Bringing the outside in: how employee engagement helped achieve fast track status.

Price reviews have traditionally been the preserve of company regulatory teams. But PR19 required a different approach. We spoke to the people leading internal communications in the fast-track companies –Severn Trent, South West Water and United Utilities – to hear how employee communications and engagement contributed to their plan’s success.

For Sarah Heald, Director of Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations at South West Water, PR19 meant getting everyone involved: “We have more employees engaged in this plan than ever before. We really tried to go out to the business and speak to people from all areas – from our technical people, to our strategic people to those working out and about to those working in head office and in our supply chain.” Jennifer Felton, Head of Customer and Employee Communications at United Utilities (UU), confirms the importance of this approach: “The engagement has to go across the whole business. Let’s not assume everyone knows what the price review is. Any internal communication has got to have a ‘what does that mean for me’ element to it.” Kat Greenwood, Head of Communications at Severn Trent, agrees: “We adopted our normal strategy of internal communications with a very strong focus on face-to-face, which is at the heart of all our employee engagement. We made a strong commitment to getting out and speaking to employees, to let them know a little bit about the price review and also to engage them in the process.”

With thousands of staff, spread out over large geographical areas, segmentation is essential. All three companies worked hard to ensure the right people got the right information at the right time. Jennifer explains: “We always take a segmented approach to what we do, even internally. The aim is to ensure that there’s a really strong narrative that everyone in the organization is behind, but then we will target what that means for you and your team.”

Face-to-face

This segmentation cuts across job role, location and type of employee, taking account of different messaging and communications channels. All three companies prioritised face to face communication from senior staff. For Severn Trent, this included an experiential event, bringing managers together to experience the world of the future. Kat explains: “That was hugely powerful because it meant every single leader in the business understood what was involved in the plan, they could see their area and what was going to be changing. It started to move them into thinking about the future world and how they were going to deliver it.”

An employee roadshow led by Chief Executive Liv Garfield involved each of Severn Trent’s 6,500 employees, comprising 65 events over a six week period. This, Kat explains, was beneficial for everyone: “Our employees loved it – they loved the empowerment of coming up with ideas that might shape the future.” The roadshows generated an astonishing 8,400 ideas from employees.

South West Water took a similar approach, with a continuous drip feed of information and face-to-face roadshows planned this summer. Sarah explains: “We make sure that we’re using as many channels as possible for our internal content and that we’re being really consistent and regular in our engagement. We found that when we engage with our people, what’s most effective are the small regular updates for keeping people in touch.” This resonates with Kat too: “Getting the balance right is really important. There’s sometimes a tendency to over-communicate with a level of information people don’t need and that that gets in the way of everyday lives. For most of the people at Severn Trent, their priority was to still deliver for our customers day to day. We didn’t want to bombard people with a whole load of information that was just going to be a distraction to them.”

The opportunity to hear directly from the top isn’t easy to achieve when large numbers of people work outside a traditional office setting. “A lot of our people are not sat behind the desk,” Jennifer explains. “They are scattered across the region in depots and so on. We’ve given all our people the capability to use Yammer on their mobiles so they can be involved.” Over three quarters of UU’s staff are active on Yammer, and this has supported valuable two-way communication. Jennifer continues: “We’ve used YamJam sessions; they’ve generated some really good and insightful questions from our people. And we’ve been able to respond and talk about things in real time which has meant we’ve been able to keep on top of the issues and the messages and updates coming out through the price review.”

Sarah points out that the challenges facing the whole sector over the last twelve months meant that many staff had other priorities: “We’ve had two severe weather events in the last 12 months. That’s involved all hands to the pump, with people being completely focused on their operational areas. So you’ve got to be sensitive, because if people are in the middle of ensuring the supply of water during a heatwave it’s not an appropriate time to have staff briefings on planning for the next period. There’s nothing wrong with saying: our original plan was to do this, but we’re actually better off to delay for a few weeks. Flexibility and pragmatism are important.”

Overcoming complexity

Even the very best face-to-face conversation can’t change the fact that Price Reviews are a complex process, brimming with technical language and concepts. All three communicators recognise this challenge.

Sarah explains how South West Water tackled the problem head on: “The first thing is making sure that what we’re saying is in a language that relates to the people it’s being delivered to. The plan will speak to people in different ways. You naturally find that line managers are more likely to use the right language for their direct reports.” South West Water used a cascade system here, allowing messages to be tailored for different teams.

Jennifer agrees that using the right language is crucial: “Steve’s [Mogford, Chief Executive] really good at translating what I’d call ‘price review speak’ into messages that bring it to life for people. We test people’s understanding of key themes for the business going forward – for example, innovation, customer focus and affordability. So we can see that our messages are landing with employees.”

Most water company employees are also customers. For the fast-track companies, engagement meant more than just keeping people informed. Kat explains: “A lot of our employees work with customers day to day; they know what customers like and don’t like. We saw them as a key part of our insight gathering and also our ideas generation. Even our employees who aren’t directly customer facing still have a huge impact in managing perception from among our customer base. They all contribute towards the overall reputation of us as a water company.” Doing this had the added benefit of making the price review accessible to everyone. Kat continues: “We focused on talking about PR19 from a customer angle because that’s something that all our employees can relate to. Sharing customer insight energised teams – they all wanted to respond to that feedback.”

Sarah also highlights the benefit that employee engagement brings to customers: “We have the highest ever customer acceptance of our plan. We put that down to a mixture of customer and employee engagement. We really do think about people as our brand ambassadors. If we get them engaged and bought into our plan, seeing how they can contribute to things and making sure that it’s not just coming from the top down, then it’s that much more likely that it will be a plan that our customers like.”

At United Utilities, Jennifer describes sharing customer research with employees as well as what customers are saying. She elaborates: “It’s been a strong feature of our employee engagement not to make this very insular but to make sure that our people are seeing what customers are saying, what Ofwat is saying and what’s being said in the media.” Internal engagement, she says, is an effective way of bringing the outside into the business.

Lessons for the future

What lessons has PR19 brought for the future? Jennifer highlights an ongoing feedback loop: “The Price Review is a continuous assessment of how you treat your customers, what you get back from customers, how you talk to employees and how you run the business. We’ve brought all of those pieces together. So it’s a continuous flow of information both inside and outside the business.”

For Sarah, it’s been an opportunity to innovate. South West Water’s Water Share scheme, which offers customers the chance to take a financial stake in the business, has provided something “really tangible, exciting and interesting to people in and outside our business. It’s allowed our people – most of whom are already shareholders – to really go out and talk about it with family and friends – something exciting and innovative that’s part of our new plan.” This innovation has brought customers and employees together, with a shared interest in the company’s success. In its quest for continuous improvement, South West Water is also doing more to capture staff ideas through online discussion fora and innovation hubs, ready for the next business plan.

 

Kat sums up by describing Severn Trent’s people as part of their plan’s DNA: “Your people are your strength and if you don’t engage then you detach from them. My strong recommendation is to make sure you take your people with you. Make them feel part of the process, make sure they feel actively involved in it.” She concludes: “Every single employee has a thumbprint on our plan. That’s what will enable us to deliver for our customers going forward because everybody feels that this is something that they believe in.”