Reihaneh Irani-Famili, VP of Business Readiness, National Grid talks with Sarah about lessons learned in virtual leadership, how National Grid is preparing for COVID-19 recovery, and what she thinks our Next Normal will entail.
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Sarah Nicastro: Welcome to the Future of Field Service Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Nicastro. Today, we’re going to be talking with Reihaneh Irani-Famili, VP of business readiness at National Grid about how the company is preparing for COVID-19 recovery. Reihaneh, welcome so much to the Future of Field Service Podcast. We’re happy to have you.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Thank you, Sarah. It’s good to be here.

Sarah Nicastro: Good. So if you could start by just giving the audience an overview of National Grid’s business and what your role is with the organization.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: So National Grid is the second largest utility in the US. And we operate in three jurisdictions. We operate in New York, both Upstate and Downstate New York. We operate in Rhode Island, and we operate also in Massachusetts. We serve about 20 million people, so 6 million bills basically that we manage on a monthly basis. And we have 17,000 people that, whether it’s in the field or in the office, that support that operation. And we provide gas and electricity to those customers. So 60% of our customers roughly are gas customers and the rest are electricity customers. So yes, with that, the current situation has specially hit us hard with us being a main provider of utility in New York State.

Sarah Nicastro: Absolutely. So your title is vice president of business readiness. Give our listeners just a bit of context in what your role and responsibilities entail.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: That’s a really good question. And interestingly enough, I had this title pre-COVID.

Sarah Nicastro: I was going to say, it sounds like the kind of title that you would be in the hot seat right now. Do you know what I mean? Like it would be, maybe you’re losing some sleep.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Like many other companies, we have been going through a tremendous amount of change. So if you think about National Grid and its purpose of bringing energy to life for our customers and that the expectation of our customers, whether it’s on the choices they want for their energy consumption, whether it’s the technology and how we service them has been changing very rapidly. So as National Grid, we have this transformation office, which its focus is on driving this change from all aspects, whether it’s technology and technology implementation, the roles, behaviors, capabilities that we need across the organization.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: And my role within that is enterprise change, which is how do we enable a different future for the organization and how do we plan around that, as well as capabilities that major programs would need to succeed like value realization and how do we do that, and change management and how do we do that? And so that’s been my role with the organization in the last two and a half months, like every other person, every other organization that expanded to how do we support the current situation? And so whether it was, how do we engage people virtually or how do we plan for the future of work in the workplace? So those are the things that I have started to get involved in and work on.

Sarah Nicastro: Just kind of taking us off script a bit for a couple of minutes, because hearing what your role encompasses just made me think of a couple of things. I mean, first of all, how important of a role it is knowing that as I talk with service based businesses, change management is where a lot of things go wrong. I mean, it really is a critical aspect of operational change, technological change, service delivery change, customer experience initiatives, it’s really the cornerstone of a lot of ways that companies are innovating and transforming their businesses. And it’s, I would say probably the biggest area that people fall down. And so no pressure, but I’m sure it’s a really fun role, but also I’m sure there’s some weight to it because there’s a lot riding on being able to execute that change management well.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Yeah. And I think, and I always say change is role of every leader. And it’s a capability that every good leader in the organization would need to have. Now, what you do centrally is to support that and to enable that and to guide that. But ultimately, the only way a change initiative will be successful is if all leaders driving it are change capable leaders and change ready leaders, and they have the resilience that it takes to drive change in an organization. I think the current situation, it has been a great school for a lot of our leaders to practice that. Especially in operational roles, sometimes we become complacent in believing that we can do the same thing and not really drive and inspire and step up as a leader within the organization.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: And so a situation like this, it’s actually, it’s helping leaders across the utility industry, service industry, all industries to build that change readiness muscle. And I think we are all going to emerge better as a result of it.

Sarah Nicastro: It’s funny. That was actually the second point I was going to bring up and you said it for me, which is, I was going to ask your thoughts on exactly that point. What we’re seeing is this situation really breaking down a lot of barriers to change within companies. Whether it’s, well, this is how we’ve always done it, so we’ll just keep doing it this way, or, I’m smarter than that technology, or, there’re so many different things. Or just, I’m too busy. I’m too busy doing what I need to do to be thinking about how to be innovative or to do things differently. So I was going to ask you if you’ve seen the same and you just said that you had, and I think you’re right. I think that’s a universal recognition right now.

