Jim Matheson is leading NRECA through a global pandemic that has taken an unprecedented economic toll on many of the nation’s 900-plus electric cooperatives and created a six-month stretch in which the vast majority of NRECA staff have worked remotely.
Matheson sat down with RE Magazine in early August to talk about how NRECA and its members have adapted to the ongoing health and economic crisis and what lies ahead for the electric co-op community.
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NRECA has been working remotely some 20 weeks at this point. What steps or adjustments were most important to maintain organizational alignment?
Matheson: Some of the most important steps we took were well before the pandemic happened. We have a strong business continuity plan that we had been reviewing and refining over the past few years. You can't plan for everything, but we took prudent steps to be prepared for situations like the pandemic. It really set us up to be successful. We had to make some quick investments in our IT bandwidth and in hardware and software in the early weeks of the pandemic, and that was all part of a well-organized strategy by our IT organization.
We quickly sent our staff to work from home, and I have been very impressed by the response of everybody at NRECA. They are looking for ways to continue to serve our members well and are making every effort to collaborate with each other so they are most effective in the work-from-home situation. It has been gratifying to see how well everyone at NRECA has pulled together.
What challenges is NRECA facing with a workforce that is working remotely for an extended period?
Matheson: An important element has been our attentiveness to balancing work and family obligations, given school closures, and making sure that employees who live alone don’t feel isolated during this extended separation. While I am extremely happy with how our employees have responded to the challenge of working remotely for months, I am concerned about maintaining NRECA’s culture over the long term. It is such a powerful part of NRECA, and we need to be thoughtful about maintaining that culture.
Another challenge is that we don’t have as many opportunities to brainstorm strategically, throwing ideas up on the board and having conversations with each other as we traditionally do in face-to-face meetings. We can do that remotely, but we must be intentional in managing that process and ensuring strong virtual collaboration. A big part of that is having the discipline to periodically step away from the regular day-to-day focus of each employee’s job and instead think strategically.
How has NRECA’s leadership made sure that the organization is aware of current challenges and emergent priorities?
Matheson: The most important aspect of leadership has been communications—being transparent and communicating as much as possible so the staff knows how the organization is operating and what their roles and responsibilities are in the changing dynamic. Effective two-way communication also provides all employees the opportunity to provide feedback and recommendations that can enhance our overall success.
I sent emails to staff every day for several weeks to keep them updated on the coronavirus and how it was impacting our workplace and our members and to encourage them to take care of themselves and their families. We eventually reduced the frequency of those messages to three times a week and now weekly. We have many other communications channels. For example, we’ve continued staff town hall meetings and changed the agenda to a Q&A format, in addition to briefing them on key issues. In that way, I can respond to employees’ specific questions and make sure they understand our priorities and how we are managing during this time.
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How is the pandemic and the necessity of working remotely affecting NRECA operations?
Matheson: NRECA has always had good collaboration across departments, but the work-at-home situation created new challenges. We must be intentional to communicate and schedule meetings in this environment whereas we normally could rely on office drop-ins for a quick conversation. It’s so important to maintain a solid understanding across all departments about what is going on and the need to collaborate.
I have been very impressed by the way our employees have maintained focus while adjusting to new priorities. I’m not saying that everything is perfect, but it doesn’t seem like we skipped a beat in effectively serving our members. I can go department to department and point to excellent examples of how we are supporting our members during this extraordinary time. What’s exciting is that we will learn from this. We will be better because of this experience.
What steps is NRECA taking to mitigate business risks during the pandemic?
Matheson: From the outset, it was important to assess new financial and business risks. We identified four key areas: one, meeting and events that produce a margin but have significant fixed costs; two, maintaining income from commercial office space that we lease at the two Arlington, Virginia, buildings; three, mitigating market risk in our Homestead Funds; and four, the impact of the pandemic on NRECA’s consulting services for co-ops. We looked at ways to mitigate those risks and have taken steps to save money in other areas, such as significantly limiting travel and restricting hiring for open staff positions. I am confident about our ability to manage these risks, so I have recommended to the NRECA board that there be no member dues increase for 2021.
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What opportunities for co-op innovation have come out of the pandemic?
Matheson: One thing we have learned about consumer-members is that we need to meet them where they are. That’s elevated the importance of social media in this environment, and co-ops have enhanced their social media tools to effectively reach consumer-members. Clearly, the pandemic has accelerated that approach, and co-ops should maintain that focus coming out of the pandemic.
