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Zoé Lewis Interviews Neil Morrison

Severn Trent caught our attention when they announced that they had made the decision not to furlough colleagues nor make redundancies and committed to a three-year pay award, in addition to paying people’s bonuses.

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Those are bold and engaging statements to make during a challenging time.

In this blog, Director of Coaching Zoé Lewis shares her conversation with Neil Morrison, HR Director at Severn Trent and asked him about their response to the impact of COVID-19 on its business.

ZL: Tell us about Severn Trent’s service and the current situation with COVID-19.

NM: We provide an essential service; clean drinking water and processing of wastewater. As an essential service provider, we continue business during lockdown and social distancing. We provide a service through our people who serve residential customers, hospitals, care homes and others in our communities.

We can’t serve our customers without our employees, so we make sure our colleagues feel safe, well, motivated and energised, so they can best serve our customers. There is a harmonious relationship between our employees and customers. 95% of our colleagues are also our customers; they live in and are part of the communities we serve.

ZL: What are your leaders' guiding principles in making decisions during this time?

NM: As we entered lockdown, we set out 4 key principles to help us make decisions:

1. Protect our colleagues' health and well-being – including their finances.

2. To stand on our own two feet – without government support, to enable those that need the support to benefit from it.

3. Create long-term value in the business.

4. Maintain the Severn Trent culture, focusing on our social purpose and doing the right thing.

As we provide critical national infrastructure, we train for incident management on a regular basis and have strong protocols for how we manage situations, from a small burst through to a major incident such as this.

We also have a cross-functional team that is set up to oversee the situation. When it comes to decisions, the relevant functional leader will propose guidance on the way forward. For example, the HR lead will provide guidance on sickness absence during this time. However, no two situations are the same, so the guidance is just that; guidance and contextual decisions are made based on that guidance and our organisational culture and values. Our managers, therefore, have guidance for consistency but also flexibility and are empowered to make the right decisions in the context of a situation.

ZL: How are you supporting your people at all levels, from the leadership team to the frontline?

NM: Broadly, our workforce is split into two communities; our people in the field and those who would often be based in our offices, who are mostly working from home now.

The needs of those people vary, so for the frontline teams, it’s been considering PPE, health and safety, social distancing measures, as well as things such as signage to show people what they are working on (our teams have met with resistance where the public sometimes assume the work is non-essential).

The home working population also face challenges, such as working from home with partners and children. This can mean juggling the role of parenting, homeschooling and enabling patterns of work that are flexible. We have also made sure that all colleagues have the mental health and well-being support they need.

A specific activity we undertook was to ask people to self-identify if they had a vulnerability or if someone in their house had a vulnerability. We had around 900 people come forward with concerns. We talked to each and every one of them to put a personal plan in place around their unique requirements and needs.

Communication has also been essential; we’ve considered the right time and the right information. By doing this, we have prevented the rumour mill from taking over. It’s been a gargantuan effort from HR and our line managers to make sure our employees feel safe and well.

ZL: What lessons have you learned along the way?

NM: A lot of the impact in this situation has been psychological rather than physical, so it’s been about psychological safety – that has been an interesting lesson – all the things that we normally do in the business-as-usual situation, has been paid back during this time. People have gone over and above, and that’s because people believe that we have their back – we have given them that psychological safety in the time before Covid-19.

We’ve had to work in ways in which we haven’t before, some of that is home-working and flexible working, however, remember that 50% of our workforce are not at home or in contact centres. So we have had to flex how we manage in different ways; we have had to think about how we make decisions and how we communicate with different people in different ways.

It’s also about inclusion; everyone is experiencing this in a different way. Some people may be at home, with family, others alone, feel safe, feel worried, etc. The relationship and management of each individual are essential.

Interestingly, we noted higher attendance than before Covid19. We monitored absence on a daily basis over this time. We saw a rise in anxiety at the start of this, which manifested itself with an increase in people self-isolating. What we are seeing now we’ve communicated is that we have higher attendance than we did before Covid19!

That, for me, is a massive reflection on the culture of the organisation – the way people feel and want to contribute and share what we’re doing!

ZL: What have you been doing to look after yourself throughout this?

NM: In reality, not as much as I should have done! I am getting my one bit of exercise a day, a daily walk and having a laugh with my daughter.

One of the things that is fabulous is that we have a great work culture; lots of laughs, communication, calls, and I work with a lovely bunch of people.

The other point I’d make here is that executives are paid well, and they get a lot of privileges in their roles. This is where they need to step up and show leadership and so it should be harder than a normal week at work. Sharing that workload amongst the executive team has also been important.

ZL: We are hearing that many HR teams are feeling exhausted and at capacity during this time, how are you finding that?

NM: One of the great things about the incident protocol is that we run it as a marathon rather than a sprint. So, for example, we rotate my senior HR team onto the incident for a week at a time; that way, they get 4 weeks off before going back on.

We plan for this in the protocols so we prevent burnout in some situations by rotation.

ZL: What 3 tips would you share with other HR Directors about leading through these uncertain times?  


1. Plan for the long term when dealing with uncertain times. Control what you can and think long-term.

2. Live the core values and be congruent with them.

3. Talk to people – share the load, work with and use your network, both internally and externally.

ZL: What do you think will change for HR Professionals going forward?

NM: It will be interesting to see what happens after this. HR Professionals may start asking:

· What does it mean for organisational culture?

· How will this impact upon societal fairness and social equity?

· How will people look at organisations after this?

· What does it mean for executive reward and dividends?

· What do we do to rebuild economy and society?

We will be judged by how we have dealt with people.

I think there is a likelihood that there could be significant unemployment on the back of this. We will need to consider how we create good quality jobs and also what that means in terms of fairness of reward between higher and lower paid jobs.

As organisations we will be considering how we support the communities we are part of, both financially and in other support we can provide.

Ultimately strong guiding principles and social purpose of organisations will help guide the move forward.

ZL: Thanks Neil, you have shared some excellent insights into how Severn Trent are responding to and planning forward around the challenges presented by Covid19. We are sure that these will be helpful to readers and thank you for your time.

NM: It’s my pleasure. Stay safe.


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