March - Coping with Covid-19

As with many other businesses across the country and the world, Covid-19 is having an unprecedented impact on business operations and we are working hard to ensure the safety of our team whilst continuing to provide a great service to our customers. This month we sat down with Managing Director Charley Maher and asked her some questions on what Pelican is doing to combat Covid-19.

What actions have you put in place to mitigate the impact of the virus?

We are following government guidance to the letter and as of the later part of March we have moved the vast majority of our team to home working. With most of our team usually working on desktop computers, we have been working hard to ensure we can provide everyone with the appropriate equipment to complete their work from home without any detrimental impact for our customers.

We have used the additionally created space to ensure that those that must remain in the offices, the government identified key workers, are separated by at least two meters.

Additional cleaning and sanitising of offices commenced immediately following the first government announcement and continues. To ensure this is done we have changed office hours and increased in working hour cleaning frequency.

Our field-based meter readers provide an essential role in water leak detection, which is critical to making sure everyone continues to receive water. They have been given revised targets, additional work guidance and have implemented full lone working methods.

With schools closed, we needed to react quickly and make sure that our already flexible working arrangements for parents were further improved. We were able to offer a number of additional options such as choosing to work extended flexible hours during times the business is usually closed, buying additional holiday, the option to temporarily reduce contracted hours and enhanced working from home options for those with children that don’t require active supervision.

I have been incredibly proud of how flexible our team members have been and it has been fantastic to see their passion and determination to continue to support our customers whilst keeping their family safe and well.

What are your plans for changing the way you work further in the months ahead?

This is an extremely fluid situation and my senior leadership team and I review it on a daily basis. Each day is different, and we need to be prepared to implement any changes in government advice.

As part of the daily review we actively monitor the health of our people from all our businesses and proactively offer real time practical and virtual support for their working needs and also their mental health. We believe none of our people should suffer any more than is necessary from the changes we have been forced to make to ensure our customer service continues.

We are also in daily communication with our parent companies to ensure as an industry we are all keeping customers in the heart of our decision making and that they we are keeping our customers updated on any changes that may affect them.

We have engaged with the sector regulator Ofwat and other key industry bodies and groups on the issues our customers will shortly face so we can also begin to be proactive in offering real support for everyone monetarily impacted by the virus. To date our suggestions have proven to be popular and are being discussed by the regulator with HM Treasury.

How much of a long term impact do you think this crisis could have on your business?

With the fluidity of the situation, it is impossible to tell what the long term impact will be on any business. I am confident however that with the continuity plan we have in place and the amazing team across our businesses supporting us every step of the way, we can limit any long term impact and continue to serve our customers with minimal disruption.

Moving to isolated working will impact all our people, both psychically and mentally. Our Health & Wellbeing committee continues to develop programmes and methods of supporting everyone who works for us to try to minimise this impact.

With the financial modelling we have undertaken we believe it is imperative we continuing to engage with our regulator, Ofwat, HM Treasury and HM Government to ensure everyone is considering our customers. Any loss of income in any utility sector needs to be carefully managed. The investment required for the sector as a whole relies on careful management of debts. This situation will no doubt lead to high debt levels as business struggle, and utility bills should not be the reason a business fails. The financial impact of that debt will have a significant impact on all our businesses, but we must focus on working with key stakeholders to find a solution that is practical and ‘works for everyone’.

What unexpected costs has the crisis brought to the business? What do you think of the support measures the government has introduced for businesses so far?

Purchase of equipment (laptops, headsets etc) to enable home working has been the biggest cost to the business to date as we focus on minimising the impact on operations and continuing to support our customers.

It has been great to see how proactive the government has been in offering support for businesses and individuals. We now need to finalise the support available to all customers on utility bills and ensure as far as possible it is not our utility bill debt that impacts households or businesses long term, once this situation has passed.

What, if any, impact has stockpiling and “panic-buying” had on the business?

We have noted minimal disruption to our business due to stockpiling or panic buying. We of course needed to ensure that we have a good supply of hand soap, anti-bacterial hand sanitiser and other key items that we needed to keep our team safe, healthy and comfortable. Our Facilities Management team have been monitoring the situation daily and provide regular updates on stock levels, which I am pleased to say that through our variety of trusted suppliers, we have been able to keep at a good level.

Are team members now working remotely from home? What have been the main challenges around remote working where it has been possible?

Our key priority was to ensure that every team member working from home had the appropriate equipment to be able to do so. This included providing each home worker with a laptop and ensuring that they had access to all systems and software to be able to complete their work effectively. Our internal support teams have been working non-stop to ensure our team have everything they need including the correct physical and mental wellbeing guidance for working from home.

As customer service businesses, our main challenge was ensuing that our team are available to answer queries and provide the support required by our customers during this difficult time. It is our view that no customer should feel their service has reduced less that is absolutely necessary. As part of our business continuity plan, we were already prepared for such a situation and very quickly provided those at home with the required equipment and systems to continue their work.

With many of our team now working from home, we have been able to ensure that those remaining in the office are spread out, meaning everyone is at least two metres apart at all times, in line with social distancing guidelines.

Our meter readers have actually been able to get around far easier without traffic, although for both the safety of our team and our customers we have stopped all internal visits, this will naturally cause some disruption however we have in place new ways to guide customers through supporting us with the information required to support them and so far we have received very positive feedback.

What impact do you expect the peak of cases to have on your access to labour? How are you planning around this?

We are well prepared to continue smooth and effective operations across our businesses over the next few weeks and months and are monitoring the situation daily to ensure we are ready for any changes that need to be made.

This situation was difficult to plan for but was one of our practiced and planned ‘black swan’ events. As such, for practical service we are able to continue almost as normal for a long period of time. The real impacts will not be known until the wider economic factors present themselves.

What effect is the crisis having on your role as a business leader? How key are good leadership skills to ensuring a smooth ride through the crisis and have you changed your personal approach to dealing with employees in any way?

I am very lucky to be surrounded by a motivated and dedicated leadership team who have been readily available at all times to support the continuation of operations and ensuring the wellbeing of our team. The Covid-19 situation is at present our number one priority and everyone has been incredibly flexible at re-prioritising other business matters.

One of my personal priorities is making sure that our team members are well looked after, kept informed and never feel they are alone in this crisis, including those working at home in isolation. I have been regularly communicating with our team of c500 people and making sure that we are reacting quickly and transparently to any changes. Strong, calm and considered leadership, simple and regular communications and quick reactions are proving key!

Our Health and Wellbeing committee, Working Parents Network and Mental Health First Aiders have been working incredibly hard to put a programme in place to support our team including a mixture of daily activities that we can take part in remotely, top hints and tips on working from home and keeping children entertained and making sure every single team member has direct access to their line manager and our Mental Health First Aiders at all times.

These are unprecedented times, and no one knows exactly what the next few months is going to look like. I do know however that across Pelican, water2business and Flipper, we have an amazing team of people who never fail to amaze me with their passion, dedication and unwavering support to ensure our customers are well supported and that their family, friends and colleagues are kept safe and well.