Keeping the water running in lockdown

A virtual Scottish Water appointment

THE fact that everyday tasks such as visiting a supermarket have now been rendered into daunting, and potentially dangerous, experiences perhaps exemplifies the job that key workers are doing whilst the nation is being blighted by Covid-19. 

One organisation providing essential services is Scottish Water.

“Ultimately, the key focus of ourselves within this pandemic is to ensure that we keep the water flowing and the waste water services going for our customers across the country because the service we’re providing is vital to people’s daily lives,” Alan Thomson, head of corporate relations at Scottish Water, told Project Scotland.

The corporation’s capital programme was paused in line with the lockdown restrictions commencing in March, with Scottish Water putting ‘complete focus’ on essential operational tasks only. Some 140 employees now operate a 24/7 digital contact centre from their home. However, a large part of the workforce are considered key workers and thus are still on the ground working in Scottish Water plants or operating on call for any customer issues.

Alan told of the ‘extensive’ work done with government and health professionals to ensure that such workers are being given the best advice and knowledge available on how to keep themselves and others safe, as well as ensuring PPE is always made available.

“The key thing is to make sure that people feel safe doing their job. Make sure we’re adhering to all the rules and regulations that have been put down by the government and, to date, we’ve had an excellent response in regards to people doing their role right across the company,” Alan added. He continued by telling of the compassion that has been shown to customers by individuals in such a difficult time. In one instance, during a call to a  99-year-old woman’s property, it was discovered that her issue was within her own plumbing system and therefore the job of a plumber. Knowing that they could rectify the problem, and not wanting the woman to put herself at further risk through more people visiting her house, the Scottish Water team fixed it themselves.

Alan added that one interesting case study during lockdown was a job that required the hiring a boat – no mean feat in the middle of a pandemic – in order to reach a customer whose water supply was cut.

“The feedback that we’ve had from customers has been really, really great,” he said. “I think that has meant a lot to people. It gives people recognition, but also it’s just nice to hear that someone values a job you’re doing.”

An additional safety measure Scottish Water has undertaken, is the creation of a WhatsApp point of contact. The free social media application allows for people to engage in instant chats with Scottish Water employees. This allows for it to be determined whether or not it is safe for a team to visit the customer, and also if the customer themselves can be spoken through the steps to amend their problem.

“The WhatsApp system has been going really well,” Alan explained. “Some people said that they had symptoms, so what we had to do was look at how we could provide the service to them in different methods if we can’t physically get into their house.”

He continued by telling of the additional importance put on ensuring mental wellbeing amongst all staff, particularly that of those no longer in their usual routine and social space within the office. The organisation has ran a wide range of activities centred around communication, mental health and wellbeing and also on how best to operate as a team now that colleagues are working remotely.

On the social media side of things, Scottish Water ramped up its campaign to educate people on the harm that flushing items down toilets can cause. At the beginning of the lockdown, when seeing toilet roll on supermarket shelves was a rarity, the potential for items such as wipes or kitchen roll being flushed meant that there was a high risk of blockages – which would thus take workers away from other essential jobs.

“One of the things that we’ve been doing over the last while, is pushing out campaigns. We get sewer blockages. At the start of this, people were running out of toilet roll and maybe put other things down the toilet which caused blockages, which A) disrupts customers, and B) means that we have to go out and unblock chokes. So we ran a lot of social media campaigns about the water cycle, what not to put down a toilet and that type of thing; all of these things are to help customers and make sure priority services were getting promoted for customers.”

Alan said steps are now being taken to look into the possibility of slowly resuming Scottish Water’s capital programme, with essential work within it being considered for a restart. This, he said, will all depend on government advice.

The lockdown measures across the board will be lifted eventually, and looking at organisations such as Scottish Water, who have worked through the lockdown, perhaps gives us an indication of what a return to work will be like for non-essential services, with it not yet clear just how long social distancing measures will need to be adhered to.