Matt Cannon, chief executive, Clancy Group Company strategy, Skills, Strategy & management, Water, Water Excellence, Opinion

Men and women across UK utilities have been working flat out and with great selflessness to provide access to essential utility services during this difficult time. As tentative steps are made to ease the UK lockdown, we have an important opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learnt about the people and teams that drive the industry.

The public response to our site teams of key workers delivering critical maintenance at the start of lockdown raged from anger to disbelief. We do not blame them – people were understandably scared, worried for their friends and families at a point when we still knew little about the virus.

What we needed at the time – and what we eventually got – was clarity from government on the nature of key working, and which sectors were included. In the confusion, utilities – and their workers – were easily forgotten.

The industry’s response? To bounce back and make the case for its new-found status. Utility companies and their partners have gone on a charm offensive to promote and celebrate their teams in the news and on social media – from navigating surging water demand across the network, to supporting new power connections for the Nightingale Hospitals. A number of these are captured by Utility Week’s own Keeping Us Connected campaign.

When the horror of Covid-19 is over, all of us working in the industry need to take stock and make sure we are not forgotten again. We must deliver a clearer and more compelling narrative about the social outcomes that our networks deliver, and the role of our sector’s overlooked key workers. Put simply, we need to make the clear link between the work that Clancy – and others – do, our way of life and the wider economy.

Even before the start of the pandemic, with AMP7’s focus on the customer and the advance of the net zero agenda we already knew that we had to reposition the water sector not in terms of contractual outputs but how we deliver improved outcomes for water customers and wider UK society. That stage is already set for energy too as we look towards RIIO2

Pictures of construction sites and crowded public transport in London have reinforced public perceptions of the construction industry in two ways. The first is that our industry relies on boots on the ground. The second is that those boots are often low-paid, sub-contracted and seemingly at the mercy of more powerful masters.

We need to correct these perceptions and make a clear distinction between the highly regulated water and energy industries, our responsible practices, commitment to people, innovation and the roles that its army of key workers are playing.

This needs to start now. It requires clients and contractors to be clear in their customer communications about our key workers and the huge societal contribution they are making. Public perception will not change after a single email or letter drop. It requires a long-term communications effort that always gives a gentle reminder that it is our teams that keep communities’ most basic needs connected.

At the same time, as we learn to live in a Covid-19 world we need to continue to celebrate their achievements, thank them and shine a light on their contribution. This is vital to recruitment and retention of talent too.

From our wonderful NHS workers to key workers across many sectors, many heroic acts have taken place since March. But let’s not let the pride and selflessness of our industry’s men and women go unrecognised.

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