The pandemic made many people reassess their place in the world and their work-life balance. The need for a sense of purpose in their working lives has never been more acute and the role of internal communications has never been more central to that quest.
“A lot of companies have woken up to the need to reach our frontline employees better,” said Rupert Coghlan, principal solutions consultant for EMEA at digital communications platform Firstup, who was speaking at PR Week’s Corporate and Public Affairs Summit.
David Shriver, director of communications at Ocado Group, added: “There are no positives from Covid-19 but in many respects, comms is coming of age, which is wonderful. Finding a voice is really important because the digital world has surely ended the old command and authority ways of managing businesses.”
Silo silver lining?
Shriver is not a fan of silos, to put it mildly. “In my 35 years of professional life, silos are the greatest enemy of creativity,” he said. “The way we do our best work as communicators is by challenging silos and silo thinking. Some silos are structural, some are physical and some are psychological.”
But Coghlan countered: “In certain cases, some people prefer to work in silos. It’s important as communicators to realise that sometimes we need to meet people where they are, which is what we specialise in at Firstup. Sometimes the scope of a project increases and you need to keep some information enclosed, certainly at the start of a project or a campaign.”
Walls come tumbling down
When Shriver joined French retail giant Carrefour in the early 2000s he was shocked to find everyone working in their own enclosed space. He agitated successfully for the walls to come down, literally. “It was transformative in allowing us to work together in a radically different way,” he explained.
Breaking down the structural silo can be hard “because people have self interest in silos”, said Shriver. He added: “Internal power derives from silos: my team, my budget, my resources. But the digital world is about liberating us from the false structures of a bygone age, allowing us to collaborate in ways that historically had been unimaginable.”
Coghlan described the combination of human craft and technological capability as “the mix of art and science”. Technology is a great enabler, especially when communicators have increased responsibilities and “having to do more with less” but it still requires the human touch for it to work properly. “Technology doesn’t take away the art of communication, it enhances it and gives time back to people. So we can focus on the quality of communications rather than the quantity.”
Philippa Weare is internal communication and culture manager for the grain and protein division of US agricultural company AGCO and a client of Firstup. For her, digitalisation has been a vital tool to bring holistic, all-brand messaging to a diverse, globalised workforce of 4,000 employees, many of whom are based in factories where physical bulletin boards are still standard methods of communication.
“It’s hard to find strategies that communicate with everyone across the entire organisation,” said Weare. “We came up with a collective name for the organisation which is ‘Our Field’ where we plant ideas, we connect, we watch them grow. It’s a good analogy for us.”
Coghlan added: “Employee retention is still a massive factor for a lot of organisations and employees want to understand the purpose of their company and their role. It’s up to businesses to better explain their brand vision but also celebrate the successes, not just with top-down communications but also stories coming from the grassroots.”
Psychological silo: blur the boundaries
“Creativity doesn’t come from somebody saying ‘be creative’,” said Shriver. “It comes from people talking, sharing and listening. It’s not easy being deliberately vague and asking people to explore the creative dynamic that takes place when you voluntarily strip away the parameters of a job description.
“Leadership is providing the means by which people can do their best work, not wagging fingers. But you have to be observant. If you say there are no boundaries, and walk away that’s no good. You are setting up a human dynamic that needs to be very sensitively observed and nurtured.”
Coghlan cited the concept of “job crafting”. He added: “This is having a grown up conversation about the things that motivate someone, where they can add the most value, rather than saying that’s your job description, that’s your life.”
But what if the breakdown of silos and the fluid definition of roles leads to conflict? “We all have different preferences and different ways of working,” said Shriver, “but there is almost always more common ground than one might imagine. The best way is for the individuals to sit down and have a cup of tea – not on Zoom. A clue to the effectiveness of engagement with somebody else is how uncomfortable does it make us feel? The more uncomfortable it makes you feel the better. Writing an email or posting an instant message isn’t uncomfortable at all because you’re remote from somebody.”
Reap what you sow
Eight ways that AGCO’s Philippa Weare brings holistic comms to a diverse workforce in a global agribusiness
We consolidated the number of channels we had because we were constantly battling to get our voice heard.
Our Field is the name for our internal comms platform where we plant ideas, connect and watch them grow. About 70% of our office workers are registered and we’ve recently started factory worker engagement.
Firstup technology enables us to see what sort of content is landing where and when – and what the levels of engagement are.
Storytelling is key, but we need to condense information into compelling content. Video is great and we’ve just started trialling podcasts with our senior leaders. Podcasts are getting huge traction because they’re available on-demand.
We have recognition programmes where managers will congratulate employees in a public channel where people can comment. Comments are increasing so you can sense a certain amount of boldness.
User-generated content is big for us. We make recordings of town halls available which is part of giving communications back to the employees and inviting them to contribute.
We have an embedded translation function – that’s hugely significant for a global organisation.
Celebrating anniversaries is important because attrition rates are a concern. We don’t just do the big ones (five, ten, 20 years). I want to know that if I’m two years in, I’m being recognised just as I was on day one. It’s about bringing those anniversaries to life and celebrating our employees because without them we have nothing – they’re our biggest asset.