Back in 2020, Donna Edgell was facing the unimaginable. The new coronavirus was spreading around the world, and no one knew quite what it was or how long it would last. But what happens when the people responsible for providing information have no better understanding of the situation than the employees on the ground?
“We’ve got over 700 branches across the nation. We had to shut everything down overnight. We couldn’t reopen until we had found a way to do so safely.” Donna, the Head of Internal Communications for Travis Perkins, the UK’s largest builders’ merchants, tells me over Zoom. We were speaking in April, just over two years since the national lockdown was announced in the UK. “Internal comms shifted to being absolutely critical.”
Within the first weeks of the pandemic, what might have before been perceived as a mere ‘nice-to-have’ in a company, became the linchpin to its survival and success. Across industries, employers were forced to step up in a way they had never done before – providing staff with clarity, reassurance, and hope. And at the centre of it all – providing staff with a feeling of community, belonging and pride – was the hard work of internal comms teams. But how did they manage, when the global situation was changing at such a rapid rate? And what did they learn in the process? I spoke to five internal comms experts to find out.
When Beverly Lowry, former Head of UK Employee Communications National Grid looks back to the early months of the pandemic, she remembers the speed at which the situation was developing. “The information was changing at such a rapid pace,” she relays. “There were new measures, new instructions, new guidance, on an almost daily basis.”
It was a feeling echoed among several internal comms professionals I spoke to: frenetic change becoming the norm. “The government would make a decision announce regulations which we hadn’t seen before and had no idea what it meant for our business, but we’d have to quickly translate it into messages for our employees,” recalls Adrian Lowther, Head of Internal Communications at Avanti West Coast, which runs passenger services on the West Coast Main Line. “There was a lot of ambiguity floating around, and in internal comms we don’t like ambiguity. Our job is to make things clear.”
“There was a lot of ambiguity floating around, and in internal comms we don’t like ambiguity. Our job is to make things clear.”
What usually would have been the result of weeks of planning, was now being churned out in mere days, often with very little confidence that the rules weren’t subject to change again. “A lot of people were hamstrung by a paralysis of wanting to go out with a message that was at odds with the changing context,” observes Liz Smith, Client Services Director of tbt. “Comms professionals almost didn’t know what to say,”
Apart but together
But what to say was only half of the issue; the other challenge was how. How do you convey critical information to employees at every level of an organisation – from the factory to the shop floor to the office – in a way that is fast, engaging and clear to everyone? “Even just technologically, people were ill-equipped,” Liz reflects. “Some larger organisations didn’t even have an intranet, or a vehicle for communication beyond town halls.”
“Asking a communications department to keep an entire workforce motivated and mentally stable through a pandemic is a request like no other.”
– Elizabeth Smith, Client Services Director at tbt
But companies did adapt, and fast. Digital infrastructures rapidly became the bedrock of internal comms, with users of digital tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Zoom multiplying day by day. The number of daily meetings held on Zoom surged from 10 million to 300 million between the end of 2019 and April 2020, as companies around the world adjusted to the new conditions of remote work.
For many, speaking virtually enabled a new form of intimacy with their coworkers. “I actually found it brought me closer to my team,” Beverly considers. “We were able to jump on a call quickly and share thoughts, feelings, and concerns. We got to meet each other’s families and pets.”
Beverly, like every other internal comms professional I spoke to when writing this piece, observed a wider shift in the function of internal comms during the pandemic. “It was both a business crisis and a personal crisis,” Beverly imparts. “As well as just informing colleagues, we had to reassure them; supporting issues from illness, to bereavement to mental health.”
“It was both a business crisis and a personal crisis,” Beverly imparts. “As well as just informing colleagues, we had to reassure them; supporting issues from illness, to bereavement to mental health.”
Indeed, given the opportunity to reformulate routine communications online, individuals had a chance to reassess how previous processes were serving them, and what could be done better. This was definitely the case for Stefan Weinmann, Director of Global Corporate & Internal Communications at O-I, the world’s leading glass bottle manufacturer who initiated regular virtual check-ins during the pandemic.
“Very early on, we surveyed our employees and found that they truly enjoyed the benefits of working remotely: they felt safe, empowered, trusted; they didn’t lose time over their commutes, and they were able to take care of their families,” he explained. Like many other companies, O-I decided to pursue a remote work model after lockdown ended. “Naturally, Internal Communications played a key role in communicating and explaining the initiative, and we did so with a specific focus on care for employees.”
The virtuous cycle
It was something I kept hearing among internal comms professionals: initiatives proving so successful, that by the time lockdown had ended, they had become an integral part of the company culture. At Travis Perkins, this was ‘Check-In Tuesdays’, a scheme introduced as part of an increase in colleague engagement services during the pandemic. “It really shone a light on some of the issues people were having,” Donna conveys. “People were struggling with isolation. They were worried about their loved ones.”
