it over to Jas— is to talk about where we are today.

Again, I said before, during, and after—there is no after. We are still in the midst of it, but we are seeing a resurgence. And what we are seeing is not all that dissimilar to what we saw in—call it late March, early April. For example, the last statistic I heard—South Dakota had a 640 cases per million of—rate of infection. That is where New York City was on April 1. We are seeing a resurgence all around the country.

We are seeing new hotspots everywhere. The good news is a lot of those planning principles from early in the pandemic still apply today. The other good news is now we also have the potential for a vaccine, with two manufacturers, two pharmaceutical companies in late-stage trials with really promising results. Those vaccines are going to pose a challenge with—we get it to the people who need it.

How do we prioritize not in front of high-risk individuals, not in front of the public health and first responders? But as an apex industry, the electric-power sector, how do we make sure that our highly skilled, hard-to-replace workers are in the queue for the vaccine?

And understanding that we have been able to remain operational without the vaccine, how do we continue to evolve those protocols that have kept those highly skilled, hard-to-replace workers safe and in the fight?

So the vaccine, the resurgence, the potential impact to supply chains today because of the resurgence are all things that we as a sector are monitoring based on those kind of foundational principles of continuity of facilities, operations in certain restricted areas, challenges to supply chains. How we do things like mutual assistance, and then, ultimately, how we responsibly re-enter the workplace—recognizing that we haven't stopped working because the lights are still on, the gas is still flowing.

And I am still talking to you over the internet—but how do we continue to learn those lessons and apply them based on where we are on that dial for the pandemic and our shared experiences here?

So with that, I really appreciate you all giving me the time. I hope it was useful, and I will look forward to some questions later on. But for now, let me turn it over to one of the leaders in the industry, Detroit Edison's Jas Singh, who is going to talk to you about DTE's specific experiences in his supply chain work. Jas—

Jas: Thank you, Scott—appreciate the nice lead-in here. We all are coming together for this webinar, but we are using very similar terms. And for us, it's been adaptive leadership. So in these times, you don't get married to anything. You kind of say, “OK, this is what the information is based on what I have today—the data I have, the guidance I have, the CDC information I have,” and then you form a plan, but knowing full well that things could change a week from today and so forth.

So that was a big part of all of this. But before I get into that—and I'm going to talk a little bit about early days, and how we came together, and what are the things that work for us, and what are the lessons learned. So one of the things we talked about is really having clearer DTE and corporate services to—and I'm part of corporate services at DTE—is really having blue-chip priorities and then focused on service excellence.

And that's a big part of who we are. And I'm going to get into that a little bit more here. So as we came into this pandemic, we were starting to form our incident command, beginning of—middle of February to the end of February. And so it's actually playing out live. We only had one or two cases in Michigan before—actually, we didn't have any case confirmed before we really resorted to virtual work and all the other pieces.

And then, shortly thereafter, our CEO decided to only continue the very critical work, or emergency work, and then we went back on a level set. So I'll tell you that, being a supply-chain director, the biggest thing that was on my mind were, early days, just the procuring of masks. I think I spent probably 14-, 16-hour days from Monday to Sunday, seven days a week—March and beginning of April—and I'll tell you some stories that we learned.

It pays to be nimble. It pays to have smaller companies. And we had made some difficult decisions. We have kept alive a material transport group, which was a big deal, because not only having masks was important, but you needed to be able to deliver them, right? So at that time, the ability to ship things through UPS and FedEx and Postal Service—you all remember the delays, right?

So some of the decisions we made—I was the one in charge of making that decision in '15, '16 when we were going to outsource material transport, but we kept a small group, and that turned out to be a winner in this environment because we could transport materials and so forth. The other thing I wanted to also emphasize was really thinking about it in a way that we became the supply chain for the whole state of Michigan.

We helped our other sister utility. We were helping with the cooperatives. We also helped supply 2 million KN95 masks to all the local hospitals. We all remember in April—to the point—we actually sent some to New York. That was the situation. And I think what really worked for us—we had a lot of diversified suppliers going after it. We didn't restrict ourselves to one or two or three.

And we never counted the masks until they were actually delivered because, in a lot of these situations, the mass shipping out of China were delayed, and were being put away, and were being subject to extra scrutiny. So we never counted until they landed in Detroit. We wouldn't even count them until they landed in Chicago. So those were some of the other things.

