Utility Employee Engagement: A Strategic Priority for 2015 and Beyond

In this article from Public Utilities Fortnightly, author John Egan interviews Colleen Campbell, Change Management and Leadership expert, on how to keep employees engaged during strategic company initiatives.

This article was originally published by Public Utilities Fortnightly and written by John Egan.

I sensed trouble right away, on the morning of Day One, when my colleagues and I started gathering to meet in the company auditorium. My employer had been acquired by another company, and we were going to hear all about it – both from our former supervisors, and from the new management that had taken us over.

On entering the auditorium, I was given a golf shirt with the logo of the acquiring company (whose name I will not share, but it should be well known to Fortnightly readers.) The size of my shirt was XL. That would fit me, but my female colleagues who weighed 100 lbs. less than I did also received XL-sized shirts. Maybe that was an oversight or a logistical snafu. Or maybe our new bosses had embraced a “one size fits all” view about the workplace – they would determine the metaphorical “size,” and we would either learn to fit in that slot, or we would leave.

And my concerns only increased when I found my seat. There, placed carefully on the chair, was a coffee mug with the acquiring company’s logo on it, plus a similarly adorned baseball cap and pad of paper.

Now let’s fast-forward five years. The acquisition eventually failed, as many strategic initiatives do, and its flameout provided real-world validation of something I had heard in one of my MBA classes a few years earlier: namely, that any merger or strategic initiative launched with a burst of golf shirts, coffee mugs, upbeat banners, clever slogans, and lots of happy talk from executives about “strategic synergies” would soon hit the rocks. It was just a matter of time.

“Don’t forget,” my professor had advised, “that the first two letters of the word, ‘merger,’ are ME – employees want to know how a strategic initiative will affect them specifically and personally.” And she was also a change-management consultant, who knew her stuff.

“Before you can talk about the strategic reasons to enter a new market or how 1 + 1 will equal 3,” she told us, “employees need to know a few basic things,” including:

  • Will I be a victim of ‘headcount rationalization?’
  • Will I have a new boss?
  • Will I have new responsibilities?
  • Will I have to relocate?
  • Will you want me to change how I do what I do?”
Figure 1 - Top Management Challenges

Figure 1 – Top Management Challenges

My experience and my professor’s words floated back to me recently as I prepared Budgets, Gadgets & Price Increases, my company’s 2015 survey of utility company communicators and marketers. One of the questions we asked respondents concerned their top strategic challenges for 2015. Figure 1 summarizes the results for that question.

I was not surprised by some of the priorities listed by respondents: price increase communications, environmental regulation and customer satisfaction are all long-standing challenges facing communicators and marketers at North American electric and gas utilities.

But I was intrigued – though not particularly surprised – to see that 15 percent of respondents said employee engagement as their #1 or #2 challenge for 2015. Over the years, friends, colleagues and clients have shared stories with me about their efforts to measure and improve employee engagement. But I didn’t know if those stories were random anecdotes or a fair representation of a broad industry-wide challenge. Now we have quantitative evidence that employee engagement is a top strategic issue facing North American electric and gas utilities.

When you think about it, it should not be especially surprising that utility employees are feeling disengaged and beaten down. There is a tremendous amount of change hitting electric and gas utilities. The commitment shown by your employees is being put to the test by any number of factors, both external and internal. Here are some of the most important internal factors roiling utilities and sapping employee commitment:

  • Systems integrations, digital meter rollouts, and other IT upgrades and process redesigns,
  • Repeated reorganizations and staff reductions,
  • Lack of opportunities for professional advancement,
  • Poor or infrequent communications about the progress of strategic initiatives, and
  • Leadership changes.

But if employees are more committed, they will work harder to remedy difficult internal and external problems. Employee engagement can even become a company strength that supports utilities through challenging times. Looking ahead, no one I know thinks there will be a shortage of challenges facing utilities. So consider employee engagement a strategic investment in coping with disruptive change.

Utilities are not alone in facing a disengaged workforce. A Gallup global poll across numerous industries (link is external) found only 13 percent of employees said they were actively engaged at work, meaning they were “psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations.” Nearly twice as many – 24 percent – identified themselves as actively disengaged. The remaining 63 percent said they were simply (or passively) disengaged.

A Harvard Business Review study from 2013 found 72 percent of those surveyed said employee engagement was very important for an organization to achieve its goals. But only 24% said employees in their organization were highly engaged.

In a 2013 report, Pricewaterhouse­Coopers found 79 percent of businesses are worried seriously about engagement and retention. Two-thirds of business leaders surveyed said “the overwhelmed employee” was a top business challenge.

Like all enterprises, utilities can only succeed if their employees bring their energies, hearts and minds to work. That’s where the answers live to all the vexing problems utilities face. Showing up may account for 80 percent of life, as Woody Allen once asserted, but utility leaders need that other 20 percent from their employees if they want to be truly successful and competitive.

“Employee engagement is key to the success of strategic initiatives especially if an initiative has significant employee and customer impacts,” notes Colleen Campbell, who heads the Organizational Change Management Practice at Centric Consulting. “Your employees are the front line to the customer. They are often a cost-competitive resource with great ideas and know-how to address challenges.

“The key is to effectively empower employees to create solutions and support in the process,” she continues. “Learn to trust that they have the answers. And since employee engagement ranks high as a key factor to employee retention, this is a wise investment.”

What utility today is not concerned about keeping its high-performing employees coming back to work each day?

Who else but actively engaged employees would be willing to go the extra mile to lead a cross-functional team, spot and address a new threat to the business model, fix a process or drive the creation of a new service? These are hard tasks that require a lot of time and energy to remedy. They won’t get done well by employees who are disengaged, let alone by actively disengaged, employees.

Read the full Public Utilities Fortnightly article here.

John Egan is is President of Egan Energy Communications, Inc. (www.eganenergy.com), based in Lafayette, Colorado – a national communications firm that works with utilities to improve messaging and communications with employees and stakeholders.