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Sydney Water Social Ecosystems - Fostering Connection and Belonging

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Benjamin Harris is an Operations Analyst in the Customer Hub at Sydney Water. When the Covid-19 lockdowns happened, Ben set up a virtual coffee club so staff could feel connected online while isolated from in-person social activities. Jo Taranto sat down with Benjamin during Ozwater’23 in Sydney last year to discuss the virtual coffee club.

Back in 2020, the entire world faced the then unknown problem of COVID-19. Australia went into lockdown as a safeguard due to exponential growing cases while employers faced a difficult task of transitioning from in-person office environments to working remotely full-time. Benjamin Harris sought to create a virtual coffee club to enable social meets while working from home and he joins Jo Taranto to discuss the program and how it’s taken a new life.

You experienced covid lockdowns at your employer, tell us what happened?

I think it's a similar story for a lot of people, suddenly we were all working at home for the very first time [and] we were trying to figure out how do we do our jobs and nowadays we seem to have all these systems to stay in touch with people and stay connected even when we're physically at home but at the time we didn't! We didn't have those systems yet and so what I set up at Sydney Water was the ‘virtual coffee club’, where you could join and each week, you'd be paired with someone new to chat to. It was an early attempt to not be socially isolated.

How many people signed up initially when you flagged it with them

It was small initially but grew over time through word of mouth, our company’s social media and in that time, some people leave, new faces come in, it's been consistent and maintaining that level for the last three years is an interesting thing because when the lockdowns stopped and people have eased back to flexible work, the coffee Club has continued.

Why do you think that is?

We still have that need for social connection. We surveyed Members of the virtual Coffee Club and the benefits they talked about were breaking out of their silo’s and understanding other parts of how Sydney Water works. For some, it sparked collaboration and ideas from random pairings and conversations.

What did Sydney Water think of this idea?

They were very supportive, they said “yes, this is a great idea, go for it” and so I launched it and for two years I ran it on my own and kept it all going it and it's now been handed over to a group of volunteers. We've got a group called The Wellbeing Champions at Sydney Water, one of our employee networks who are passionate about wellbeing and so they're the people who run it now and they've kept it going.

You mentioned that there are other employee networks at Sydney Water, can you give us an idea of what some of those are and what are the benefits of having these sorts of groups?

We have amazing groups that are almost always started by employees in a particular group e.g., we’ve got the pride network which represents the LGBTIQ+ community of Sydney Water and allies. We've got the Women of Water as well who have run some amazing events including for International Women's Day. We've also got the First Nations employee network as well and all these groups have been positive so there's huge benefits to well-being. If you feel like I'm the only indigenous person in my team or I'm the only gay person in my team and then to find out that there's a whole network of [people like] you and you can connect with them and talk to them and so there's that boost of pride, confidence and also kind of a sense of activism in that people wanted to wanted to make a change.

Why do you think diversity and inclusion is important for the water sector?

It’s important, we should be respecting and valuing all people, but from the water industry, we have huge challenges, and we have huge aspirations and to do that, we need we need to be working together. We can't leave people out, we can't be exclusive, we need to be inclusive by allowing everyone to sit at the table and share their ideas.

Thank you to Benjamin Harris and Jo Taranto.

Season 7, United by Water is proudly sponsored by Schneider Electric.

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