By: Jonathan Ghent, Huntley Hedrick

Enabling the Distributed Workforce - The Critical Role of Technology

Lewis VP of Technology Huntley Hedrick had a radical idea: ask his team of IT professionals to pack up their laptops and mobile devices and work from their vehicles for a day. Why?

To “walk a mile in the shoes” of our vegetation management professionals such as General Forepersons and team leaders who work on the front lines of Lewis’ vegetation management and utility line clearance business—employees who spend much of their time working from their vehicles.

Hedrick’s experiment served multiple purposes. It challenged the status quo by requiring the technology team to see their work from a different perspective. It instilled a sense of ownership and confidence that has grown with a broader understanding of the business. It helped build credibility and trust between office workers and the vegetation management professionals they support in the field. And it aligned perfectly with a bedrock principle that CEO Leslie Kass frequently shares with employees: You can learn more in a day in the field than a month in the office.

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Technology is so crucial for our people to do their jobs that if it doesn't work, it becomes a distraction and even a roadblock.

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“Working in a truck or out in the woods somewhere is an entirely different experience than being in a walled office or working from home,” explained Hedrick. “It was extremely valuable for folks who are accustomed to sitting at their desks to spend a day in their cars. They saw what it’s like to try to get a strong cell phone signal, deal with temperature and weather issues, work in a cramped space, and even find bathroom and refreshment facilities. The team developed a whole new appreciation for the role we need to play in helping our workers as a result.”

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The Rise of the Distributed Workforce

Distributed workforces have existed for decades but the pandemic ushered in a new era. Before 2019, about 4 percent of employees in the U.S. worked exclusively from home; by May 2020, that figure rose to 43 percent, according to Gallup.

For vital workers like Lewis’ vegetation management professionals, who help keep the power on for more than half the U.S. population, being members of a distributed workforce is nothing new. The role technology plays in how they work, however, is constantly changing. One of Hedrick’s highest priorities as technology leader for the company is to equip its distributed workforce with the technology and skills to handle numerous challenges in the field every day.

Working on the road from the front seat of a pickup truck or a 25-ton bucket truck makes communication and managing documents such as circuit maps and work orders much more difficult. Front line leaders don’t have dual 27-inch monitors. They don’t have mouse pads and X-Chairs. Work is done on small devices, often in remote locations that don’t have stable wi-fi or cell phone service, and in some cases, power. This requires the technology team to constantly be on the lookout for new solutions to keep front line employees connected, productive, and safe.

“All the technology and applications we use need to work. Our utility customers and their customers — businesses, schools, homeowners — are relying on us. Technology is so crucial for our people to do their jobs that if it doesn't work, it becomes a distraction and even a roadblock. It can cause employees to worry about secondary things that they shouldn't be worrying about.”

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Emergency Storm Response – Stepping Up When Needed Most

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"We’ve invested heavily in programs and applications to improve our communication during emergency storm response, and it’s paying off.”

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Lewis front line vegetation management professionals earn high praise when responding to storms and helping restore power to utility customers. Fortunately, so does the Lewis technology team. “We had a major storm response in Florida in 2022 after a hurricane knocked out power for over two million people. A day before the storm hit, we got the requirements from a customer for two new applications that our workers needed,“ recalled Hedrick. “We had less than 24 hours to deploy technology to over a thousand devices so our workers could do their jobs. For a highly distributed workforce, technology deployment needs to be agile enough to push down apps at the last minute, if needed. Fortunately, we had the people and the tools in place to step up and meet the challenge. The ultimate reward from this effort — in part through the use of this technology — was that our crews helped the utility restore power to 95% of their customers less than a week after the hurricane made landfall.”

During emergency storm response, critical communications infrastructure is typically damaged, underscoring the importance of technology. “We have people who are working in dangerous environments” explained Hedrick. “Providing them with technology that works under these conditions is essential, especially during storm response when communication is diminished due to cell tower destruction and other obstacles. We’ve invested heavily in programs and applications to improve our communication during emergency storm response, and it’s paying off.”

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Agility + Ability + Technology = Success

Agility is a word often used at Lewis to describe how teams mobilize at a moment’s notice, change direction on the fly, and do whatever it takes to get the job done right. Our vegetation management professionals in the field and in office jobs need to be agile, and so does the technology at their fingertips. According to Hedrick, eliminating friction between business processes through the use of reliable technology enables Lewis to be agile every day.

“Agility is a great differentiator for Lewis,” said Hedrick. “When I first arrived at Lewis, a hurricane in Texas wiped out all cellular communications and we had to fall back to some old-school methods that many newer craft workers were not familiar with. The experience of our older team employees was invaluable. The ability to adapt quickly on the fly is what makes Lewis such a valuable partner to customers.”

For Lewis, technology is more than laptop computers, mobile applications, and the bits and bytes of data that make it all work. Technology is the connective tissue that joins individuals and teams together for success. And as technology continues to evolve, so does Lewis’ interest in utilizing it for their employees and customers’ success. “Our company mission statement is to relentlessly pursue the success of our customers and employees through our commitment to safety service, learning, and innovation. It’s the motivating force that’s allowed us to become one of the nation’s leading utility vegetation management companies. When you create an environment that encourages continuous improvement, amazing results follow,” said Hedrick. “It’s much easier to create this environment when technology is intelligently applied across the organization, easy to use, and purpose built to meet employees’ and customers’ needs. I might be biased, but from my point of view, technology is in our DNA.”

When you create an environment that encourages continuous improvement, amazing results follow.