And one more thing I want to mention is, as we have thought about supply chain, we've thought about all the things we can do to mitigate supply-chain risk by having multiple supplier resources, as well as we have looked at substitute products. So if we buy sleeves from one supplier that's had a lot of production cuts because of COVID implications, then can we use that—can we have a parallel product that can substitute?

But in terms of some of the points I want to hit, facilities-wise, we've talked about cleaning, disinfecting, social distancing. In terms of fleet, we went to one individual per vehicle. That was a big deal because that's the face of utility—gas and utility, electric crews. In terms of adequate supply of PPE and then instituting social-distancing practices—we call that touchless delivery and transport of materials.

And the last one is the contractor playbook. This was very vital. I just can't emphasize enough—remember, as a utility, as an energy company, we are really not 5,000 of our people or 10,000 of our people—it's another 20,000 of our supplier workforce, from temperature checks—we instituted in our contractor playbook. That includes mandatory masks. We talked about their vehicles.

We had to, in some cases, rent them vehicles, so they could have one occupant per vehicle. So those are many of the things we went after. If you can hit the next slide for me, please, yep. So these are the four service keys. We start with safety first, we go to caring, we go to dependable, and we go to efficient.

That's how we at DTE treat our customers. We treat internally. So if I'm serving a line of business, if I bring these service keys into play, I'm always going to do a good job. So that's been a big part. And those mask relation to local hospitals, all over Michigan—and Michigan is a pretty big state. And that's what we did. Not only we gave them masks, we actually delivered the masks.

In some cases, we'll say—we'll have KN95s, but they don't have a mechanism to get them. Our material transport was delivery. If we can go to the next slide, please—and this just highlights—I'm not going to hit—as you know, it's a busy slide here—facilities, lead, warehouse—the three key areas. These functions came to work before other groups did. So it was a lot of thinking about, how can I be caring and safe for my partners?

And those are the things we instituted right from get-go. And that really worked, because people started to feel safe. Our safe worker observations got focused around pandemic. We instituted a small group to hold people honest, and that started to come into play. And those are some of the things; we really did work very hard in April, and that really, really served us well.

If you can hit the next slide, please—again, facilities has established very, very detailed cleaning and disinfecting. And that's the key thing. We need to instill confidence. Next one, please—again, these are some of the pictorial examples of what we did with our facilities, conference rooms, restrooms—all those things. Thank you.

Next slide, please—again, fleet— similar thing—very highly focused around touchless garage protocols and disinfection. We took the fueling away where somebody else used to be able to fuel these vehicles. So we made many of those pieces, and how did we—took the vehicles out of service as needed, and so forth.

Next slide, please—so this talks about warehousing and material transport, which was a vital part because as you know, all our linemen, all our gas operating personnel, all our leak-survey personnel—all those guys need materials to do their work. So we employ beer trailers, as we call in our industry—conex boxes. We ensure some tables outside the warehouses, and we use a lot of visual management.

So I'm going to stop here with this part and just cover—if you can go to my next presentation—just cover a minute or two of this. DTE, as we worked, and this is, again, part of our caring service. Here I'm going to keep going back because once your values and once your service keys guide your thinking, it becomes a lot easier.

With the murder of George Floyd, we took our diversity, equity, and inclusion to a whole different level—not that it wasn't a very important part, but we responded in a big way to this racial injustice, violence, and unrest with the communications to support our people. We embarked on very important, and vital, courageous conversations.

Every leader was helped with talking points, with guidance with our African-American employees to—our CEO did for about two months, with 60 people, every day he spoke to them. And that was first being courageous about approaching, then listening, and then actioning. So that was a big part. Our chief inclusion officer—we talked about, what does it mean to be an anti-racist? How does white fragility play into it?

We've been at—on our DEI journey since 2014, but we use this opportunity to drive that extra level of caring and extra level of transparency and comfort for people. And that, people really liked it. We have about 25% of our workforce is African-American, and people have come forward and not the other—there are not other resources, from veterans to women of DTE to LGBTQ, family groups. So it was a big part.