Sarah Nicastro: And I absolutely think that it will make service organizations stronger coming out of this because to be honest, I mean, there’s been an underlying evolution happening in service for quite some time in terms of customer demands changing and business models needing to change and the adoption of technology needing to ramp up and all of that. And I think that this situation has forced the hand of some of the organizations that were a bit more resistant to that. And so I think it’ll be really exciting to see what comes out of it. There’s obviously some positives to this overall negative. And I think that that openness is a really good lesson that people will get out of this. Go ahead.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: I was going to add to that. One of the things that I’ve been really passionate about is this notion of industrial revolution, the 4.0, and the fact that the technologies that were created over the past decade, really our organizations haven’t caught up. We’ve seen a lot of advancement in technology, we haven’t seen the same amount of productivity optic in the organizations that is the full potential of those technologies. And I think the current situation has really fast track that adoption. And I truly believe that coming out of it, we are going to start seeing a massive productivity shift that we’ve been lagging. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but this was something that I was, my geeky side, I’ve been looking at and researching about a year and a half ago.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: And it’s been fascinating to see the gap in productivity growth to technology growth. And I think this current situation is going to start the path of closing that gap, which is fascinating.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Because I think a lot of times that gap is because of not successfully managing that change, whether that’s because it was under prioritized, under budgeted, or just not done well or ignored. Every story is a little bit different, but that’s why I said, it’s one of those areas that really are a major failure point in a lot of organizations. And I would bet that that gap is a lot of poor change management.

So people being more open to change gives folks that are willing to put good change management initiatives in place, the opportunity to execute on them well and really see the results of that. So you have to keep me posted.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Absolutely.

Sarah Nicastro: Okay. So going back to our script a bit, so as COVID-19 hit, you went from being in the office and leading a team in person to being remote like many of the rest of us and really having to do a quick study on virtual leadership. So you recently outlined four points that you’ve found or learned as you’ve adjusted to virtual leadership. And I was hoping you could talk through those. So the first is continuing to be proactive. So tell everyone what you mean by that.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: So what I found as we went into the lockdowns in March, what I found was those first few weeks became about survival. And we were so busy with the here and now and getting things done and finishing things up that we stopped thinking about the future. Whether you were on calls, you were doing work, I was seeing it in myself, I was seeing it in other leaders, and I was seeing it in my team that we have, our focus have really shifted to firefighting and we lost that longer term thinking. And I really had to stop myself and think about it and talk to my team about it, of how do we create space to think strategically, think beyond here and now and start looking ahead. The role of us as senior leaders in the organization is to look ahead for the organization.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: And if we are all trying to fight the today’s fire, then we’re going to be missing a big opportunity. So I think that has been one of my early observations and things that we had to step in and work on.

Sarah Nicastro: That’s a really, it’s a really good point. I know, just even speaking for myself personally, I maybe have stopped looking forward as much because there’s so much unknown and that can be really uncomfortable. And I think it’s the same for business leaders. It’s tough to think about the future when you really don’t know what the future is going to be. But it’s very, very important to do so anyway and to plan for some different scenarios and to keep on the pulse of not only what’s happening, but what’s coming and all of that. So it’s a very good point.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Sarah, and that’s a very good point you’re making because the future even today, the future is very unpredictable. We can plan for the next day, not even the next two weeks. But what is important is knowing the possible scenarios and being able to think through how would our strategies or our plans change in each of those given scenarios? And more importantly, what is going to remain the same? And so the things that are going to remain the same, how are we going to attack them? And things that are going to be a little bit more uncertain, how do we put boundaries around it and then react?

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: And getting people to think through those, I think the important part is that the clarity of those so that everybody’s thinking about those scenarios the same way, and everyone is doing that mental test for their individual plans. Because everyone at every level in the organization would need to do that for the work that they’re responsible for.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah. Absolutely. Okay. So lesson two is actively manage interdependencies. So let’s talk about that.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Yes. So interdependency between programs and projects are always a challenging area when you have multiple large programs and projects. And a lot of it is managed through informal communication. There are ways of formalizing it and putting structure around it, but at the end of the day, it’s those hallway chats and conversations and somebody is in two meetings and hearing something here and something there, and you start managing those interdependencies. What happened when we all went virtual, those informal lines of communication really got weakened originally. And so as a leader, I saw that gap and I felt that it was my responsibility to need to step in and be more of the navigator and the alert for those interdependencies and then managing through them.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Ultimately, that is not something that is sustainable in the long run. I think ultimately what needs to happen is that we need to rebuild those lines of communication somehow in this virtual world, whether it’s having the right meetings, right people, more effective meetings, whatever that is going to be. But I think in the short run, it is an important part of a leader’s role to step in and close that gap.

