Scottish Water is a public sector organisation providing water and wastewater services to households and businesses across Scotland.  It employs nearly 4,500 people: approximately 60% work in roles classified as ‘fluid’ meaning they are not tied to one location; 30% in ‘field’ roles (such as attending network repairs or emergencies) and 10% in ‘fixed’ roles (for example in laboratories with specialist equipment). 

 

Supporting work-life balance and employee wellbeing

Scottish Water’s commitment to flexible working began in 2012 as part of their focus on providing an outstanding Employee Value Proposition through promoting a family-friendly working environment that supports work-life balance and employee wellbeing.  Julia Stevenson, Head of Employee Experience, recalls, "We wanted to provide people with more choice and flexibility where possible. Our Director for People, Shirley Campbell, was instrumental in challenging existing practices and questioning why we wouldn’t simply trust people to deliver on set outcomes rather than require presence at desks."

Scottish Water initiated a programme of change that centred on training leaders to lead in an agile way, including how to set performance expectations and ensure wellbeing. Initially some line managers were reluctant to sign up to roles being ‘fluid’ rather than ‘fixed’ but over time they became more comfortable, and all roles were formally classified as ‘fluid’, ‘field’ or ‘fixed’ which ensured that employees could be assigned the appropriate technology for their workstyle.

COVID-19 was a further catalyst for change as Scottish Water realised the potential for greater flexibility in more roles. Contact centre roles, for example, had been viewed as ‘fixed’ but with the aid of technology people in these roles were able to operate successfully on a remote basis during lockdowns and now continue to operate in a hybrid way.  

Defining hybrid working

Scottish Water’s definition of hybrid working is doing the work where the work is best done.  They have established guidelines for both employees and line managers setting out priorities to help them determine the best environment for work:   

  • Firstly, what is the most appropriate work environment for the task? Tasks such as inducting new team members, collaborative activities, and project start-ups, may be better conducted face-to-face, whilst people may be more productive at home for report writing, number crunching. 
  • Secondly, have team requirements been considered? For example, teams with new members may benefit from more time together than more established teams. 
  • Thirdly, consider individual preferences and accommodate these as much as possible. 

Roy Davidson, Waste Water Business Improvement Manager, reports that his team of 54 people have adopted a range of working patterns. Some work from home, others prefer the office to see people or because they want clear separation between their work and home environment. Some have formalised arrangements, to work part-time or condensed hours and others work their hours flexibly.  

Roy says, "It means, as a team, we have good coverage for our core hours, but we also have people working early and late so we can provide an extended service and it also helps me manage flexible phased retirement options. We work on trust rather than formalised arrangements to maintain as much flexibility as possible to accommodate individual needs as they arise. It generates a lot of good will so if there is an operational need I find people are willing to be flexible back. It creates a ‘family’ feel, so if someone wants to start late people rally round to cover any work support needed."

In operational roles and those where specialist equipment or location is critical, line managers still have a conversation about the potential for flexibility with their team to explain why people have different amounts of flexibility in their work and why it is less feasible for some roles.  

Julia says, "We try to be as accommodating as possible within the confines of the role. Laboratory workers, for example, moved to working shift patterns during the pandemic and they have chosen to continue with this - giving them more flexibility and extending operational hours. It helps that we have a strong history of supporting employees and their families when needed and a strong sense of purpose in our organisation."
  
As well as discretionary flexibility, for example, for doctors’ appointments, Scottish Water offers a range of structured support through a dedicated Family, Carer and Special Leave policy, which includes opportunities for career breaks, special leave for family or caring responsibilities, community volunteering, reserve forces or emergency services duties. Shared parental leave is also available.

Promoting wellbeing

Roy asserts that it’s important to be particularly attentive to individuals’ wellbeing when they work remotely because it can be easier for potential issues to be masked behind a screen. He stresses the potential dangers of isolation, particularly for people who are prone to anxiety or mental health challenges, or have physical disabilities that make it harder for them to get out; "People might be quite happy to work from home but it’s important to make sure they have opportunities to spend time with people and don’t become too isolated." 

Listening to and gathering feedback from his team has been helpful in balancing needs whilst optimising the benefits of hybrid working.  Roy says, "We are dispersed across Scotland so face-to-face meetings can involve considerable travel time and costs. We tested out and assessed the benefits of getting together and found for our team it was helpful, particularly for wellbeing, building relationships and the ability to constructively challenge, so we all agreed to meet at least once every couple of months."

Following feedback from new graduates Scottish Water is also arranging more face-to-face opportunities for them, including ‘a day in the life of’ site visits that help them build relationships and also bring the different parts of the organisation to life. 

Repurposing office space

With more employees choosing to work from home a significant proportion of the time, Scottish Water is reviewing the use of its existing office space. They initiated a pilot project at The Bridge office, near Glasgow, redesigning the ground floor to include different zones for different types of work activity. More flexible spaces and new technology were made available for collaboration and connection and quiet zones established for work requiring focus and concentration. 

Following employee feedback from the pilot, Scottish Water is now incorporating activity zones into its Edinburgh office. It also recognises that it doesn’t need as much space as in the past with more people choosing to work from home much of the time. Reviewing this going forward it is considering a wide range of options, including the possibility of community hubs or sharing office space with other like-minded organisations.

Julia reports, "It was clear from the pilot that although people valued the activity zones and improvements to the office environment, the freedom of choice around work location was generally viewed as most important."

Outcomes

Employee engagement remains high. In recent engagement tracker surveys, the ability to work flexibly and the strong focus on employee wellbeing are consistently the most frequent responses to the question “What do we do well at Scottish Water?”

  • 86% employees are proud to work for Scottish Water 
  • 80% would recommend Scottish Water as a great place to work
  • 81% employees feel they have a choice in deciding how to do their work.

Julia states, "It’s been a cultural change driven by a mindset that centres on trust rather than formalising everything. The change has happened over a number of years.  Initially many felt that flexible working practices would be of particular benefit to women but now it is just as common to hear men saying, ‘I’m doing the school run tomorrow so won’t be available first thing’ or ‘I need to take the dog to the vet this afternoon’. People no longer feel they have to be seen in the office to demonstrate commitment or get a promotion."

Moving forward

Ongoing development programmes and skills training continue to embed flexible and hybrid working. Line managers are rated on key behaviours, including demonstrating care for employee safety, health and wellbeing and creating an inclusive environment.  

A ‘strathack’ has been organised, bringing together various employee group representatives from all parts of the business to help shape the next stage of their hybrid futures to support their strategic ambitions.  

Julia says, “We want to consider how we can increase flexibility for field and fixed roles; how we can maintain our cultural identity and the human experience of working together; what our USP is for employees now that other organisations are also offering greater flexibility; and what office space we need and where.  We want to be really bold in our thinking about how we move this forward.”

Scottish Water’s advice for successful hybrid working

  • Don’t lose sight of organisational purpose. Alignment with purpose helps keeps people connected.
  • Trust is a key component. Challenge yourself about why you would want to put in checks and balances around this. Focus on performance and output.
  • Be clear that business requirements and wider team needs must be balanced against individual needs and preferences. Flexibility is a two-way process. 
  • Be aware of the goodwill that you’ll receive from employees – if you are genuinely flexible it pays back in dividends. 
  • Listen to feedback. Our environment is constantly changing so it’s essential to be adaptable.

Acknowledgements

  • Julia Stevenson, Head of Employee Experience, Scottish Water
  • Roy Davidson, Waste Water Business Improvement Manager, Scottish Water 

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