I'm going to stop here and pass on to our next speaker, but it was a big part. And I can't emphasize enough that this was a part of who we are. And we approached this emerging thing with diversity, equity, and inclusion in the same way as we approach pandemic—with care. And that really helped. Thank you.

Sorry. I failed to introduce my next speaker. I started looking at muting. I want to introduce Michael. And in fact, in preparing for this webinar, I have learned a great deal from Michael. And I'm sure you're going to be totally enjoying, and immersed, and getting immersed in his speech. Thank you, Michael.

Michael: Thanks, Jas. And thanks, everyone, again for joining the webinar today. I'm Mike Greenwell. I'm with ICF's Health Sciences and Human Services practice. I'm based in Atlanta, Ga., and not coincidentally because our biggest client in Atlanta is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We've been a partner to CDC for over 40 years as consultants, so we're deeply ingrained in not only public health writ large but specific to the type of public health that CDC is bringing to the pandemic. We actually began helping CDC respond to the COVID-19 global pandemic in January, really before it was kind of widely recognized—the immense proportions of this pandemic.

But we do things like what is called syndromic surveillance, which means we help CDC and states track the incidence of all kinds of illnesses across the United States. And we immediately were asked by CDC to surge up our capability in tracking COVID-19 infections, specifically in emergency rooms. If you remember, in the beginning, ERs were kind of the locus of the epidemic because people were presenting in the ER as really sick. And that's where we first began to see the scope of this.

Prior to being involved with the global pandemic, though, fortunately, ICF had many years of experience in building programs at the employer level. We had the luxury of promoting things like healthy eating and tobacco cessation and increasing physical activity at the workplace. So we have a long history of building successful public-health programs.

And the good news about that is the basic principles that underlie building a strong public-health program apply to building a program for using public-health guidance to reopen your business or to bring essential employees back. So the states are opening up their economies. As referenced earlier, some of those states are having to pause that right now because, as you know, the numbers are not great.

In fact, the numbers are terrible right now, with regard to new infections, especially in the upper Midwest and other parts of the country. So the essential question is, we need to reopen our economies as much as we can, but how can we do it safely? And in the very beginning, CDC and the White House issued the guidelines for this called Opening Up America Again, and it was around, what are the specific things that need to be in place to safely reopen a business, to safely reopen a school, to safely return to activities like church, and gymnasiums, and civic activities such as that?

If you jump to the next slide, please—as I mentioned, the really good news is, for businesses who are wanting to adhere to best practices in public health, these basic tenets that I'm going to go over in some detail apply to reopening your business, just like they do to establishing a wellness program in your company. And we think there's really four pillars to that—guide, translate, monitor, and communicate.

And just quickly, guide is just to build the plan. Jas talked about how intentional they were—called it a playbook—some of which was already built before, which is incredible, gave you a good basis to adapt it to COVID-19. So guiding is the actual plan. Translate has become so important with COVID-19 because there is so much guidance coming from so many sources on what we should do to protect ourselves from the COVID-19 global pandemic at this very moment, based on what we know about where the numbers are, what we have learned about the infectious nature of the disease, how it's transmitted, how it's not transmitted.

All of that advice that's coming from state government, federal government, international entities really has to be translated before employees can really understand it and act on it. And you have to monitor the performance of anything—any kind of a plan like this you put into place. What's not working? What do we have to change because the environment changed?

And then, I think, perhaps most importantly, is communicating about all of that. And I'm going to talk a little bit about that, and Matt Silverman, my colleague at ICF, is going to talk about it in much more detail. If you'd move to the next slide—so in guiding, it really is as simple as figuring out what comes next. And it's a difficult job right now.

Experts can really help you extend your staff and provide the expertise that you need to really implement a good plan. All levels of government and the private sector have had to address these kinds of issues before. This one's much worse. But there is expertise out there in how to develop a really good plan that protects the health and safety of your employees.

And businesses can really benefit from a team that can develop an effective strategy. And we think that team not only includes all the logistics people that are so important. As Jas referenced, supply chain has become absolutely essential. But having someone with public-health expertise and epidemiologic expertise on your team can be a real benefit.