Sarah Nicastro: That makes sense. Number three is prioritize visibility into outcomes and values.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Yes. When people are virtual, they need the clarity of the deliverable that they’re driving, you’re not managing people daily, they don’t see you to check things. And so the more clarity you can create for the outcome that they are working towards, and honestly, right now we’re not, I don’t think any business is an 8:00 to 5:00 business. So you’re managing work from home and you’re managing work from home all at the same time. And so expecting people to have set times that they would do things and then assessing them based on how many hours they sat in the chair and did something, becomes irrelevant. And I’m glad that it is becoming irrelevant because it’s a better way of working.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: So with that, you need to replace that 8:00 to 5:00 mentality by a deliverable based mentality and a value based mentality. And it’s both for the leaders in the companies as well as for those employees. Because as an employee, if before my success was I spent eight hours in the office, now that needs to be replaced by this is the value that I have created in the hours that I was working or being productive. And so it became really obvious for me very early on that the more clarity you can give on the outcomes and the value that you’re trying to drive and less about how they would get to that, it helps people be more productive, more engaged, and it would really make sure that your productivity doesn’t get impacted by this sudden move to a virtual environment.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: We had no prep time, no one had any prep time. It was here it is and go. So the mechanisms that you usually create, whether it’s lines of communication or training or communication in a normal circumstance for a planned move to a virtual work, none of that was in place. And so I think that became a real need very quickly. And I think if you’re a leader out there that haven’t done it yet, make sure you do and you look at all of your groups and make sure that their outcomes are very clear and the value of those outcomes are identified and clearly posted.

Sarah Nicastro: That makes sense. And I agree with you, I think ultimately it’s a far better method of work. I think in the world we live in, it’s unrealistic to have those expectations and just more valuable for people to be clear on what are the goals you need to achieve? What is the value you bring to the operation and how can you execute on that in a way that gives you the balance you need or what have you? Especially in this time, I’ve been a remote employee all along. So I’m well versed in remote work productivity. But my kids usually aren’t home, so that was a huge adjustment for me to sort out, I’m fortunate to have help, but more interruptions during the day and all of that.

Sarah Nicastro: And so it is far easier to balance everything if you know the outcomes and value that you are responsible for versus working off of a time structure. And the last lesson is remembering the importance of informal communication.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: And I think we kind of covered that in the other topics that we discussed, but the connections, the human connections are not built by emails and town hall meetings, they’re built by those personal conversations. You and I, we just talked about our kids running out in the yard, and that doesn’t come in a formal setting. And without those, it’s really difficult to build the human connections. And so I think what I started to notice early on was that people were relying on the formal Webex, Teams meetings, Skype meetings to connect. And it’s like, we all forgot that at one point, not that long ago, we used to call each other on our phones and we even memorized some of the numbers. I think week three, I was like, why aren’t we just picking up the phone and calling each other?

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Why aren’t we just doing these informal chats? Why does everything have to be these back to back meetings and Webexs and Team meetings? And so I started [inaudible 00:22:34], I started doing that myself of just picking up whether it was a peer, it was my boss, or it was my team, just calling them up and having those conversations. And I saw them starting to do that, and I saw a huge difference in the mood and the dynamic and the flow of information and the speed that the work was being done.

Sarah Nicastro: That’s a good tip. I’ve heard some different folks say in other conversations that when this first started, there was this sense of kind of almost more connection, because to your point, you’re inviting people into your home. So you’re having these video calls and they’re seeing your kids, or your cat, or your dog, or whatever, and it kind of gave a different sense of connection to people that you normally just saw in the office. But I’ve talked with some folks recently who feel like their teams are really starting to get a bit burned out on all of the communication being virtual, which is understandable. I mean, I feel the same way, but… so I think the other aspect of the informal communication is the true informal side in terms of just remembering people are people.

