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The Hoggett Bowers 2 Minute Interview: Pauline Walsh, CEO

Pauline Walsh, CEO, Affinity Water

What have been some of the key learnings for you since March last year and are now applying in your business?

Having most employees working remotely provided many learning opportunities, not least the importance of very actively engaging with all employees to create a sense of belonging and ongoing support. That meant considerably ramping up our internal communications and trying different ways to effectively connect.  For me personally we found twice weekly podcasts to all of my employees landed the best and I’ve continued with them, now on a weekly basis.

As we move forward from the pandemic and look to the future, what business opportunity most excites you?

We know that every crisis creates opportunities and this pandemic is no exception. It has forced all of us to live, work and think differently and to adapt quickly to change. We now know we can do that! We have to capture that belief and build on it to deliver further urgent and essential step changes that our society and the environment needs for a more sustainable future. That means rethinking how we plan for, build and operate our assets and businesses, how we best use data to inform our decisions and how we communicate and engage with others to bring them with us.   

Given the important part that technology has played in all sectors during the pandemic, how do you envisage technology developing in your organisation going forward?

Our technology skills and resources saved the day for us during this pandemic. It allowed us to (almost!) seamlessly move to remote operation of our office staff and call centres and helped our operations staff to work more safely and effectively. The IT directorate became a critical enabler and best friend to all parts of the business as the value provided by having, (or putting), the right technology and systems in place was quickly obvious to all. We have very deliberately changed our approach to the investment in technology within Affinity Water from one of push to pull. Rather than have the IT team ‘sell’ the need for investment, they now work with their internal customers who are the ones who then need to make the case for IT investment, that way establishing the ‘partnership’ ways of working that worked so effectively over the past year or so.

When are you planning some form of return to the office and how is this being structured?

As a business with ‘critical worker’ status, many of our staff needed to continue working on sites or out in customer-facing roles during the pandemic and they did a fabulous job of keeping the water flowing for our customers in very challenging circumstances, working within Covid-19 restrictions.

For those employees who could work from home we are starting a phased return to the office (or sites) from August, starting with one day a week and building up to three days a week over three months. We did a lot of surveys and had a special ‘Back to the Future’ program team in place to understand employees needs and wants and we have tried to work with those insights to provide the best environment and ways of working for both employees and the business. We know some employees are anxious about returning to the office so we are trying to do this in a careful and considered way, with lots of communications about what they can expect and how we are planning for their safety and wellbeing.

With sustainability and ESG being more prevalent on the Board agenda, what is your business doing to meet net zero carbon emission targets by 2050, if not earlier?

Along with other companies in the water sector, Affinity water has committed to delivering net zero operational carbon emissions by 2030 and total net zero emissions by 2045. We have already reduced our emissions by almost 40% since 2015/16 following procurement of a green electricity tariff in 2020. To drive emissions down even further we have a program of actions including reducing energy use, investing in renewable energy generation, changing to electric vehicles for our fleet, planting trees and ‘blue carbon’ seagrass sequestration.

How has your business changed in its approach to employee wellbeing during the pandemic and what will it continue to do more of in the future?

We have definitely focused more on employee wellbeing than before and in particular on employees’ mental health. That has been a very positive move which has been greatly appreciated by our employees and one we will continue and do more of in the future.

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

Greta Thunberg. What a brave and impressive young person. She has (rightly) called out world leaders and business leaders for not doing enough, fast enough to save our planet for future generations and had a massive impact on getting that message across.

Lots of people took up new hobbies in 2020. Have you learnt a new skill or taken up a hobby during the pandemic and will you continue with it?

Unfortunately not. I found myself busier than ever and probably spent less time on hobbies than before. I now need to get back into the gym and work off a few excess pounds to make up for that!  It was good to have my son back home with us this past year though as he completed his university work from home.

Have you booked your 2021 holiday(s) yet?

Yes, just this past weekend.  2 weeks in Spain in August. I’m hoping to catch up with some friends out there and very much looking forward to sun, sea and sangria.   😊

Any words of wisdom?

I still love the words of Darwin, which are probably more applicable now than ever.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”