Nearly 2 million people in the United States work in a job related to electric power generation or fuels according to the U.S Department of Energy.
While we often think of police, fire, and medical personnel as first responders, it’s easy to forget that this vast workforce plays a significant role in crisis response, especially after natural disasters. Local energy workers respond as soon as danger has passed, but in disasters that affect larger populations, workers from non-affected areas often assist to ensure resources are restored as quickly as possible. Travel burdens, long shifts, little sleep, and physical labor required as part of the restoration process can create high levels of stress for these employees.
In addition to unpredictable crisis situations, the utilities industry faces unique challenges from deregulation, advances in technology, and a shortage of qualified workers. All of these factors can leave workers feeling high levels of stress. In a recent study, 51% of employees who said they were very stressed at work felt less productive and disengaged. Of those who felt stressed, only nine percent said they were engaged at work.
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With so much on the line, utilities companies are seeking new ways to engage employees and decrease financial repercussions associated with low engagement. While some of the issues they face today are similar to other industries, others are unique to modern energy organizations. The following are four common employee engagement challenges that impact in the utilities industry today.
1. Mergers and acquisitions can negatively impact employee engagement
Given the flurry of mergers and acquisitions within the utilities industry in the last two decades, the increased challenge of engaging employee is no surprise. Acquisitions often generate feelings of distrust and fear among workers. During this period of uncertainty, employees often expend additional time and energy toward feelings of distrust and fear, which means they spend less time and energy on their work. As a result, companies often see decreased engagement.
Transparent and regular communication is key to helping employees feel informed and engaged before, during, and after a major transition or corporate reorganization. Communication is a common challenge during times of change, but regular communication with front line field workers can be especially difficult. Considering many front line energy workers do not have company email addresses, internal communicators are often forced to use methods other than email or the intranet to reach this population of non-desk employees.
2. Technology upgrades demand clear communication
Technology is changing at a rapid pace and the utilities industry is experiencing numerous upgrades across multiple systems. Not only are there pressures from consumers for easier access to their accounts, but distributed energy resources (DERS) like solar power are changing the landscape within the energy marketplace. Additionally, recent events have made smart grid security prevention a high priority for most energy providers. All of these factors mean utilities must be innovative at every level–contact centers, field employees, distribution plants, and leadership teams–to remain agile and competitive.
Innovation can be a challenge for some utilities companies since they have historically been known for slow and top-down decision making. “Internal resistance to change” was ranked as the third greatest obstacle to the evolution of a utility’s business model on the 2017 State of the Electric Utility report.
IT systems integrations often present employee engagement challenges. Once new IT systems are selected to keep a company competitive and innovative, the work to keep employees engaged through the upgrade process is just beginning. Lack of communication and training during software upgrades and implementations can leave many employees feeling left out. Key training documents must be accessible for contact center employees, as well as those in the field, via desktop and mobile devices.
3. Employee engagement is critical to reducing safety incidents
Within the utilities industry, preventable safety violations can cause injuries, vehicular accidents, damage to facilities and infrastructure, or even death. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2016 there were 47 reported deaths in the utilities sector.
Increasing employee engagement is one way to reduce the occurrence of these safety incidents. According to a recent Gallup survey, companies with the highest levels of employee engagement had 70% fewer safety incidents than companies with low engagement levels.
Clear communication and a culture that supports safety management practices is critical to keeping employees engaged and safe while on the job. Safety is also one of the main concerns of energy workers when applying for a new position. A hiring supervisor in an electric company reported that seven out of eight external candidates for a supervisor position asked about the company’s safety record and work practices.
4. Engagement affects employee retention and recruiting
Energy workers retire earlier than their counterparts in other industries due to physical demands of their jobs. Additionally, many experienced workers were lost during recent layoffs, resulting in a knowledge gap that’s tough to fill with an already small pool of available talent. According to a study by Towers Watson, inadequate staffing was the biggest cause of workplace stress cited by employees.
When facing an industry-wide shortage of qualified workers, companies must prioritize engagement to retain existing employees. In response, the industry has put an increased focus on recruitment of future energy workers. Many companies are creating innovative partnerships with vocational schools and colleges to bring new workers into the industry. But recruiting neophyte energy workers will come with its own challenges for leaders. Younger generations want to feel they are part of an organization that supports them, and energy companies will be pressed to adopt culture and engagement strategies that do just that.
Resources to overcome employee engagement challenges
While these challenges may seem overwhelming, the good news is it isn’t impossible to overcome them. In 2007, DTE Energy had some of the lowest employee engagement scores in Gallup’s State of The American Workforce study. Gerry Anderson, CEO of DTE Energy, wanted to change those statistics and made improving employee engagement a priority. As part of his strategy, Anderson worked with his leadership team to improve company culture, promised employees that layoffs would only be considered as a last resort, and worked with union leaders to promote a safe, productive, engaging workplace. By 2017, their engagement scores were some of the highest.
Feel inspired by DTE’s improvements, but are unsure of how to overcome employee engagement challenges in your organization? Here are a few resources to get you started.
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