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Engagement at Hydro Ottawa

Friday February 20, 2015 Written by 
Hydro Ottawa’s commitment to engaging its workforce is helping the organization attract new talent and retain skilled older workers at or near retirement. 

The utility provider is responsible for electricity distribution, renewable energy generation and energy conservation and management services across a service area totaling 1,104 km2. To meet the needs of its 319,500 residential and commercial customers, Hydro Ottawa relies on a team of 700 employees dedicated to the organization and its objectives.
A vision for managing talent
Hydro Ottawa defines an engaged employee as one who is satisfied, committed to the organization and contributing to its overall productivity. Its talent management strategy reflects this by offering a number of programs designed to contribute to the satisfaction, commitment and productivity of staff throughout the employee life cycle.
“When we launch programs we always align them to our talent management strategy, and we always communicate that so it’s known throughout the organization, but there certainly is a bigger focus with supervisors and managers,” says Lyne Parent-Garvey, chief human resources officer with Hydro Ottawa.
Each year, executives and management get together to review the organization’s strategic direction and discuss ways to align its talent management strategy with this strategic direction. After initial discussions at this high level, work begins on developing programs and larger initiatives to meet the organization’s goals. “The first thing we do is we research and we benchmark,” Parent-Garvey says. “We make sure that everything we do is evidence-based. Then we get extensive employee feedback; this can be through focus groups, through formal working groups, through employee surveys – whatever is appropriate for the program. Then we roll out the program using a very planned communication approach."
Connecting across the organization
In some instances programs have emerged more organically, evolving in response to employee feedback. One such example is the popular “Breakfast with Bryce” program that gives employees from across the organization an opportunity to meet in small groups with Hydro Ottawa president and CEO Bryce Conrad. During these meetings, which are held once a month, employees are encouraged to ask questions and raise any concerns they may have.
“Our approach to Breakfast with Bryce has always been starting with the most senior employees and working our way down,” Parent-Garvey says. But when recent hires took to the organization’s intranet, noting they had yet to have an opportunity to be part of these meetings, the human resources department took another look at this system and decided a new approach was in order. “What we’re going to do now is we’re going to have one month where we’re going to work down a list from the more senior employees and then the next month we’re going to work up from a list of the more junior employees so that it’s more balanced. This will give the CEO a balanced perspective, and give the employees access to Breakfast with Bryce, which is one of our very popular programs."
When it comes to responding to this type of employee feedback, Hydro Ottawa’s size is a definite advantage that allows the organization to adapt quickly. Just a month after newer hires noted the drawbacks of how the Breakfast with Bryce program was delivered, staff are already implementing changes to the program.
Hydro Ottawa’s social intranet has had other important impacts on employee engagement too. A dedicated “Innovate” section of the site encourages employees to share their ideas on what the organization can do differently, and “Ask Bryce” gives all employees the opportunity to pose questions to their CEO. Parent-Garvey credits the intranet with connecting the organization’s leaders to frontline employees “hour-by-hour and day-by-day.”
“We’re an organization of about 700 employees, so we’re a big family. People feel comfortable in sharing what their thoughts are and they’re very proud of their work and proud of their company,” Parent-Garvey says.
Retaining skilled senior staff
In the mid-2000s, Hydro Ottawa realized a serious problem loomed in the not-so-distant future: many of the utility provider’s skilled tradespeople were preparing to retire, and there weren’t enough younger workers trained up and ready to take their places.
It takes five years for an apprentice to complete the training required to become a journeyperson able to fulfill the critical skilled trade positions that allow Hydro Ottawa to serve its customers. This is a problematic proposition for an organization in which approximately 40 per cent of the workforce will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years. To avoid a talent crunch resulting from the oncoming wave of retirements, Hydro Ottawa has implemented a talent management strategy that aims to keep experienced workers in the workforce longer, while actively recruiting and investing in the next generation of workers who will help the organization thrive.
“We realize that if we can keep the experienced workers there longer – six more months, one more year – then we’ve done a really good thing for the organization and for the employee,” Parent-Garvey says.
To that end, the organization launched Prime Time, a program designed to aid in the retention of workers at or nearing retirement. Prime Time is a multi-faceted program with initiatives that run the gamut from children’s holiday parties that welcome older employees’ grandchildren alongside the children of younger workers, awards recognizing length of service in five year increments, pre-retirement planning programs to assist employees through the financial and psychological transitions of retirement, and a resource pool that allows retirees to return to work on a short-term and often part-time basis to address peak demand and continue the all-important knowledge transfer to less experienced workers. Parent-Garvey says the program has been a win-win for employees and for Hydro Ottawa.
“What we’ve found is our employees are retiring usually about two years after their date of eligibility. The average age of retirement is now 59 versus 57,” she says. Keeping these highly trained employees engaged in the workforce allows Hydro Ottawa to continue reaping the benefits of the approximately 40 hours of training it invests in each employee every year.
All of the organization’s engagement and retention efforts appear to be paying off. Hydro Ottawa’s resignation attrition rate was 2.6 per cent in 2014, and 2.05 per cent in 2013.
“We can only be successful as a company and achieve our strategic objectives if our employees are engaged,” Parent-Garvey says. “We tie engagement to recruiting, to developing and to retaining employees."

Three tips to engage workers

1. Invest in professional development.

“We have development programs and on average we invest over 40 hours per employee annually in training, and in three specific categories of training: trades and safe work practices, business skills, and management and leadership development,” Parent-Garvey says. “We offer full tuition reimbursement and opportunities to join industry committees and professional associations."
2. Align programs with employee values.

“Our culture is based on values,” Parent-Garvey says. “The employee volunteer day is very important because it’s all about giving back to the community and being a good neighbour. Those are they types of things that really attract employees and make them decide to stay with an organization. The younger generation of workers especially is very focused on volunteering and giving back. They’re looking for a values-based organization – one that walks the talk."
3. Think beyond retirement.

“We recognize that people are going to retire and we want them to stay connected to our organization,” Parent-Garvey says. “We have a program for hiring overlaps, which assists with the transfer of knowledge for specialized positions. We have a retiree-centered celebration for the employees who have retired in a given year… That’s a huge success. It’s intimate, you get to bring a guest, and it’s a great evening."

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