Four years ago, when I last chatted with Joone Kim-Lopez, the Moulton Niguel Water District’s general manager, salaries weren’t a big workplace workplace issue and nobody knew what coronavirus was.
Times have changed, but the water district still ranks as one of Orange County’s top workplaces.
Moulton the Moulton Niguel provides water and wastewater treatment services to approximately 170,000 customers in South County, including cities of Aliso Viejo, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Hills, Mission Viejo, Dana Point, and San Juan Capistrano. The water district has been honored six consecutive years in the Top Workplaces program.
Lopez, a former Pasadena policewoman, has been the district’s leader for a decade now. She admits the pandemic that forced her office staff to work remotely for roughly a year in addition to economic swings and sky-high inflation changed how she manages the workplace with 163 employees.
Lopez shared with us how she’s meeting the 2022 workplace challenges. The Q&A has been edited for brevity …
Q. How tough is it to keep a happy workplace when people are well aware there’s someone down the street paying more?
A. We go through life experiences. We have a certain way of looking at the world and thinking about expectations. I had to completely reshuffle all that because the world is changing. Not just the pandemic, but social unrest and Black Lives Matter to this very polarization of politics. There is a collective anxiety and angst. We’re all altered and affected by what has happened.
And because of that, I really became more about understanding and being very in tune with feelings, because people need a lift. People need to feel hopeful. People need to feel relevant.
Money isn’t everything but the cost of everything goes up. And there’s competition for talent. How do we stay competitive as a utility? It’s new new territory.
Q. Some people are quitting for a bigger paycheck. Other people – the so-called “quiet quitters”– say, “Hey, if the boss ain’t gonna pay me, I’m gonna check in at 9:01 and out at 4:59. I’m just gonna do the minimum.”
A. We have been back to office work since last September, full-time. I am thinking about ways to maybe try out different schedules for the new employees that we’re recruiting. I realize, again, the world is changing. I’m still not a fan of complete remote work. I think you’ll lose lose connectivity.
However, I think there is a balance that can be struck by listening to the employees; listening to our customers who have expectations of service; and trying to balance those two things out.
When we were all separated during the pandemic, it was hard. And then when we all came back together, it was great. But one of the things things that I noticed is you lose certain skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills. Things atrophy. And so coming back and re-engaging meant re-learning some professional skills.
I’m always looking to evolve. I always question myself and say ‘is this right?’
Q. It seems to go right over the head of many employers that they’re part of the problem.
A. Absolutely. I cannot agree more because there’s a great quote from the movie “Remember the Titans” – “Attitude reflects leadership.”
So, if you have a workforce that is checked out that is a direct reflection of the leadership. And that’s why I never get complacent. Everyday I hustle. As the leader. I have to show everyone every single day, every single moment that I care. I have to support. I have to hold them accountable. I have to advocate. And if they don’t see that, what makes them want to bring more to work?
Q. You have no remote workers.
A. We are looking to pilot maybe one day a week just to see how it works. I’m just talking and listening to the employees. But there’s not been an overwhelming demand. And, of course, my field personnel can’t do hybrid work they have to be out there.
This is the power of the culture. When you have a healthy work environment people want to be together they really enjoy that interaction. challenged interaction. What I tell my employees. I want your feedback. But most of all, I want your pushback because you’ve got to be challenged.
Q. There are inside people. There outside people. Is maximizing their respective potentials a big challenge going forward?
A. It’s okay to be an introvert or extrovert. It’s okay to be who you are. Try to meet the employees not just where they are, but where they want to be. Not everyone wants to be a CEO, like me. They have other passions, other drives. So that’s what I try to cater to. What fulfills them.
You get the performance the district needs but what can I do for you? This is really about understanding them.
No. 5 mid-size company
Moulton Niguel Water District
Headquarters: Laguna Niguel
OC employees: 163