What leaders think
Posted on

The Hoggett Bowers 2 Minute Interview: Sarah Stanton

Sarah Stanton, Chief People Officer, Gas Transmission, National Grid

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

The biggest key learning that I have personally taken away from lockdown was the tremendous value in having leaders really connecting with our employees on a far more regular cadence.  Prior to the pandemic, we used to rely on mostly written communications to convey key messages into the workforce. As soon as lockdown came, we quickly realised our people needed far more frequent communications; a much more personal and intimate approach and more of a dialogue than a top down cascade. The most positive feedback throughout the last year has centred around the far greater accessibility of our senior leadership teams, fronting often difficult questions, not knowing all the answers – but being honest about that – and listening far more to how people are feeling. Long may it continue!

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

We’ve recently restructured the business along business lines, as opposed to having two regions, and so my previous role as the UK HR Director has now changed and I have recently been appointed as the Chief People Officer for our Gas and Metering business.  We are a new leadership team with a new President, and it’s been really good to get to know each other and to start to steer the business as it emerges out of lockdown to deliver its £2bn investment programme over the next five years.

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?

Connecting remotely has been one of the best steps forward we have made during lockdown. Almost overnight, we moved the organisation onto WebEx and Teams and our IT function did a fantastic job in getting us working together effectively.  We have also spent the last few months moving some of our traditional classroom based technical training onto digital platforms. Our senior leaders have also been able to continue to undertake site safety visits remotely using cameras and iPads to connect with our operational teams, to keep them safe from too many in-person visits on site, as they continued to work out in the field throughout the pandemic. It is our intention to continue with these approaches and more, as we move out of lockdown.

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

Our operational colleagues have, throughout the pandemic, continued to work on site, and they represent the majority of our workforce. However, under current Government guidelines, most of our office-based workforce is still working from home. Going forward, having seen some of the benefits of working from home, there’s an opportunity to embed flexible working in a way that removes the stress of choosing between professional and personal commitments, gets the best out of our people, and safeguards wellbeing in the long-term.

We will continue to take our lead from the government’s guidance which currently suggests we can start to move back to some form of safe office working towards the end of June. It’s our intention to encourage a hybrid working arrangement with a mix of home and office working. Ultimately though, it’s all about having those open conversations to find an arrangement that works for both the individual and the business. If you can enable employees to deliver high-quality work, whilst looking after their wellbeing, then that benefits everyone.

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?

As one of the largest investor-owned energy companies in the world, we play a vital role at the heart of a clean, fair and affordable energy future. We’re at the forefront of the UK’s journey to net zero; investing, building and maintaining the critical national infrastructure required to facilitate the transition from traditional to renewable energy. We’re committed to working with government and industry to deliver on the UK’s ten-point plan and climate change targets, the Energy White Paper and to help develop a framework that will support the delivery of these ambitions.

Some of the key initiatives we have underway at National Grid to further reduce emissions across our business include: The conversion of our global fleet to alternative fuel vehicles; a reduction in SF6 emissions (used in high-voltage switchgear and other electrical equipment) and a move to alternatives; increasing energy efficiency and use of renewable energy; and researching hydrogen and renewable natural gas, as well as how we can facilitate their use.

We’re starting to look at how we could introduce hydrogen into our UK gas network. As part of this work, we’re constructing the first of its kind hydrogen test facility. This will be an offline test facility to help us understand how hydrogen gas could be used to heat homes and deliver green energy to industry.

We’re also a principal partner for COP26, the biggest climate summit the UK has ever held – this is a unique opportunity for National Grid to drive more ambitious change towards that clean energy future.

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?

National Grid has had an active interest in supporting the wellbeing of our employees for many years now. However, it’s fair to say that COVID-19 has exacerbated wellbeing issues for many and prompted businesses, like ours, to rethink their approach. Internal communications and e-newsletters, screen savers, town halls, workshops and training sessions have all been crucial to communicating key mental health messages and helping our employees better understand the challenges that exist. What’s key though is that this kind of focus continues post Covid. We will need to look at new areas such as how we support those suffering with Long-Covid, especially as we learn more about the impact, not just physically but psychologically too.

Ultimately, the efforts and the lessons learnt throughout the pandemic now need to be ingrained into workplace culture. Doing so will be critical to morale and performance and should be a priority for any responsible business.

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

A very dear friend of mine has been battling breast cancer during lockdown and is just emerging from her rather gruelling treatment. This year is the 40th anniversary of MacMillan and so she has signed up to undertake a 40-mile sponsored walk to raise £40k for the 40 years MacMillan has been able to support people like herself. I have signed up to walk alongside her to give thanks for the amazing support she has received from them. She has been training hard, despite only recently completing her treatment and I am in awe of her determination to do this, even though I can tell it’s taking real effort.

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?

Even before I signed up to the above event, I have rekindled my love of walking during lockdown, and it’s been an ideal way to stay connected with my friends and to download on our long hikes! I laughed with a friend the other day that it never ceases to amaze me that we never run out of conversation, even when we completed a 4.5 hour 15 mile walk a couple of weeks ago! It’s really done wonders for my mental health during this challenging time.

Have you booked your 2021 holiday(s) yet?

One thing I have missed during lockdown has been my holidays. When I take time off and stay at home, I tend to find myself lots of jobs to do and it’s never really a rest. I don’t usually venture that far, but at the start of this year I booked a break in December 2021 to the Maldives. I wanted to give myself and my two daughters a real treat to look forward to and was hoping that booking for December gave us a fighting chance of actually making it away! Fingers crossed though, given it’s on the red list currently.

Any words of wisdom?

I’m not sure they would be words of ‘wisdom’ – probably just a bit of advice from my own personal experience over the years and especially during lockdown. As a single mum to two daughters and a very busy day job, that seemed to get even busier during lockdown, I heard myself often saying to people to be kind to themselves. Many people faced some significant challenges, especially those trying to home school and work simultaneously. This has tested the resilience of even the most hardy amongst us and it’s OK not to be OK some days – we’ve worked really hard on providing wellbeing support for our employees during this period and the feedback has again been overwhelmingly positive from those who have drawn on that and drawn on each other.