Next slide, please—I talked about this a little bit, but the translation aspect of building a plan is incredibly effective. Businesses have to really quickly translate what the federal and state guidelines are at this moment in time to adequately protect their—the health of their employees and their customers. Public health and emergency-response planners have been doing this for years, and they know what the evidence-based recommendations mean, and what the guidelines mean, and how they can be put into place in a workplace that makes sense and will actually protect employees.

Next slide, please—so monitor and inform, we think, is critically important. And sometimes you do need an expert to help you develop a way to really monitor your plan in a way that makes sense. And by monitor, we really mean evaluate. Is it working? Are your employees understanding what really is being communicated to them or what they're being asked to do?

There's a really important aspect to this with COVID-19, which is the privacy aspect of it. Are we protecting the privacy of folks who are telling us their health status in order to gain access to their workplace? Are we protecting their privacy in a way that is adhering to public-health law, state, and local law? It's critically important that we protect privacy, and I think the only way to ensure that is to continually monitor how you're holding that information they provide, how you're communicating that information to co-workers that protects the privacy of the individuals.

I think that's an important aspect of it. And really, experts can help you do that. You've got to identify that the really primary and secondary sources of data to inform whether or not it's working, and then you have to have an ongoing effort to translate how you're monitoring that and make it a part of your decision-making.

And the next slide, please—so I talked about this a little bit. And I'm a communications professional. I've been in public health for 30 years, but I've been doing public-health communications all that time, so of course, I think it's most important. But I think, in this instance, it really is critical. I don't think you can over communicate in a situation like this.

We've all seen the challenges to communicate about COVID. It's become an incredibly politicized conversation, which makes it difficult to communicate. It makes it a difficult communication environment. And as we say, in communication, where there's a lack of communication, where there's a vacuum, folks are going to fill it with, unfortunately, sometimes misinformation, and maybe even disinformation that's designed to confuse people.

So I think it's very important that, as a part of your plan, you have a very well-thought-out communications plan. I'm not going to steal Matt's thunder because he's going to talk very specifically about how important this is with regard to public opinion around COVID-19. The bad news for the federal and state governments is trust in what they say has fallen greatly during this pandemic. But there's good news for employers in that, and I'm going to let Matt talk about that in a minute.

But the point is you want to build trust in your workforce that you are taking every necessary step to protect them and your customers. And the only way to do that is to communicate about it regularly. And there needs to be a very intentional communications plan that's well thought out, has folks responsible for every aspect of it, and a regular cadence to that communication so that your employees know exactly what is happening.

So just in review, those are the four parts—guide, translate, monitor, and communicate. And we think any employer can build an effective plan. So next, I'm going to turn it over to my colleague Matt Silverman, who's going to really talk about the best practices in communication for our return to work efforts. So Matt—

Matt: Thanks so much, Mike, and nice to see everyone. Building on this notion about building trust and confidence in your organization is really critical if you want to achieve operational and your business goals. So I want to start by sharing some of the data you see on the screen here. It was interesting that, when people were surveyed in the United States, they said, “Who do I trust to look out for the best interests of me and my family?”

And as you can see, the employers really far exceeded and were in the number-one spot of people who they trusted most, and that government—both state, to a lesser extent, federal government—really did not enjoy nearly as much trust among employees. So as you think about bringing employees back to work, I think it's clear that a lot is being expected of your organization as you bring them back to work to really help them navigate this, much more so than government.

If you look at the next slide, there's a little bit of more data here—is as far as the employer impact during COVID-19—that employers were doing a fantastic job. More than three-quarters of the people who responded to these surveys said, “My organization cares overall about my well-being, that my employer is communicated well about the right information, and they have a clear plan of action,” like Jas showed—the different operational plans that were put in place.

People thought universally, across the board, that their employers were doing a good job. What does this mean to you? It means you have to keep doing that good work, that the expectation is that you're going to continue to deliver at this level because, frankly, no one else in our society is delivering that level of information, and trust, and confidence to them that they really need and depend on. So the expectations are high.

So moving to the next slide—we really think about this as six different principles of building trust and confidence with employees as you bring them back. And I'm going to go through each of them. But at a high level, here's where they are. Number one, it's prioritizing health and safety, which obviously seems obvious. But it's about combating misinformation, and we'll talk about that.

