News, O&M

Post-Pandemic, Here’s Why Efficiency Matters Now More Than Ever for the Energy Industry

MERS virus, Meadle-East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus

The Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated already-shrinking margins for energy producers. Especially for oil and gas companies, reduced demand and increased costs related to pandemic response initiatives require companies to identify new efficiencies to keep their business sustainable.

The results are transformative.  Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in new workplace arrangements, as companies adjust to a hybrid workforce that now includes remote and distributed teams.

In this environment, scaling remote operations capacity is a veritable necessity. Unfortunately, most organizations are not prepared for this transition. The Washington Post estimates that 90% of companies lacked adequate remote operations infrastructure to maintain continuity.

In response, the industry needs to rapidly scale its remote operations capacity. Not only do more workers than ever before want to work from home, even after the pandemic subsides, but energy producers will rely on this technology to drive new efficiencies at a critical time. As a McKinsey & Company report on the energy industry during the COVID-19 pandemic notes, “the measures companies previously took to protect the well-being of workers and maintain operational efficiency may no longer be good enough.”

In other words, this moment is as much a challenge as it is an opportunity. Remote operations capacity isn’t just critical today. It will play a central role in the sector’s long-term transformation. Here’s how.

#1 Personnel Management

Remote operations capacity supports personnel management on many fronts.

First, maintaining energy infrastructure often requires on-site teams to investigate and diagnose problems, provide solutions, and monitor production. These often-disparate on-site locations bring teams together when distancing guidelines and employee preferences make it clear that it’s better to keep them apart.

At the same time, it’s incredibly expensive. Especially when coupled with emerging IoT technologies, remote operations capacity can reduce the need for on-site personnel, allowing distributed teams to assess and, at times, fix problems in real-time. Moving forward, energy producers will rely on remote distributed teams with continual access to critical infrastructure to ensure continuity regardless of circumstances.

What’s more, in response to COVID-19, some companies will need to retrofit or expand their facilities to safely accommodate their employees. Remote operations capacity reduces the number of people required to be on-site, eliminating a potentially high cost at a critical time.

Read more stories on how utilities are handling the novel coronavirus

This technological advancement also impacts talent acquisition and retention. With an average staff churn rate of nearly 10%, the energy sector chronically struggles to attract and retain the best workers, but creating a more flexible and inclusive work environment can help alleviate this tension. For example, in a survey of energy sector workers, 70% indicated that they would prefer to work remotely even after the pandemic subsides. Broadly, more than half of today’s workforce would consider switching jobs for a more flexible, remote work arrangement, according to Gallup.

To remain attractive to prospective employees, it’s clear that energy companies will need to adapt to meet this demand.

Therefore, remote operations capacity is one of the defining ways that today’s companies can acquire and keep the best people in the industry. In the short-term, this capability can improve worker safety and performance while also positioning the energy sector to compete for talent in a post-COVID-19 business environment.

#2 Cybersecurity & Automation 

Today’s energy producers face a growing list of cybersecurity risks that threaten to undermine their productivity and profitability. Historically, cybersecurity and business outcomes were separate metrics. Now, they are inextricably linked as the cost of a data breach or a production disruption has catastrophic consequences for the bottom line.

That’s why, as companies scale their remote operations capacity, cybersecurity has to be top-of-mind. Specifically, these platforms need:

●       Multi-factor authentication

●       Protocol isolation

●       Moderated Uni-directional secure file transfer

●       Full user access logging and recording

●       Compliance-ready standardization

In addition, energy producers need a zero-trust technology with control system interfaces that move with employees. Zero trust combines strong multi-factor authentication, granular authorization and system monitoring.  This arrangement prevents a cybersecurity incident, but it relies on automation to eliminate threats before they can undermine your organization.

By leaning into automation, companies can become both more secure and productive, as this same technology can eliminate redundant manual processes at many points in the production process. Undoubtedly, some workers will worry about the implications for their jobs. After all, remote operations capacity and the accompanying opportunities for automation lose their luster if they eliminate jobs. However, as the Society for Human Resources Management, writes, “Automation tends to advance not by eliminating jobs but by eliminating particular job functions at which humans are inefficient or inconsistent or are exposed to risk.”

This capability can quicken processes and position employees to complete higher-level work, even as it reduces the risk of human error and workflow bottlenecks. In doing so, companies reduce risk and lower costs, both of which will have cascading consequences in the years ahead.

As companies look to upgrade their defensive posture while maximizing efficiency and employee-side production, remote operations capacity can position them to remain competitive without compromise.

#3 Regulatory Compliance & Documentation

In a sector increasingly defined by digital transformation, new regulatory standards are becoming increasingly prolific. In an assessment of the shifting regulatory nature of the energy sector, Deloitte determined that producers should “continue to modernize and rationalize their regulatory, legal, and compliance functions and their practices. Energy companies that take a holistic view of regulatory and risk management may find efficiencies that lead to streamlined and rationalized programs.”

Remote operations capacity can streamline this process by automating compliance standards and documentation. Specifically, the industry needs technology that can streamline regulatory guidelines for NERC CIP, NIST SP800-53, and IEC 62443.

Since remote operations software can provide session recording and other regulation-oriented metrics, documenting compliance becomes an embedded component of established workflows. In today’s digital environment, the ability to immediately access entire control environments, monitor real-time activity, and reduce time spent on internal control requirements can all produce new efficiencies that lower costs and improve outcomes.

The move toward digitalization necessarily requires updated and refined regulatory standards, but that transition can also be a boon for businesses looking to streamline the compliance and documentation efforts.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated an overnight transition to distributed work and remote access. At the time, this move was reactionary, but it was also inevitable. In a real way, this moment is giving the energy sector an opportunity to expedite its transition to the future of work in a way that maximizes opportunity, minimizes risk, and generates new efficiencies.

Undoubtedly, there will be difficult days ahead. Some elements will be outside of the sector’s control, and others will require immediate action. Regardless, this shift toward remote operations capacity is bigger than just this moment, and companies that get this right will be positioned to thrive now and in the months and years ahead.

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Author Bio: Bill Moore, CEO and Founder, XONA, providers of remote Operational Technology (OT) sites. Bill is currently working with global power generation and distribution customers to reduce their remote operations costs and cyber risks. Bill brings more than 20 years’ experience in security and the high-tech industry, including positions in sales, marketing, engineering and operations.