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The Hoggett Bowers 2 Minute Interview: Bob Taylor

2 minute interview | Bob Taylor
CEO, Portsmouth Water

What challenge did you tackle and overcome in your business this week?

A big challenge which is a large part of my life at the moment is trying to agree and finalise the regulatory arrangements for our Havant Thicket Reservoir project.  This new reservoir will be the first to be built in the south east since the 1970’s. The reservoir will enable us to share more water from our network with our neighbours Southern Water and make water supplies much more resilient to climate change across the whole region.  It will also allow Southern to take less water from the iconic chalk streams, the Test and the Itchen, thereby improving the natural living environment for generations to come. 

Which ongoing business challenge is occupying your thoughts this week/month?

One of our ongoing business challenges during COVID is that of maintaining our high standard of service delivery to our customers at a time when our operations are restricted. This has meant introducing new ways of working to protect customers, staff and supply chain; 70% of our staff now work from home, we must maintain hygiene and social distancing rules in the office and out in the field and we aim to avoid close contact with customers wherever we can. Our staff have adapted superbly well, and our high level of service has been maintained throughout the challenges of the last 9 months.

What would you have done differently in lockdown1 and therefore, how may this shape your thinking for the current and any future lockdowns (local or national)?

During the first lockdown we were in unknown territory, and like many organizations we were not entirely sure how to respond to the Covid threat. As a result, we took a very conservative view of what we needed to carry on doing, what we needed to change and what we needed to stop doing. This meant that we focused on the delivery of our core services and activities and those that involved direct contact with customers we stopped. With all of our staff having key worker status and a large proportion operating on the front-line it was imperative that we ensured their safety and wellbeing at all times.

Regarding current or even future lockdowns we have adapted very quickly to remote working, moving from almost zero to about 70% of our employees working from home.  We will continue to maintain this position going into the New Year whilst at the same time following government guidelines. I am very proud at the way our employees have adapted rapidly to new working norms, demonstrating huge flexibility, resilience and always keeping the customer top of mind.  In many ways Covid has helped to accelerate our aim to be more flexible in the way we work from both an office and home environment. 

With plans to move into a new and smaller HQ in the next couple of years there will be a need for us all to continue to adopt and apply more flexible working practices. But we should not forget how much people appreciate the need for social interaction at work and in some cases working from home is not necessarily a positive thing.

Given the reliance on technology during lockdown, do you now envisage an acceleration in digital/ workforce transformation in the short-medium term?

Yes, we do. We have just obtained approval from our Board for significant investment in this area across both digital and AI. This means that all our staff will be equipped with the best technology to work from anywhere.

What are the new working norms starting to look like for your organisation?

The new working norms are changing, and it is a continually evolving picture. I think certainly there will be much more working from home along with field staff travelling to workplaces separately rather than pairing up in the same vehicle. In general, it has meant embracing new and more agile ways of working and greater self-management of workloads. In the main we have maintained consistently high levels of productivity and performance throughout the pandemic and at the same time have made a huge effort to reach out to customers in situations of vulnerability, putting in place special arrangements in many cases. Almost a third of our domestic customers are over 70 years of age and are nearly all included in our vulnerability register.

There was a dramatic reduction in our carbon footprint during lockdown, what is your business planning to do to help continue this going forward?

The UK water sector is one of the first industries globally to set clear decarbonisation targets, having announced recently the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. This is an industry wide initiative and every water company will play their part.  As far as Portsmouth Water are concerned, we are already ensuring that our power requirements are met from fully renewable sources. In addition, we plan to expand our usage of solar power at our production sites.

Currently we are commissioning AI based software to enable us to optimise our energy usage across all our pumping stations. Over the next 5 years we will gradually introduce electric vehicles to replace our existing fossil fuel fleet. We are also looking to recycle much more excavated material for reuse instead of sending it to landfill and we plan to plant a large number of new trees, especially at our new reservoir in Havant Thicket. 

What changes personally will you keep from the lockdown period going forward?

We have made a huge effort to stay in touch with our people within the business during COVID. One really powerful channel of communication has been the use of video – conferencing software and I will continue to use this, alongside more conventional face to face interactions, in the future. Our use of ZOOM has allowed us to communicate clearly and effectively with our staff and allowed the COVID impact to be managed. I have certainly got used to spending more time working from home which has meant a better work/home balance. I think when we get back to some sort of normality, I will continue to spend my time working between home and office, appreciating the importance of exercising regularly, eating healthily and taking regular short breaks.

Who or what has inspired you this week? (They don’t need to be famous)

I am constantly inspired by my own staff who serve the local community they are themselves part of. Nothing is ever too much trouble, even during these difficult times and I receive regular correspondence from our customers telling me about the things people have done above and beyond the call of duty to help others. I am proud and humbled by the actions of so many people I am lucky enough to work with.

Did you manage a holiday this summer and if so where / how did you spend it and what are your plans for Christmas?

I did manage a brief holiday at Woolacombe Bay in North Devon at the beginning of July which happened just at the start of the raising of the first lockdown. I was able to have a great week with the family, walking along the beaches and cliff tops and enjoying the local seafood.  In terms of Christmas, we traditionally have a large family gathering at my own home and given the current Covid restrictions we hope to be able to do the same again this year in compliance with the government’s 3-bubble limit.

Any words of wisdom?

I think it’s all too easy for the fortunate among us to take for granted a warm, comfortable home and the support of a loving and caring family during difficult times. This pandemic has made me realise that so many in our modern society lack these very simple human support mechanisms and we should never assume that everyone else will be able to manage situations like COVID in the same way we can. So please be generous with help, support and kindness to everyone, even those who you might think don’t need it.