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Creating positive people and culture outcomes with employee networks

For many organisations, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected employee cohesion and connection. One water utility has addressed this issue through its support of employee-led networks. 

For Sydney Water, the creation of a number of employee-led networks over the past few years has helped to nurture community within the utility, breaking down geographical barriers and supporting equity and belonging.

Sydney Water Diversity and Inclusion Specialist Aoife Kearns, along with some network members, has developed a showcase of some of the organisation’s current employee-led networks for Ozwater’23 in May, providing a snapshot of its current culture initiatives through this lens.

According to Kearns, the networks are the product of passion – either from a single employee or a group of employees.

“A person could identify there is a need through hearing first or second hand about other’s stories. Consultation plays a huge role in this space,” she said.

“[The networks] can form through one employee or a group of employees and expand over time. Each employee-led network has enterprise support to be successful and achieve their agenda.”

The key to the groups’ success, Kearns said, is having employees who are invested in leading in that particular space.

“Lived experience is powerful and true to the description of the term ‘employee-led’; these networks are most successful when led by employees for employees,” she said.

“Sydney Water encourages formation of and supports employee-led networks, knowing the value of lived experience and what it can bring to the organisation through stories and knowledge shared.”

Since the Sydney Water Pride Network was founded three years ago, the utility has seen the formation of a First Nations Network, Women of Water, Virtual Coffee Club, and the Carer Peer Support Network.

“The Sydney Water Pride Network was formed in 2020 by a small group of LGBTQI+ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and others – employees and allies. The purpose was to promote LGBTQI+ inclusion and started meeting informally,” Kearns said.

“Later, a committee was formed with a terms of reference created in 2021. This resulted in a formal Sydney Water employee group, Pride Network, and now this network has a committee. The Pride Network consists of both members of the LGBTQI+ community and allies.”

The terms of reference make it easier for new groups to form, providing clear guidelines for decision-making matrices, and offering people, culture and executive support.

Lockdown lifeline

Sydney Water’s employee-led networks proved to be particularly valuable during the lockdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People needed and nurtured connection. The Virtual Coffee Club was established to encourage and promote social connection during lockdown,” Kearns said.

“Data suggested that this was successful: 89% of participants agreed that it was a good social outlet and 65% agreed that it made them feel less isolated. We found that employees learned more about the organisation through connection and the survey data from this initiative indicates that some people generated innovative ideas too.”

Further data collected by Sydney Water suggests the networks have had other benefits for the utility and its staff, including a sense of connection and support.

“The survey data suggests improvements in the sense of belonging at Sydney Water,” Kearns said.

“Although we cannot directly correlate this to the statistics at this point, it could show contribution toward impact of these groups. As heard through the employee-led network members across our interviews for this project, we are certainly assured employees involved feel better connected and supported.”

Sydney Water also encourages networks to work beneficially among one another, with leaders and relevant areas of the business offering support.

“We are excited to get more collaboration across different networks,” Kearns said.

“Recently, on International Women’s Day, our members of the RAP Committee, Wellbeing Champions, Pride Network and Women of Water supported the delivery of IWD activities.”

Continuing connections

Kearns believes that the relationships formed across the networks makes Sydney Water’s work easier and more efficient.

“Building networks across an organisation like Sydney Water is paramount to achieving our strategic outcome of a high-performance culture so we can create a better life with world-class water services,” she said.

“Building a better life with world class water services starts with building a better life for our employees.

“The core focus to ensuring positive customer delivery is our employees. We should – and do – encourage various ways to support employees to have a positive experience at work where all have the opportunity to thrive.”

That points to a bright future for the place of employee-led networks at the utility.

“We will continue to value and seek ways to advance in the diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging space so we can enable employees to maintain and enhance wellbeing and cohesion,” Kearns said.

“We will continue to grow and adapt in this space so we can meet employee needs and deliver world class water services to our customers and community.”