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The pandemic provides an opportunity to reset businesses and communities, and to create a more resilient, supported and engaged workforce, say Ashley Harshak and Tamsin Scobell from PA Consulting

Across all industries, Covid-19 has shifted wellbeing from a side-topic to a priority for business leaders. While there is much to work out still, one thing is clear: employees need support and guidance more than ever before, and this is especially true for utility companies.

Continuity of service and the need to keep the lights on, the water flowing, and the sewage managed, means that utility employees have been rightly categorised as key workers. This has meant a significant shift in ways of working and extra safety considerations, which have undoubtedly induced feelings of anxiety and uncertainty for many.

The World Economic Forum predicts there will be a pandemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism this year as a result of Covid-19. Likewise, The Global Wellness Institute predicts that mental health will be at the forefront of minds for the foreseeable future. We do not know what the impact has been on the utility company employees but undoubtedly there has been one.

However, we also see positive implications; teams are successfully embracing technological change and flexibility. And ingenious examples of how organisations and people have responded to Covid-19, such as utility companies moving to virtual call centre operations and homeworking, overnight.

As utilities wrestle with many issues, leaders must create conditions where people feel protected, supported, and able to perform. This is the way to continue to provide residential and commercial customers with electricity, clean water, and sewage management, as well as protect core business, win the ‘war for talent’ and harness new opportunities. Those able to navigate this successfully will emerge with engaged, loyal workforces, better prepared for the after the pandemic.

Three actions can help utilities get there:

Deepen social ties and stay connected

A specific challenge is the range of environments in which people operate – covering operations, asset management, customer-facing support and back office – and the difficulty this poses when it comes to making people feel safe, connected and valued.

The key is to deepen social ties with colleagues. For example, when working from home, we now see inside our colleague’s homes and more of their personal lives; when on site, we are hear unique personal experiences of this pandemic, so, let’s converse with each other on a more personal level:  be sure to enquire about family life, adjust for each other’s situation and be flexible around individual needs and concerns.

As people navigate this period, working closely with colleagues to co-create the right environment, evaluating working patterns, restricted hours, shift changes and working from home, is even more important. Seeking to anticipate new pressures and review processes with a lens that accepts individual fears, concerns and family situations is also a necessity.

Lead with care

Another challenge is leaders being able to talk about mental health and safety, as well as physical health and safety. Part of this is leaders showing levels of vulnerability themselves, which is especially important in an engineering and often male-dominated environment, when we know the biggest killer of men under 40 is suicide. For many, especially those in older generations, this is not something they may have done or seen role modelled.

Covid-19 has accelerated the need for leaders to have strong interpersonal skills. Leaders of the future will require the ability to lead compassionately, and demonstrate empathy, vulnerability and care. The importance organisations place on leaders to be at the forefront of this is crucial. Recently, PA Consulting worked with a global engineering company, to help leaders adopt a ‘lead with care’ approach whilst undergoing an organisation-wide transformation: the work involved integrating an AI chatbot with a custom-built portal, providing ‘proactive’ and ‘reactive’ wellbeing support to all leaders across the organisation.

The provision checked-in with and provided support to leaders as they transitioned into new roles and immersed them in powerful experiences to inspire more caring people-centric leadership. It also equipped these leaders with digital resources to run a series of wellbeing activities with their teams. In short, PA Consulting helped this organisation leaders lead themselves and others with greater care as they went through a pivotal yet challenging transformation.

In addition, it is important to provide a safe development space to for leaders to practise these skills and learn, even if they fail. When working with a global pharma company, they sought to improve performance and strengthen teams by embedding the notion of a ‘successful leader’ who is compassionate, mindful and thinks selflessly. As part of this programme, they used a behavioural change app to enhance these skills. Leaders commented that the regular ‘nudges’, along with access to online resources, helped them practise and embed appropriate behaviours in ways they had never considered before.

Provide point of need wellness resources   

With fast-evolving government policy and diverse workforce needs, utilities will need people to access wellness resources at different times accessible in different ways.

Having a multi-channel approach supported by some form of wellbeing platform caters to different styles and needs in a varied workforce. Considering the needs of people across a wellness spectrum, from good to poor health, and making sure resources are tailored to respond, is essential to making an impact. When it comes to content, we know from work with a global engineering company, that the focus needs to be on simplicity.


An online platform was designed with the user in mind so that it is visually appealing, relevant and easy to navigate – the platform was paired with a chat bot which was able to easily direct people to relevant information.

We also see organisations providing learning resources for leaders to deliver effective wellbeing programmes. At one large organisation, they created different ‘personas’ to represent the types of people in their organisation and their different wellbeing experiences and, this led them to create a framework for more effective wellbeing conversations.

Creating a stronger future  

We are in the middle of an unprecedented change. Our world will not be the same post-Covid-19. The pandemic provides an opportunity to reset businesses and communities, and to create a more resilient, supported and engaged workforce. In surviving the present, utility leaders must look to the future – providing the support and infrastructure that will shape and define a people-centred employee experience. It starts by putting people and their wellbeing at the heart of what we do.

Ashley Harshak is a people and talent expert and Tamsin Scobell, is a behavioural change expert at PA Consulting.