Water utility leaders reflect on pandemic changes
Utilities Digital Solutions Europe

“Let’s not take remote working lightly” – water utility leaders reflect on pandemic changes

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Water utilities need to consider the “workplace sense of community” and not take the remote working transition too lightly, utility bosses said at the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit.

Redefining water utility services

Water utility teams adapted quickly during the pandemic yet need to carefully consider how to recreate the “workplace sense of community” and not take the remote working transition too lightly.

Those are some of the messages from utility leaders reflecting on running water organisations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking at the opening of the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit held this week, Louise Dudley, CEO of Queensland Urban Utilities in Australia, said the experience had reinforced the need for utilities to keep pace with changing consumer demands.

“One thing we learned is that we need better customer insights and information to help redefine the services we offer,” she said. “As a water provider, we need to adapt as quickly as our customers are during this time.”

Pandemic planning

Dudley referenced how the organisation had faced drought, bushfires and Covid-19 in a few months. Yet Queensland Urban Utilities was ahead of the game: in November 2019, it activated and tested out a “pandemic plan” before the crisis hit.

This included teams working remotely in an “office-less” scenario, which drove home the importance of digital technologies and helped people prepare ahead of lockdowns.

However, with companies now making permanent arrangements to work remotely, the CEO stressed the need to maintain a sense of community.

“Work is now being done where work is done,” she said. “Yet, while we see a move away from the office, how do we ensure the culture and sense of belonging in an organisation remains?”

“It’s not that simple”

Jan Goosens, CEO of the Flemish water company, Aquafin N.V., cautioned the mass-roll out of the “new ways of working”.

"Working from home has many advantages in terms of efficiencies, but we also see disadvantages and things we worry about," he admitted.

“In a post-Covid society, when more people are working from home, we need to think about new leadership skills, models and how managers can best manage based on trust and responsibility rather than from tasks.

“Yes, it's a positive evolution, but certain individuals will be more capable of working in this new way. It’s not something we should be taking lightly.”

Discussing the need to integrate more "entrepreneurs" into the water sector, the Aquafin general manager discussed cultures' mixing.

“Many utilities have a classical culture,” he said. “For example, ours has over 1000 employees. So it’s not easy to simply introduce an entrepreneurial culture into a conservative company with lots of operators –many have been running water treatment plants for 30 to 40 years.”

The Glastonbury of water

Heidi Mottram, CEO of UK utility, Northumbrian Water, said we need to “grab hold” and retain the more efficient ways of doing business implemented during the pandemic.

“We need to grab hold and retain the more efficient ways of doing business implemented during the pandemic.”

“Real gems come out from those spontaneous conversations [in the office] and exchanging of ideas – we’ve got a lot to learn in recreating those with teams working remotely,” she said.

Discussing Northumbrian’s Innovation Festival, billed as the “Glastonbury of Water”, the CEO said the 2020 situation fast-tracked the event’s switch virtual switch and enabled people from 37 countries to participate.

"What has blown us away is how quickly we can come up with solutions and push ourselves to integrate them," she added.

The CEO referenced a previous collaboration between water, gas and telecom companies and Ordnance Survey to generate a detailed map of underground infrastructure, which is now being used nationwide across the UK.

Climate change impact on water

Johannes Cullmann, director of climate & water and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), kickstarted the virtual event and panel by stressing the climate change impacts on water.

He gave a short overview of the main challenges to be considered when designing “innovative and tailored systems” to help societies live in a “resilient world” into the future.

“The impacts from permafrost on soil stability will impact water-related infrastructure.”

He warned that the impacts from melting permafrost on soil stability will impact water-related infrastructure beyond the Northern Hemisphere. Furthermore, heatwaves combined with droughts will continue to drive demand for air conditioning and water usage.

Cullmann asked whether we can find better solutions to the water storage equation?

Referencing the WMO Hydrology Survey 2020, the WMO director said there is still an evident lack of adequate communication between the available data and the public.

“Many people complained that they don’t have two-way communication mechanics to improve relationships with users. The connection to people is a really big problem that needs to be taken into account.”

He concluded by asking the question: how do we develop people-centric systems?

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