As businesses across the country transform their operations in response to COVID-19 disruptions, electric cooperatives are stepping up to support their communities and address new pandemic challenges.

Tony Anderson, CEO of Cherryland Electric Cooperative in Michigan; Don Crabbe, CEO of First Electric Cooperative Corporation in Arkansas; and Bobbi Kilmer, CEO of Claverack Rural Electric Cooperative in Pennsylvania, joined CFC moderators to share best practices and lessons learned in adapting operations, facilitating social distancing, and ensuring effective internal and member communications.

Cooperative CEO Response to COVID-19 Webinar Replay

CFC members can watch a replay of the April 13 Extra Credit Education Series webinar, “Cooperative CEO Response to COVID-19,” to learn more about how these leaders are supporting productive work environments and assessing potential pandemic financial effects.

Four Key CEO Insights

Following are four key insights from the discussion—on how to prioritize employee safety and morale, manage cash flow and meet member needs.

1. Implement social distancing policies—at headquarters, in vehicles and in the field.

Essential-staff rotations and vehicle policies protect employees while also supporting business continuity. “[Claverack has] two distinct teams of employees,” Kilmer said. “We alternate them every other day, and the two teams are sequestered from each other.” All three CEOs have incorporated one-person vehicle policies.

Anderson shared that social distancing at Cherryland’s headquarters involves a daily health assessment form—taking temperatures and surveying on-site staff about who they have been in contact with.

Additional measures to support social distancing include staging materials at substations to limit trips to the warehouse and using Facebook to encourage members not to approach employees in the field.

2. Support employee morale by communicating frequently to build trust.

Social support for employees can take many different forms. Anderson encouraged virtual meeting platforms to help employees stay connected to colleagues and supervisors. He added that virtual spaces do not need to be all task-oriented: Channels dedicated to “watercooler” conversations can be powerful morale boosters in the absence of workplace conversations. For on-site employees who need face-to-face interaction, Anderson said meetings may occasionally take place outdoors, at a distance, “Just to get a little bit of normal.”

To prevent isolation and ensure a healthy flow of information, Crabbe said First Electric employees working from home are required to connect daily with supervisors. Claverack’s employees are also asked to check-in each day—and to attend weekly conference calls. “We’re trying to make sure there’s conversation with each employee at least weekly,” Kilmer said.

“Trust is key right now,” Anderson stressed. “We’re trying to keep our employees informed, and we’re letting them know we trust them to get their work done.”

3. Use a range of tools to manage cash flow.

As the pandemic response continues, cooperatives may experience an impact to revenue. The extent will vary by cooperative. The CEOs discussed how management can make strategic decisions now to manage cash flow and prepare for future disruptions. For example, Claverack is redesigning its member assistance program to provide increased funding to members with the greatest need. Similarly, at First Electric, member payment arrangement calls offer an opportunity to share additional useful information about resources and assistance. Cherryland is focusing on trimming controllable expenses—and is also considering delaying its next capital credits retirement.

4. Embrace the “community clearinghouse” role.

As cooperative members suffer financial and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, cooperatives can serve as community clearinghouses. A response to a member’s delinquent payment inquiry is also an opportunity to identify assistance opportunities and help make connections. In some cases, those efforts may result in charitable donations from cooperatives or connecting with local foundations. In addition to direct assistance, the panelists stressed that cooperatives are uniquely positioned to provide residential and commercial customers with valuable information on financial relief programs.