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The Human Touch

Posted on April 28, 2020


dc water

This guest post is by John Lisle, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications at DC Water. LinkedIn | Twitter


The COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously pulled us all apart and thrown us all together.

At DC Water, with the exception of field staff and crews, many of us are sitting in dining rooms and dens, collaborating with coworkers and others only virtually.

Yet somehow within the cadence of the crisis, we are finding ways to connect with one another in a way that is both meaningful – and productive.

dc water workerVoices Through the Water

Like so many first responders, we are putting the Incident Command System to good use, to set clear objectives and make critical decisions. There are detailed discussions on our Incident Management Team (IMT) about every aspect of the current situation, including travel policy changes and emergency procurement; teleworking and rotating shifts; positive test case procedures and enhanced workspace cleaning. 

This is the type of emergency we plan and train for, under the expert guidance of our Emergency Management Office.

But if you listen carefully during the almost daily virtual meetings – as the various operational units report out – you can hear something else seeping into the conversation. Something I would argue is critical to the success of the entire response. 

One of the voices that caught my attention was Kenrick St. Louis, our Director of Pumping Operations.

“’How are you doing? How’s your family doing?’ We humanize the whole thing. It is about the people. If your people are fine they will go the extra mile for you – for everyone.”

Planning, logistics, resources, safety – of course those are all important, but managing your people in a situation like this – where everyone is vulnerable to the virus, where everyone is scared to some degree – is likely the difference between keeping the water flowing to our customers and causing another public health crisis in our city.

“Listening to them, managing their fears, acknowledging it. ‘Nothing is wrong with being afraid. If you’re scared, say that.’”

First Case

The coronavirus arrived at our doorstep on Friday, March 20, when an employee in customer service reported he had tested positive for COVID-19.

Director of Customer Care Carolyn MacKool acknowledged the organization had thought through the mechanics of dealing with their first positive case, but not the human side.

“What I remember was a lot of it was learning on the fly. While we had prepared what to do, we hadn’t prepared how to do it and deal with everyone’s anxiety. Everyone’s going to think they are a close contact, because they are scared.”

MacKool consulted with the Department of Health and determined seven other employees may have been in “close contact” with the confirmed positive individual. Those employees were asked to self-isolate, but in reality, by that time most of the department was already teleworking.

“The first time, the whole concept was new and people were scared about that. But we mobilized quickly, and most people were home,” MacKool added. “While people were nervous, they were home and felt fine. In fact, in the midst of the crisis, my team shined with over half of the close contact employees continuing to work because they wanted to help their team and the Authority.”

The following day, CEO David Gadis moved quickly to notify the entire staff, to ensure they were getting accurate information rather than rumors that might stoke more fears.

Being transparent is important when you need to keep 1,100 employees focused on the critical work of the enterprise.

The Little Things

Almost half of our workforce is now teleworking. Field crews and treatment plant operators are working rotating shifts to reduce risk. There is a lot less face-to-face contact, which presents a challenge for leaders worried about moral and team chemistry. 

To combat that, supervisors and managers say the little things can make a huge difference. Picking up the phone to call team members, for instance, just to check on them, like Kenrick St. Louis does. Or turning on your camera during virtual meetings, and encouraging others to do the same.

Jason Hughes is Vice President of Water Operations, and another of those voices I heard on the IMT calls talking about the human touch. “The first time it happened, {another manager} turned her camera on one day, and I said, ‘No, not doing it.’ Then as we did more online meetings, I said I’m going to give it a go. A few of us turned them on at first, and slowly but surely more people started turning their cameras on.”

But Hughes says the team building efforts in his department didn’t start when the coronavirus struck.

“Most of what we are benefiting from today in respect to engagement and being mindful of the people part, started months if not years ago. We are leveraging relationships now during this stressful part of our lives.”

Close to Home

Those relationships were tested when an employee in Meter Operations contracted COVID-19. It was the third case overall, but the first that impacted field staff. Members of two different units were notified because they had been in close contact with the individual who tested positive.

 “The guys were scared, I am telling you they were downright scared,” remembers Kenrick St. Louis. Several of his team members were notified they should self-isolate. Other employees at the same worksite also worried for their safety.

“The minute it hit home, it was tough,” says Hughes. “We heard about the employee over at Meter Operations who tested positive. Because of how we found out about it, it set off a pretty tense moment. It was rooted in fear.”

Again, communications and compassion helped maintain trust. 

Carolyn MacKool said, “We have made it clear that anyone in our field operations – if you want to take your leave, you can do that. I respect that decision. There won’t be consequences.”

“Through some conversations, and just educating people helped – being honest and open,” added Jason Hughes. “At least three times a day I say it aloud that no one on earth has experienced this. We are making it up as we go along. The small things have gone a long way – if it’s genuine, if it’s a legitimate concern about their welfare. “

Those sentiments were echoed by Kenrick St. Louis.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about whether people trust you. You have to be honest and open.”

dc water is lifeWater is Life

As I write this – knock on wood – DC Water has been extremely fortunate. Fewer than three percent of our workforce has been directly impacted – either tested positive for the coronavirus or come in close contact with someone who has. Absenteeism remains low in all the operational units, and the commitment to the critical work of the utility is impressive.

“I think our people understand the significance of what they are doing. It impacts people,” said St. Louis. “Our purpose is to protect the health and wellbeing of the residents of Washington DC.  Our purpose makes it a personal connection.  Once it is personal we go the extra mile to ensure we serve the residents.”

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