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Can a company be happy? Bristol Water, and our purpose in society

Ask people what they get the most satisfaction from at work and hopefully the answer isn’t just “getting paid” – that is important and working without pay is something that is pretty demotivating – working in the public sector with the Government shut down like it has been in the US can’t go on for long. Getting paid for work, and rewards such as bonuses or overtime for extra effort should be basic expectations.

But they are not enough to enjoy our labours – what we need to be happy at work will vary by person, but will probably depend on making other people happy – the people we work with, and our customers. Doing something that has a lasting value helps as well – I can see the Clifton Suspension Bridge from the Bristol Water offices – an iconic example for an engineer, but also for those who financed it, helped build it and look after it today.

I think the same applies to an organisation as a whole, and not just us as individuals. A happy organisation is one where the people working there share a purpose, one that goes beyond money or financial incentives. Social enterprises are usually set up with a specific purpose in mind, but I think it applies to all businesses – an organisation that wants to thrive in the long run needs to be happy, and have a lasting positive impact for its customers and society as a whole.

So what do business leaders have to do to create a happy, thriving company? At Bristol Water we have been focusing on three things. First, we recognise the importance of the culture and values of the people who work at Bristol Water. Our people take pride in their work, and care about the wider impact they have on the communities that they serve. Second, we reflect what matters to the people who work at Bristol Water in the purpose of the company.  Most importantly, we have to be trusted by our customers and the stakeholders that we work with that we will deliver beyond the basic expectations for our water supply and act fairly.

One of the things that inspired our thoughts on the social purpose of Bristol Water is the history of the organisation, and having been established in 1846 we have a lot of history! We’ve been trawling through our company literature from the past – 1974 seems to have been particularly trying. In an effort to protect customers and cope with the inflation turmoil of the time, Bristol Water held off increasing charges and as a result lost money; a challenge set against the wider political context of  a proposal to nationalise the private water companies, which in the end did not proceed due to lack of Parliamentary support.

The recognition of the pressures on society, and how it is the staff who make the difference as part of the local community extends throughout our history. It was always the staff and the community working together to tackle the challenges of water supply and society that prevails. I particularly love the local nature of the publicity campaign for the great drought of 1933, which was commissioned from John Walter, a young cartoonist from Congresbury. The customer segmentation may be quite dated, but the messaging reflected society at the time and was highly effective! The campaign helped to reduce consumption by one-third and avoided the threat of water being shut off overnight.

So, how does this translate to what we are doing today? The people working at Bristol Water feel the same pride and passion today about our social focus as our colleagues did in the past. Just ask our four-legged team member, Jerry Springer, who is always happy tackling water efficiency, plastic pollution and being a friendly face on tour with our Water Bar! Whilst he has perhaps had less success at finding leaks, he is still an important part of Bristol Water (as is Bethan who he works with).

To make sure we stay a happy organisation, we expect to be accountable for delivering our purpose – it is not just what we deliver that matters to our customers and stakeholders, but how we deliver it. This matters for the culture of our company to staff, but is also essential to our legitimacy as an organisation.

There are many shared challenges that society faces, and our plans for the future build on our purpose so that we can deliver our mission – to be trusted beyond the provision of the basic water service that our customers expect. To make sure our purpose has lasting value, we’ve established something called a social contract to embed the social aspects of our purpose within the way we work. We’ve just published an overview of this approach which you can view at www.bristolwater.co.uk/socialcontract . Let us know what you think – as were keen to share ideas and learn from others. We will  be running a number of events to explore this further which will be advertised on our website at www.bristolwater.co.uk/evolutionofthesocialcontract , or take part in our Twitter discussion @BristolWater using #hydrosocialcontract