Three women lying with metal and plastic tape linking their arms. Not a sight many will ever be greeted with on their daily commute to work. Nor would they necessarily want to be.
The women in question were anti-nuclear activists who prevented many workers from accessing Hinkley Point B during a shift changeover back in April. For the plant’s workers this was just the latest of several protests experienced – the inevitable fall-out of working in a controversial sector, and on a plant that, with the recent announcement that Chinese investment in the station will not be ready until 2025, has experienced its fair share of technical and investment setbacks.
You might expect the business behind the plant to feel slightly downtrodden, or at least shy of any further media attention. But this is not the vibe when HR magazine visits EDF Energy’s new training centre Cannington Court, or its headquarters in London to meet the person tasked with rising to the employee morale challenge, chief people officer Janet Hogben.
Of course the activities of EDF Energy (the UK arm of wider group Électricité de France) span much further than the nuclear energy sector. The 7,000 employee-strong generation side of the business consists of 15 established nuclear plants at eight sites in the UK, with a further two new nuclear facilities planned for Sizewell in Suffolk and Bradwell, Essex. But it also owns two coal-fired power stations, a gas-fired power station in Nottinghamshire, and two wind farms, with another 6,000 employees working for the customer supply business.
It’s not only new nuclear sites that present significant employee morale and wellbeing challenges, however. EDF Energy is one of several energy firms currently under scrutiny from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), following its announcement back in July that the ‘big six’ energy companies had collectively charged households £1.2 billion a year more than they would have in a competitive market. The body has suggested implementing a transitional price cap in response.
“Add that to new nuclear and the huge effort that’s gone into bringing that forward, as well as maintaining and hopefully preserving and extending the life of our nuclear plants – and any one of those three is a major challenge,” says Hogben. “You weave that together and it represents a lot of headwind for the business.”
So Hogben and her team are tasked with maintaining strong HR practices in the face of a difficult market. “We have got to cut our cloth according to what we can afford,” Hogben says, matter-of-fact about the scale of the challenge. “The prices we can charge are under enormous pressure, we’re losing market share to the small entrants, and the level of investment required for new nuclear is huge. Even though we’re securing third-party investment from China, EDF will still be taking on the bulk of the cost.
“Then there’s the wholesale price; what we can get for our generated power is much lower than we might have hoped for and is forecast to get worse.”
And yet HR strategy seems strong, with significant activity taking place in a multitude of areas. Most notable has to be EDF Energy’s new multi-million pound off-site training facility Cannington Court, which opened to employees in June. The aim is to simultaneously reduce the cost of on-site or hotel-based training provision while – through pioneering blended learning techniques and creating a peaceful environment conducive to learning – improving the training experience.
“We don’t want to cut training and development,” explains Hogben. “There are some parts of British Energy that ran into difficulty many years ago and one of their responses was to cut costs, including training because it’s an easy target. But it’s then taken 10 years to recover from the impact of that.”
Another notable and highly visible example of proactive HR is the business’s activities around tackling an ageing energy generation workforce and encouraging fresh talent into the energy and engineering sector. “As an industry you think ‘how far back can we afford to go?’ But I’d turn it round and say we can’t afford to do anything other than go deep,” says Hogben, highlighting EDF Energy’s Pod programme, which has so far engaged more than 10 million schoolchildren aged four to 14 on energy, science and sustainability by providing free curriculum-linked activities and materials for teachers.
EDF Energy is also, as you might expect, increasingly active in that perennial quest to get more women into STEM. Hogben is unswerving in her belief in the huge importance of this – and in her defence of the company’s recently launched ‘Pretty Curious’ campaign, whose name came under fire, in the words of the National Centre for Science Education’s Emily Schoerning for doing “more to stereotype girls, to put them in their place, than to unleash their minds”.
“We knew there’d be some people who loved it and some who wouldn’t,” says Hogben. “We did a lot of testing, particularly among the target audience, and we’ve taken the judgement call that it’s the right thing to do because we want to start the conversation.”
Hogben explains that continuing such initiatives will be possible in the face of considerable cost pressures through standardising those operational inconsistencies that have inevitably arisen in a company formed of so many smaller legacy organisations.
“I would say that’s one of the main challenges,” says Hogben, adding: “For example, we have a long trail of training providers that we’re going to try and get into more strategic shape – reduce the price and go to fewer people on a long-term basis. And we want to modernise and upgrade the way HR interacts with its employees; we’re looking to go far more digital.”
Of course not all cost-cutting has innovation silver linings or is pain free. Hogben points to ongoing trade union negotiations regarding pension benefits reform.
However, although not easy, these discussions are benefitting from honest dialogue, she says: “We have annual wage negotiations and these can be pretty feisty. But on this one we approached it in a very open book, transparent way. We were showing numbers that we probably wouldn’t have been historically, to show them this is what we need to do. They are working with us on that and being very helpful and supportive.”
Hogben points to new nuclear trade union relations as another tricky area benefitting from a collaborative approach. “New nuclear has been a particular challenge because we’ve had to mobilise and demobilise a local workforce. That is very challenging. But having said that we’ve done it properly,” she says, adding: “We’ve done things over and above what we needed to do legally to preserve a good employee relations climate. Consultation periods for example: even though we didn’t have to we gave a 45-day period.”
Which brings us back to that sticky area of how to ensure staff don’t become disillusioned by near-constant media scrutiny and criticism. “We put real effort into internal communications and equipping our senior leaders and the people who report to them with the skills to manage communications,” says Hogben. “We see it working by what employees put on annual surveys: they feel engaged, informed, and would recommend this as a place to work.”
Particularly critical here is EDF’s Olympic Games Makers-inspired Company Makers programme, says Hogben, where employees volunteer to learn something new about the business and feed it back to their team upon their return. “We’ve got more than 300 company makers; we invite them to sign up voluntarily for various tasks and one is to get involved with making the case for nuclear,” she explains. She reports that the impact of this and other communications initiatives around the business has been strong, both within the business and beyond, with a recent EDF poll finding 47% of those members of the British general public surveyed supported the development of new nuclear power stations, while 22% opposed this.
“One of the questions on the engagement survey is ‘do you feel able and willing to make the case for nuclear?’” reports Hogben. “And we get a very high rating on that question every year.”