She found that these conversations had an exponential effect; once people got talking about these issues, they couldn’t stop. “We’ve normalised conversations around wellbeing. We work in construction with a lot of white middle-aged males. Traditionally, that demographic doesn’t want to talk about wellbeing. Now they’re talking about it all the time”. The business has since put in place mental health first aiders and a ‘stay well ambassador’, a new role created exclusively for employees to talk about mental health. As well as just supporting employees, Donna found that these conversations were valuable to the direction of the company as a whole. “It actually shaped some very serious and complex decisions right from the top.”
“We’ve normalised conversations around wellbeing. We work in construction with a lot of white middle-aged males. Traditionally, that demographic doesn’t want to talk about wellbeing. Now they’re talking about it all the time”.
It was something that was emphasised by every internal comms expert I spoke: internal comms is not just a ‘nice to have’ or an add-on for a company, but integral to company success. “If employees are happy, they’ll be more engaged, more productive and likely to put more discretionary effort in,” Donna asserts. “This means customers are happier. So there’s a virtuous circle if you get it right.”
“An internal comms function is successful when it’s operating at a strategic level,” Beverly reaffirms. “It’s not just about content delivery or organising an event, or managing channels. Where internal comms adds huge value is in helping to build trust in leaders, provide employee insight to executive teams, create a great culture, and drive change.”
“If you get it right, if you’ve got that common understanding, that shared purpose, and everyone’s pushing in the right direction – I think the power of that can’t be underestimated.”
– Adrian Lowther, Head of Internal Communications at Avanti West Coast
The case for comms
As we navigate a new era of hybrid work, internal comms teams face new challenges. Media outlets have long been speculating on the potentially detrimental effects of remote work on teams, from degrading trust between colleagues to weakening affiliation to organisations. Communicating to an entire hybrid workforce is no mean feat, but as we adjust to these new rhythms of working, finding ways to emotional engage staff is more important than ever. “You might have been quite good at communications in the past. Now you need to be a wizard in communications,” Liz asserts. “Mediocre communication isn’t enough to make a culture thrive digitally.”
“There seems to be a real buoyancy in investment in internal comms. Businesses are looking to maximise the value it added during the pandemic” Adrian observes. “If ever there was an argument that internal comms was important to a business, that argument has been won.”
How to get internal comms right, according to the experts
- Be honest and transparent. “It’s all very good telling people what’s happening, but telling them why is so, so important,” Adrian emphasises. “Share as much as you feel you can. People really welcome getting as comprehensive a picture as they possibly can.”
- Balance diversity and regularity. “You’ve got to understand the diversity of your audience,” Adrian explains. “In any one business, a 300 word email will work for some people, but it won’t work for everyone.” But at the same time, it’s equally important that employees know when and where they can access these different forms of communication. “Being really consistent in how you deliver that message can really help,” he offers. “Once you set that out and people understand it, there’s an element of self-service.”
- Don’t give too little; or too much. According to Adrian, comms experts must strike the “goldilocks balance” where people feel informed, but not overwhelmed. “It’s really easy to throw tons of information out there, but people won’t be able to see the wood for the trees,” he explains. “Yet on the flip side, you don’t want to do too little so they start to feel like they don’t know what’s going on.”
- Maximise tech. “You need to be constantly improving the tools and channels you’re using to communicate,” Stefan says. In the case of O-I, this meant setting up a mobile phone app to give employees on the shop floor a medium of speedy communication, and creating internal podcasts to cover certain topics in more depth.
- Be as visible as possible. “Colleagues want to speak with their executive teams and leaders much more than they realise,” Beverly affairms. Whether online or in person, conversations with no agenda are critical in getting to the heart of how people are really feeling.
- Walk the talk. Without being followed up by action, internal comms ring hollow. Leaders can’t just say they care about mental health or diversity and inclusion without making an effort to improve it “We can’t just write a purpose statement and think that employees are suddenly going to buy into it”, Beverly emphasises. “We don’t just want to be told it. We want to feel it. We want to see it. We want to hear it. We want our leaders to be demonstrating it.”
- Be intentional. “We can get very caught up in running events and launching our shiny new channels for the sake of it, but we always have to come back to outcomes,” Beverly asserts. “What’s the problem we’re trying to fix? What do we want to achieve? When information is clear, relevant and purposeful, we’re more likely to remember it.”
- Measure, measure, measure. There’s no use pushing out message after message without listening to what’s working and what isn’t. “It’s very important that we measure every step of the way, gaining insight and using that data to drive our communication strategy,” says Beverly.
- Inspire. When internal comms is operating at its highest level, it emotionally resonates with its employees. This means finding language that individuals can connect to. “There are certain phrases in our health and safety comms that we hear repeated back to us,” Donna explains. “These stories are proof points that the comms strategy is working well.”