Leading with empathy—certainly, in 2020, that's been a theme this year—not only about the pandemic but all the other things that we've faced. Staying transparent and accountable—based on the numbers, you all have been doing a good job of that, but the bar is high, and that really needs to continue. We'll talk more about that.

And aligning with purpose and values is critical. And then working with your leadership team to really walk the talk—and we'll explain what that means. And then customizing approaches—we all see if things are continuing to evolve through the pandemic. I'm in California right now, and the governor just issued some new restriction orders. That's going to continue to happen, and things are going to continue to change in each of our communities. So let's jump into some of these individually, and we'll talk a little bit more about this.

So clearly, as Jas has shown—and many of your organizations—you've already been prioritizing health and safety by demarcating things in your workplace or how things are going to work with labeling and information. That's been terrific. But what employees are telling us as they think about coming back to the office—for those who have not come back to the office—is that, number one, they want to make sure the rules are clear.

But even more importantly, they want to understand if the rules are going to be enforced and who's going to enforce them because that is the trust factor. And it's one thing to say, “Well, everyone should wear a mask.” But if there are people who are not wearing masks, who's going to make sure that that happens? And people will not feel safe unless they know who's going to enforce the rules, and they also have—if they know, how can I escalate my concerns if I don't feel like things are healthy and safe—there's enough health and safety going on, or if people are not obeying? So those are going to be critical to instilling trust.

To the next slide, the other thing is this. We also have a pandemic of misinformation. People are getting their information from all over the place, all over the internet, social media, friends, and family. We really think it's critical that each organization needs to make public the scientific and trusted resources they are using to inform their decisions. So whether it's the CDC or government officials—where are you getting your information?

Be consistent about that and really make sure that it's factual scientific information because if employees trust you, then you have to demonstrate that you're providing trusted information. Moving to the next principle, leading with empathy—whether it's racial-equity issues or loss of jobs or the pandemic or, frankly, even the political election season, 2020 has been really difficult. One out of three Americans report serious mental-health issues this year, and we know that's an ongoing challenge for our employers and our customers.

Also understand that a lot may be going on at home for people, and—whether it's they're taking care of elderly parents or child care or kids working from home. I think you all have been doing a good job of being more empathetic and understanding of your employee needs and in your customer needs based on where they are. Empathy is about meeting people where they are, understanding their dynamic, and adjusting your approach to all of that.

So let's continue to listen to employees and let workers share with each other. That's pretty important that they share stories so they know they're not alone. Same thing for your leaders—if leaders can share stories about their personal things, I think it makes them more approachable and makes the whole organization feel more empathetic. And also acknowledge that not everyone feels the same.

Some people really want to come back to work. Some people are a little bit hesitant. Can you provide room for both in your organization? Allow people to feel different ways and acknowledge that one size does not fit all.

Let's move to the next slide—and we'll talk about staying transparent and accountable. If you can share data about your workforce and the infection rate—particularly as you come back into the office, people are going to want to know what's really going on. And hold everyone accountable for complying, as we talked about. Your communication—your executives need to continue to provide regular and frequent communication. We know at the beginning of all this, that was really high.

Executives have kind of fallen off as things have come back to normal. But as people ramp back to the office or we have vaccines entering into the marketplace, they're going to increase that level of communication and visibility among your executive team. And also, the other thing about transparent and accountable is that some businesses or some companies are still wrestling with layoffs or reassignments or consolidation or early retirement.

You need to get ahead of that. People are very concerned about their job and their ability to have a paycheck, and being transparent and accountable about the health of the business or about future plans is really critically important.

Move to the next slide. I was on a webinar with John Donahoe, the Nike CEO, and we were talking just about this issue. And he really doubled down on something I strongly believe in, which is realigning with purpose and organizational values.

Now, the hope is that you've done this through three-quarters of this year, that when we hit a crisis, it really forces organizations to look back and lean on, what are the values of our organization and what are we really here to do every day? And Donahoe said, “I think, in times of uncertainty, more talk about purpose and culture is what helps inspire and motivate people.”

Clearly, people need to be more inspired and more motivated during difficult times. And he said it helps us keep us connected and gives us resilience, and we really need to find ways to nourish ourselves each and every day. So I would encourage you, as you make difficult decisions, to continue to fall back on your values and your purpose that you stated long ago with your company because that's what helps guide critical decisions to make sure that you stay on track and true to your true north as an organization.

