For Denver Water “Business as Usual” is the Goal During COVID-19

    By: Ellen Lichtenstein, Senior Marketing Communications Manager, Vertafore; PRSA Colorado Communications Committee Member

    Denver Water is Colorado’s oldest and largest water utility, but that does not mean it is living in the past. In fact, the organization is forward-thinking and proactive, according to media spokesperson and PRSA member Jose Salas. Salas says Denver Water employees have been leveraging technology to conduct business long before COVID-19 became an issue. That’s why, when it made the decision to move any employees with the ability to work remotely to full-time remote work in early March, the company was able to quickly and effectively do so without interrupting business.

    It was no small feat, but the IT team got over 50% of employees set up to work fully remote within a matter of days, while still supporting the needs of the utility’s many remote sites that continued to operate. Thanks to systems and practices already in place, Denver Water staff who normally work together in an office setting were well-equipped to work remotely. The health and safety of employees was the number one factor in this decision, Salas says. Safe and healthy employees are vital for the public utility to continue providing high quality water to the residents of Denver and surrounding areas.

    With the first priority taken care of, Salas and the Denver Water communications and public affairs team had their work cut out for them. The two major challenges they faced as the COVID-19 situation unfolded were assuring customers of continued water safety and engaging employees without in-person contact.

    “We knew that the water quality would not be affected,” says Salas. “Our normal process would take care of any bacteria or viruses, including COVID-19. But we needed to continually reassure our customers.”

    Denver Water’s primary external messaging - through channels such as its website, blog, and social media - switched from regularly scheduled topics to stories that emphasized the work being done to provide uninterrupted access to high-quality drinking water to customers.

    From the employee side, Salas says one of the biggest changes has been maintaining effective communication from leadership while many employees are in a remote setting. Prior to COVID-19, in-person communication played an important role throughout the organization. Now, the communications team must find new ways to engage with workers who have access to technology all day and those who don’t. Another challenge was finding a balance between operational updates and communications about the health and well-being of employees and their family members—without overwhelming employees as well as their inboxes. So, while communication has become more frequent it also has become clearer and more concise than ever before.

    One positive impact from the shift to a more remote workforce has been seen in employee engagement through distributed storytelling. Instead of having a member of the public affairs team travel to report and record stories from the field, they now rely on employees across locations and roles to capture media and share what’s happening with the rest of the company. Salas says his team requests specific types of content from the rest of the workforce and then receives photos, videos, and stories back electronically.

    “Employees enjoy seeing their contribution in the final product, plus it’s a fun process for the company, and now everyone has more insight into what Public Affairs and Communications functions do here,” states Salas.

    Denver Water provides a great example of what proper planning can achieve. Although a global pandemic may not have been on their list of likely crises, Salas says the utility has long been preparing for any number of situations that could interrupt their workforce and service. Thanks to their commitment to crisis communications and business continuity planning, Denver Water has been a true success story during the switch to remote and socially distanced work.

    Salas notes that the added flexibility in his role, for example, being able to conduct interviews via Zoom, has been a positive. On the flip side, one of the cons has been dealing with the large variety of preferred video conferencing platforms when dealing with media and other contacts outside of Denver Water.

    So, as the world enters its fourth month of lockdown, quarantine, and limited in-person interaction, customers of Denver Water can rest assured that their faucets will keep running with the same high-quality drinking water they’ve come to expect. Because, while not much can be considered “business as usual” during these times, Denver Water can proudly claim that is exactly what its customers will get.

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