Management from a distance

Management of workers in remote and regional locations calls for special skills, as Susan Bower reports.

THE management of remote and regional workers extends far beyond making adequate relocation arrangements from head office.

The potential for recruitment and support errors is high and both can cost an employee and a company dearly.

For telecommunication services and power providers, any breakdowns in the ability of personnel to deliver can result in major public inconvenience and corporate embarrassment.

Rural and regional personnel management goes much further than having official recruitment, relocation and support service policies and processes in place, Western Power Regional Branch manager Mike Laughton-Smith says.

Western Power has more than 100 employees working in rural and regional WA, at locations that fall outside the interconnected power systems.

The majority of Western Power’s regional leadership personnel have also worked in regional locations, and this is a good thing, Mr Laughton-Smith advocates.

Knowing what it is like from personal experience, speaking the same language as those located a long way from head office, and understanding the urgency of issues that arise are essential to good management, Mr Laughton-Smith says.

This management can remain effective even when the inevitable gaps in the best-planned systems become evident.

The urgency aspect of major remote and regional workforce management is related to ensuring optimum conditions to keeping a worker able to perform his or her role within the company.

Not only might a company want an employee to move to a rural area – it needs the employee to be happy there.

Western Power encourages employees to look at a rural placement from an opportunity perspective – adventure, excitement, the chance to explore and experience different seasons – rather than to approach it from a medium-term endurance exercise.

Money is a primary motivator, in the first instance, to get employees to move to a regional or remote location, but broader support needs must be met over the long term.

Additional leave is offered to those going to the harshest environments, and annual return travel to Perth for families relocated above the 26th parallel is provided.

Family relationships are given high priority by Western Power.

“If the employee goes home and finds his or her family or partner unhappy, the employee is likely also to be unhappy at work the next day”, Mr Laughton-Smith said.

Hence, family housing, medical, education and professional needs need to be taken into account.

Western Power provides information on locations to assist families in making their decisions and, in some cases, will support a family to visit an area first, to identify housing preferences.

Some towns even provide orientation for new families moving into the area.

Even then, expectations may not always be met, or a family’s circumstances and associated needs may change, meaning extra support is required, or another relocation.

Employee assistance programs and professional service support offered to Western Power metropolitan employees are also made available to those in rural and regional areas.

Head office management and support services visit at least once each year, to make face-to-face contact, to ensure employees do not feel cut off from the organisation, or to conduct workshops or health screenings.

Health, relationship, financial and bereavement issues are all catered for on a needs basis, and employees are encouraged to flag issues that could affect their ability to work.

This arrangement pays off for both the employee and Western Power.

“In regional areas, the line between work and home is very blurred when you are Western Power in a particular town or centre,” Mr Laughton-Smith says.

Issues with moving on also need to be managed.

Promotional opportunities elsewhere, the availability of appropriate positions back in Perth, equity access for such positions, and keeping skills up to date are issues not unique to Western Power employees who need or wish to return to Perth, or to relocate elsewhere, for whatever reason.

For many employees, who have had to be multi-skilled in their regional positions, the opportunities to officially represent the company, the need for a company vehicle, and a possible higher level of authority can all come to an abrupt end when a suitable relocation position is not a comparable one.

But at the moment Western Power is also facing regional and rural employee redeployments and possible redundancy issues.

Ahead of major restructuring at head office level next year, Western Power is already addressing the needs of employees in regional locations, where the utility is negotiating private power procurement arrangements.

As a result of the regional power procurement process, Western Power is closing down old diesel power stations, and 55 personnel will be affected.

There will not be the same type of work available within the organisation for all of these people, and for those with specific diesel skills, perhaps not anywhere else, either.

With the Esperance contract to Burns & Roe Worley already well advanced, Western Power has already begun to address these issues, with help from outside professional services.

Personnel are being assisted through the process of working towards new careers and all that this entails, and some have been allowed to move on even before their positions were to be terminated.

As with all other regional and rural management issues, Mr Laughton-Smith says: “You have to be flexible, in spite of processes.”

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