Let's move to the next slide. On the blue column here on the right, I want to call out—these are actual things that happened in the last few months with executives. These are don'ts. We've actually had leaders walking around the office with a mask below their mouth on their chin. We've had leaders who have traveled to parts of the country that were under restrictions, in terms of quarantine.

If you travel there, you needed to stay there two weeks before you could be exposed. And we had leaders actually meeting in conference rooms at higher numbers than were allowed or that the employees were told could allow in a meeting room. Obviously, these are things that should not happen. So we want to make clear, you have to work with your leaders to know everyone is watching them, and make clear that their behavior as well as their words are really important during these times, especially as employees come to the office.

So they should stay visible and demonstrate the behavior you want to see. And be candid when you're communicating with people about the challenges and things going ahead. Communicate simply, clearly, and frequently. People are just desperate for accurate and frequent information. And use your executives to humanize their approach through personal stories, the use of live video, like this, or if you have to, videotape. But being seen and being human is really critical, particularly when people are feeling stressed.

The next principle is—Jas talked about having these playbooks. The ones you're looking at here are from Ford. Ford created a playbook for manufacturing and non-manufacturing employees. Some of you, or maybe all of you, have already done some of this, but I think the need is that you need to customize your approaches based on geography or maybe based on type of work or type of operations.

But more importantly, these need to be updated. Things are continuing to change as we speak, so as we think about returning to the office or a hybrid of that, or as we—now the potential of a vaccine enters, how is all that going to be handled? So you need to update these communications and make sure that's distributed and communicated frequently with employees.

Move to the next slide. And we'll wrap up by saying, here's four more things to consider in your organization. Number one—as some employees return to the office, we know that some employees never left, right?

So if you have frontline workers who have been on the job, and you have new people coming back, there's an opportunity to reconnect returning employees with frontline employee and celebrate the work that they've both done and the sacrifices that they've both made, but really bring them back together and celebrate each other's work and the opportunity to work back together again.

Number two—continue to survey employees. You must have your ear to the ground to understand the sentiment and the tone of what people are thinking. We talked on early that this is a dial that things keep changing back and forth, so you need to keep frequently understanding how employees are feeling.

Also, number three is embrace this new sense of purpose to unite employees. As people come back to the office, are there initiatives or things you can do to accelerate your purpose, to get them to focus on a renewed spirit and doubling down on your purpose to help execute against operational plans and customer service?

And maybe one way you do that—number four—is maybe we revisit how your employees together can rally to help customers and to help your community in which you live, in which you operate. So those are four ideas and four things that you can use to re-engage employees to get reconnected and accelerate it into—and re-energize into returning to the office. So with that—those are some key things to think about—I will send it back to Jeff Adams, and maybe he'll field some questions, if you have any on your mind.

Jeff: Thank you, Matt. Thank you, Jas. Thank you, Mike. And thank you, Scott. We do have a few questions. We'll see what we can cover in the time that we have left. The first one I'll just field, which is—there is a question in the chat box. Anyone who registered, the content from the session will be provided out.

Matt, I'm going to ask you the first question. I'm just going to paraphrase it a little bit because it builds right off of your last—some of your final comments. And it ties a little bit back to Mike. So the need to be transparent, but there's also a need to hold that data about contract tracing employees—private. In other industries besides utilities, how have they tried to tackle this need to be transparent to retain that trust but also keep the information of the employee private so that they're making the best-informed decisions but also informing the employee base?

Matt: Well, I'll start, Mike, if you want to jump in. I think we would not advocate, obviously, for revealing personal information. Health privacy information is critically—to be kept private. But you can release information in the aggregate, saying perhaps, “We have four people who have been infected, or we are meeting, or we want to get 100% people vaccinated.” You're never going to reveal who is and who isn't, but you can talk about progress to goals—or you can maybe talk about percentages or raw numbers—but never individual people.

Mike: Yeah, I think that's right. There are very strong privacy laws that protect health.

Jeff: Absolutely.

Mike: And information. Public-health need does trump those, but it has to be very intentional. And you do have to still protect the individual's information, like Matt said. Someone sitting next to someone who is positive for COVID isn't entitled to know the name of the employee who's reported they’re being tested positive for COVID, but they are entitled to know that they could potentially have been exposed in the office.