Sarah Nicastro: And you might need to just check in and see how someone’s doing, or, someone brought up a point that when you have face to face meetings, you can sometimes pick up on cues that you may not in a virtual setting of someone being frustrated or someone struggling a little bit or this or that. And so just doing your best to stay in tune with those sorts of things and figure out how to tackle them in this sort of situation.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: That’s a really important point because those social cues, our brains are pre-wired to respond to them and now they’re gone, or harder to pick up on when you’re virtual. But the other thing we did the first few weeks, we did invite each other into our rooms and bedrooms. And I remember having to go from room to room in my office and thinking, oh my God, I never thought that the whole executive team is going to see my guestroom [crosstalk 00:25:06]. And they did, but it wore off. And what was left was this feeling of like, you have to be always on, and then you have back to back on camera meetings. And it’s really tiring and it’s frustrating. And so I think what we’re doing, which has been really helping is shortening our meetings to 45 minutes. Sometimes they go longer, but such is life.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: I think as long as the 80/20 rule, I can keep 80% of them within that 45 minutes, I’m happy. And then alternating between sitting in front of computer meetings and on the phone walking around meetings. And that has been really important into breaking the flow and really helping people be more productive.

Sarah Nicastro: I need to do a better job of that because I’ve been sensing I’m getting a bit burnout because it’s video conference, after video conference, after video conference. And another thing that’s come up in some of my conversations is people aren’t really taking time off right now because there’s nothing to do. So people just keep working and keep working and keep working. And that’s an interesting concept as well, so I think I’m about due for a little break. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself, but something.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: No, I’m taking a few days off this week actually. And I don’t remember the exact numbers right now, but I think like 46% less people are taking vacation now that they have been before. What is interesting for me is the need to refresh, the need to rejuvenate, the need to de-stress hasn’t gone away. If anything, it has increased.

Sarah Nicastro: Absolutely.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Now why we correlate taking time off with being away, and if I can’t get a flight ticket, therefore I can’t take vacation, I don’t know. I’m taking time off. I’m really encouraging my team to take time off and not just one day, but at least the two, three days. And I think it would be really important again, back to that proactive mindset to innovate, to look ahead, and to be able to think strategically, it is critical to have a clear mind and a clear view and not be in that survival mode all the time. So Sarah, take your break.

Sarah Nicastro: Yep, I’m taking notes, I’m going to do it. Okay. So a couple more things I wanted to talk about. The next is the discussion around return to work. So this is, to your earlier point, the first few weeks of this, everyone was in crisis management mode. I mean, a lot of people were caught off guard and even if they weren’t caught off guard in terms of business continuity, they were certainly caught off guard in who would have thought of global pandemic. So that occurred, and then people started to process that and look forward, as you said. And now it seems we’re getting to the point in different regions, in different countries where we’re in the recovery phase or the early stages of recovery and people are now really talking a lot and thinking a lot about, okay, how do we get people back to work?

Sarah Nicastro: How do we reach the next normal? That sort of thing. So just curious where National Grid is at with that, what your considerations are, how your team is feeling about it, anything you’re willing to share around that.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: I think a few weeks ago, maybe about a month ago, we started looking at post the quarantine period, the phase one reopening and the phase two reopening. And so at that time, I actually did an informal survey with our teams of how much more or less productive they feel that they are and how many of them would want to go back to work the way that we did before a vaccine is found, and then after the vaccine is found. I always, going in, I knew that we will never be back to, everybody get in their car, drive into the office in the 9:00 to 5:00 format, but the results and the response I saw from that was far more surprising. So in our case, about 85% of our people thought that they were more productive than they have been before.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: And so now my challenge and the follow up on that is, how do you define productivity? Because if your days are getting longer and if your hours are getting longer and you’re doing more work, that’s not necessarily productivity. But anyhow, 85%, big number. We need to do more work there, we’re looking into that. A big portion of that is because of the driving. And then you have other factors in there. Then you look at how many people want to go back to the office before a vaccine’s found. And it’s less than 20% of people before a vaccine that feel comfortable going back into the office, even with the social distancing norms in place. And you look after a vaccine and it’s only 30% of people that think that we would go back to the same or we should go back to the same form and format that we were before.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: So you put all of this together and no matter how you look at it, whether you look at it from the lens of an employee and what they demand of their companies, or you look at it from the perspective of a company and the productivity of the workers and the cost of facilities and the overhead of having people in the office, they both end in the same place that the new normal is not going to look like what we started with. And I don’t think we are alone, I think globally, everyone’s coming to that realization. And so what we’ve been now doing is starting to plan around, how do you institutionalize some of this into the way we work and how do you enable employees to be able to continue to work from home? And what is that really going to look like?

