Northern Gas started the year by redefining their dream to ‘become the UKs most loved, admired and respected business’. Fiona Sweeting discusses the measures that have been put in place to ensure this.

When CEO Mark Horsley arrived at NGN in January 2011, he inherited a business operating much as when it was privatised in the 1980’s – and that included the way in which we engaged with our employees. Our engagement scores were just 53% – people didn’t feel that they had a voice. Customer satisfaction scores were equally poor – we were the worst performing gas distribution network operator in the UK.

Since then, our customer satisfaction journey from the worst performing utility to the best is well-documented, winning 11 national awards for our successful journey.

Internally our colleague satisfaction is good, (the latest ICS Serv Check Index score is 72.71 – 7.36 higher than the average all-sector score). However, in our 2015 Climate Survey, colleagues told us that they sometimes felt like the poor relation compared to customer and safety, two of our critical measures. They said there were too many rumours and not enough fact – they wanted more consultation and involvement

So since January 2016, we have been focussing on this feedback and putting our ‘internal customers’ literally centre stage. We analysed what colleagues were telling us about how they felt and we sense checked this in a number of ways.

We started the year by redefining our dream which is ‘to become the UK’s most loved, admired and respected business and to establish a new paradigm for doing business really well through a united and empowered team which is mind-blowingly great’ and then planned how we could bring the dream to life.

We knew that key this was putting people first, transforming our culture and opening up channels of two-way communication, enabling colleagues to have a true voice. Many strands weave together to form NGN’s engagement strategy. Our agile approach to business planning and the hands on approach of our senior leaders means that decisions are taken and actioned at lightning speed.

Over the last year, we have launched a monthly CEO call and live Q&A session. In June, we invited all 2,000 direct and contracted colleagues to the NGN Bounce – an ideas and problem sharing session chaired by our CEO at the Baltic art gallery in Gateshead. A hundred colleagues were randomly selected to attend. The third and most recent NGN Bounce proved so popular that we increased our numbers so that 150 colleagues could attend. They have driven through significant changes, particularly around terms and conditions.

We have initiated a piece of work called ‘1000 Conversations’ – in which 1:1 conversations take place with colleagues about what matters to them. These are reported back directly to the CEO. The conversations are private and confidential, but we are able to trend the feedback.

In Spring 2016, we refreshed our Colleague Involvement Group and now have 17 colleague representatives on the group, representing our colleagues. This is a further opportunity for colleagues to have a voice about the business and our future.

We also held the first ever NGN Family Day, inviting ALL colleagues and their families to attend; kicked off weekly Join the Discussion debates around a diverse range of business and industry topics, inviting ALL colleagues. And finally, we are updating our workplaces so that colleagues have the right environment to give their best.

As a result we’ve seen a massive increase in visibility of what’s important to both our colleagues and the business. We use agile boards to track progress, identify blockers and provide transparency of ownership. Our CEO and his Directors even have their own Board, affectionately called BOB – Board of Boards – their Board is all about colleague focussed issues. Whilst there is obviously a financial angle to all things, they try to always consider the personal impact on colleagues first.

Mark also made a fundamental change to his meeting structure. Whilst considering what a conscious business was, he has refocused his traditional meetings. The leadership team regularly meet and the items discussed are only people related. The hard edged business/governance issues are now far more focussed with a reduced leadership team.

Helping with this, Directors have each adopted a depot; spending more time getting to know colleagues who work out of that depot, trying to get under the skin of what’s important to them. Along a similar theme, we held a business wide safety tour recently – Directors and other Senior Managers went out and about engaging with colleagues but the only question asked was “what does safety mean to you?” The next similar day addressed the question “what does being healthy mean to you”?

Creating more and better channels for our colleagues to have a voice in NGN has been at the heart of our work and progress since the beginning of 2016 – although it’s not a project! NGN’s style is to bring about change through a range of interventions driven by our people, which complement and build on each other to create a momentum which keeps the ball rolling.

Business results are easy to see. We are top of the gas distribution networks leader board for efficiency; we are currently 2nd in the customer league table; and based on accident frequency rates we are top for safety performance. All of this is underpinned by our stakeholder engagement; our people listening to the people that we impact. This supports everything that we do and helps us to continue to deliver excellent customer service and set the future direction for our business.

Not so easy to demonstrate is the colleague engagement score. Honestly? That is a really difficult question for us to answer. Our preference is to steer away from the ‘point in time’ all colleague surveys. Rather we want to develop more agile ways to gather quantifiable and qualitative data. We have much anecdotal feedback suggesting that our colleagues feel a lot happier at work and that discretionary effort is on the increase. But is that enough? Probably not.

The independently conducted April 2016 Institute of Customer Service (ICS) survey showed our colleague engagement has risen 0.36 points since 2013 and that we continue to perform beyond the utility sector (3.54 points higher) and UK industry as a whole (5.05 points higher).

What we do know is that the journey we have started doesn’t have an end, like any good walk, we want to keep going; we don’t often look backwards, always striving to conquer the next challenge ahead of us.





Fiona Sweeting is Colleague Engagement Director at Northern Gas Networks and will take up this role fulltime in late 2017. Having qualified in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management at the LSE, Fiona has more than 25 years’ experience in HR, including roles at HSBC, 7 years as Head of People Resources at first direct , and 10 years as a freelance HR professional. She is passionate about delivering a world class colleague experience and believes that colleague engagement is critical to achieving this.