And for NRECA?
Matheson: We were already in the process of developing more online education and training content for our members. The pandemic has accelerated that transition, and our members have appreciated that and have responded well to the offerings we have provided. In-person meetings have great value, and we always want to have those meetings, but online learning will be an important part of our future. In fact, increased online programming could expand participation by our members in some cases. Going forward, I expect that co-ops also will have a blend of virtual and in-person meetings.
How should organizations be thinking regarding workforce productivity?
Matheson: Organizations should be flexible and willing to accept new models for how teams work. It will require managers to be thoughtful about how they approach this environment. There is more than one way to do something well, and we’ve learned that many times during the pandemic. You also have to look at measuring productivity differently when employees are not in the building. One thing is clear: We must have different management perspectives that acknowledge lessons learned from the pandemic.
Given the uptick in software vulnerabilities and more targeted phishing campaigns, how can organizations best mitigate cyber-risks with a remote workforce?
Matheson: When you move to a remote work situation, it opens up the potential for greater cyber-risk. NRECA has an excellent IT department that has taken significant steps to protect our systems. But employees are the first line of defense, and it’s important that they don’t click on the wrong attachment in an email, for example. The work-from-home environment may be a little more casual than the office from a cybersecurity standpoint, so we have really stressed the importance of strong cyber hygiene while working remotely.
You’ve made hundreds of calls to electric co-op leaders during the COVID-19 outbreak. What has been top of mind for them as the pandemic has progressed?
Matheson: Maintaining their concern and focus on the health and safety of their workers so they can provide affordable and reliable power to their members has been consistent across all those conversations. They also are concerned about the pandemic’s overall economic impact on their co-op and communities they serve. The impact of an economic downturn falls directly onto the co-op’s member-consumers. When you see the kind of economic impact we’ve seen in some areas with major industry and manufacturing shutting down, it is a big threat. The co-ops have done an excellent job managing lower revenues and lack of payment from a growing number of members. In fact, many have accelerated capital credits and refunded initial deposits to help members pay their electric bills. Our members have really stepped up to the plate in so many ways to help their communities.
What support from NRECA has been most important to the membership?
Matheson: It’s difficult to come up with one answer to this question. A lot of NRECA’s actions have been important to serve our members. Our insurance and financial services department created greater flexibility in our benefits offerings and has really supported our members with new benefits. Our government relations and advocacy group has done a standout job of advocating for personal protective equipment for our members that need it, for flexibility in the Paycheck Protection Program that allowed co-op participation, and creating greater awareness of the challenges that our members are facing due to reduced revenue and delinquent accounts. We will continue to stand up for our members and mitigate the downside risk that they are facing.
Our communications group assisted co-ops as they adjusted how they communicate with members. They’ve hosted regular webinars with communicators and established the COVID-19 Resource Hub on our website that’s been terrific for our members. And our education and training department set up virtual training and transitioned many of our conferences and regional meetings to an online format, with great results in attendance. There are so many more examples of how NRECA has engaged with our members to provide advice and counsel. It has been a remarkable effort with our members.
Another area of your personal engagement during the pandemic has been with the Electric Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC). This is an important group of industry and government leaders that come together to solve significant energy issues. How has NRECA’s interaction with the ESCC helped co-ops during the pandemic?
Matheson: The ESCC represents the utility sector broadly and includes government partners that work with us, such as the Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security. The ESCC has been operating for several years to pursue good policy and practices for cybersecurity on the electric grid and to coordinate assistance during major storms. The pandemic presented a new challenge, and the ESCC has responded well in many ways that are supporting the electric sector broadly and cooperatives specifically. NRECA and electric co-op representatives participated in developing an ESCC operations guidance manual for successfully navigating the pandemic, and it has been widely accepted by co-ops. The ESCC also assessed changes needed to the mutual assistance program among utilities when responding to storms, wildfires, or other significant events during the pandemic. As the CEO of NRECA, I sit on the ESCC steering committee and have provided updates and the co-ops’ perspective on various issues for industry and government leaders throughout the pandemic.
How will NRECA’s experience during the pandemic result in lasting change?
Matheson: I see possibilities in many areas. It has made every person who works at NRECA reflect on how they can best do their job. Most of our team is working differently today, and we have had to adjust how we relate to our members, so it has required us to look anew at how we can meet our members’ needs. Even when we return to “normal,” we will have new tools and new ideas to effectively serve electric cooperatives. I have no doubt it will result in better value for NRECA members.