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: There are some things you cannot replace. You need togetherness for certain type of collaborations and strategic thinking. So how do you allow for that? And so those are all questions that we’re starting to ask and we’re starting to implement and challenge basically. The other thing we’re thinking about is, how do you drive change in a virtual environment? If you think about the theories around change and it’s important to hit the hearts and not the minds, how do you do that virtually? So those are all questions that we’re grappling with right now.

Sarah Nicastro: That is a really good question. And I think that, I’ve talked with companies that are working on getting people back into the office. I’ve talked with companies that don’t think that that will really happen again and everywhere in between. But it’s certainly interesting to sort through those factors and see, I do think people are prioritizing the needs of their employees the same way you are, asking them what they’re comfortable with and allowing them to feel empowered in helping make those decisions and all of that. And I certainly think that’s the right approach, but there’s a lot of layers of complexity to your point in what that is going to look like and how to make it all work.

Sarah Nicastro: And none of us have those answers. So it’s just a matter of sorting through all of it. Do you have any other views or thoughts on what this recovery might look like for National Grid and what the next normal might be, just in terms of whether it’s your team or around change or just the business overall?

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: I think if you think about a utility, and if you think about the real core of our business of getting heat and electricity to people’s homes, that doesn’t change with COVID. I think our customers have been impacted by COVID and we have stepped in and helped them with temporarily stopping our disconnects and collections activities. And so there is a lot that we have done to help the customers and adjust, and I think that would continue. I don’t think that this is going to be, for our customers, it’s not going to be that quick of a recovery. It is going to take time. And so our job and our role is here to serve those customers and understanding their needs. And that is definitely going to continue.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: For our own business, I think we are going to continue to focus on reliable, clean energy for our customers and working with our regulators to make sure that the speed at which we’re working on these things is in lock step with the expectations. And so overall, I’m really optimistic that we are all going to come out of this as a better society, as a better corporate infrastructure. We’re going to learn a lot through it, all of us together. And I think I’m seeing a lot of all sorts of corporations really giving a different lens and focus to how they serve their customers. And I’m really encouraged by that. And I can’t wait to see the outcome of it in a few years.

Sarah Nicastro: Absolutely. I agree. And I think what you said about for your customers, this recovery isn’t going to happen overnight. I think that’s true for everyone in terms of customers in all industries and companies in all industries. I actually wrote an article this week about there is no new normal. And meaning, I heard someone say that it’s not the new normal, it’s the next normal. And so it’s not, I think the new normal gives us this connotation that we are, okay, we’re going to flip from crisis to recovery, and then this is what it’s going to look like. And the reality is it’s going to be a series of next normals until that change, pace of change slows a bit and then they space out more.

Sarah Nicastro: But I think to start, it’s, what’s the next normal? What’s the next normal? What’s the next normal? And just kind of keeping pace to one of your first points, continuing to be proactive about looking at what are the phases of this? What are those next normals and how do we prepare for the next one or two and keep track of what we need to do next? So it will certainly be interesting. I’ve said all along, I’ve loved talking with companies through this challenging time. One, I think it gives people a platform for connection, which I think is very important right now. But for me, I mean, it’s just been very, very interesting to see how people are grappling with this. And I think doing exceptionally well with a really difficult situation.

Sarah Nicastro: But I’m very interested to follow this along and see how it evolves, because I think some of the lessons we’re learning now and how those play out over the next couple of years is going to be really interesting to see.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: And I completely agree with you, Sarah, is there going to be such thing as normal? Will the normal become abnormal?

Sarah Nicastro: Absolutely.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: It’s a continuous state of change. And I think we would build the muscles of learning how to lead through that and how to manage that. And I think it’s going to be an exciting few years ahead of us. Again, we just have to make sure that we understand the perspective of everyone in our society and our customers and the challenges that they’re going through and then come up with solutions that work for everyone.

Sarah Nicastro: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Reihaneh, I really appreciate you being with us today and sharing your perspective and your insights. And I would love for you to come back in six months or 12 months and talk about what more you’ve learned and what your next normal has looked like.

Reihaneh Irani-Famili: Yeah, let’s do that.

Sarah Nicastro: All right. Sounds good. All right. You can find more information on how companies are managing COVID-19 and transforming their businesses by visiting us at www.futureoffieldservice.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn and Twitter @TheFutureofFS. The Future of Field Service Podcast is published in partnership with IFS. You can learn more about IFS Service Management by visiting www.ifs.com. As always, thank you for listening.