Jeff: Mike, that kind of builds on the—for those that are on the—as a participant, they know me. I have more of an IT background throughout my career. Have you seen an emergence of tools and technology that deal with some of that tracking or are you seeing a lot of homegrown systems emerging?

Mike: There are some really good tools out there. Industry, unsurprisingly, has risen to the occasion to adapt tools that already existed to do this. There are tools out there that will track the logistics. Who gets to sit where? I think an important thing that these tools also offer is a way for employees to check in. So they have to answer certain questions before their badge is activated so they can actually come into the building.

And then those are merged with those privacy protections that we talked about and also a way to communicate out to employees what the status is on a given day of how many people have tested positive and how many people are going to be in the office that day. Matt referenced too many people in the conference room. There are pretty easy-to-use technology apps that will tell you—you're going to go to conference room B12. How many people can be in there today?

Jeff: Thanks, Mike. And the last question was kind of both for Scott and Jas. As we started, Scott, with you, at looking at the industry response—and then Jas, the leadership from DTE in response to the pandemic—question's really aimed at utility essential workforce.

If you could think of one thing that happened from an industry or DTE perspective that—the positive—there's a lot of positive things that come out of responding to the pandemic. Can you name one thing that is going to stick around after the pandemic that's changed DTE or has changed the utility as a result of this collaborative response?

Scott: I'll take it from the—I talked a little bit about mutual assistance. It's interesting. We've been doing mutual assistance in this industry for about 80 years. And it turns out that decentralizing some of those laydown yards, some of the other efficiencies that we found that were of necessity to keep these workers safe ultimately was more efficient at the end of the day.

And I think it's true for remote work as well. We all got a crash course in how to do remote work, and it turns out that, for the most part, we can be pretty effective and productive this way. So I do think that there is a shift in how work is being done in an office setting. And I know, just from the lessons out of these storms this year, that there's lessons that are going to be applied once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

Jeff: Thanks, Scott.

Jas: So I'll just add a few things here. I think one is just the ability to ruthlessly prioritize. So it's like what’s important really, right? I mean, over time, a lot of things get piled in that really are not as important as some others. I think the second, third point are really virtual ways are here to stick, in terms of—they're going to sustain over the longer term, even after, post-pandemic.

And the cooperation that happened between utilities around materials—I think that's starting to become a lot more important. But I just wanted to answer a question regarding female employees that was asked from the chat. I think what DTE did—we actually came up with a stipend for child care. That's one thing we did.

Second thing we did—we asked leaders to look at, from a caring perspective, what they can do with a schedule for mothers and fathers. So with mothers, as the question mentioned, doing—taking a bigger role in child care—so we were asked to draw up local-level plans as to—so somebody can work from maybe 7:00 to 9:00 and 1:00 to 7:00, and then in between they can do—so those type of plans.

And then other is, that at the senior-most level, we had two females, senior vice presidents leading some of the operational response. So that built in that—being very acquainted with the issues and how to tackle—I think that really helped us.

Jeff: Thank you for that, Jas. We are out of time, but I thank you each for your preparation and your presentations today—and also just a quick thank you to Jennifer, Nora and Joyce for supporting the technology. Thank you. Be safe and be well.

Jas: Thank you.

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Meet the authors
  1. Jaspreet Singh, Director Supply Chain Management, DTE Energy
  2. Scott Aaronson, Vice President, Security and Preparedness, Edison Electric Institute (EEI)
  3. Michael Greenwell, Vice President, Business Development

    Michael is an expert in communication and public health with experience across multiple sectors including health care, public health, and environmental science. View bio

  4. Matt Silverman, Senior Partner, Brand and Reputation Strategy

    Matt is an expert in brand, marketing, and corporate communications strategy with more than 20 years of experience. View bio

  5. Jeffrey Adams, Senior Vice President, Energy Customer Engagement

    Jeff brings decades of experience in customer analytics, technology, marketing, and customer care to electric and gas utilities. Jeff and his multi-disciplinary team routinely leverage ICF’s national data universe, proprietary analytics, and industry-leading marketing to benefit his clients, their customers, and the world we live in. View bio