Communication became a major talking point – pun definitely intended – last year. Not least because it changed drastically in both form and frequency. Prior to the pandemic, the concept of ‘Zooming’ as an often-primary form of catching up with colleagues and friends, watching daily minister-to-nation televised updates, and bringing kids, partners, unwashed dishes, and the occasional delivery person to meetings would’ve likely had even the most imaginative amongst us shaking their heads in disbelief. Now, for many, all of the above has been part of, or is currently, the state of play.
The new comms approach means we could get to people quicker about the things that are good about BT…
But it wasn’t just a fast-paced overhaul to the stylistics of communication in 2020 that had many HR practitioners thinking, and talking, about what medium messages were delivered through and how often information and notices needed to be shared. Firstly, as executive teams muddled through necessary changes to business practise, it was often HR that acted as a makeshift company communications hub during dicey moments. As one CPO told HR Grapevine at the time: “It [was] on HR to ensure this two-way comms stays open, as well as ensuring we’re communicating key messages in the right manner. That’s been a really big focus for us.”
Secondly, communication, in and of itself, is increasingly seen as a key facet of business success, leadership excellence and HR best practise. A recent Josh Bersin study concluded that communication (done well), listening, authentic feedback and taking action, as a result of two-way communication – with analytics and action platforms part of this – will become core parts of organisational practise done well going forward. Separately, an IBM study found much the same: stating that top level HR practise will involve communication personalised to the employee as well as regular pulse surveying and better transparency, the latter underwritten by simply telling employees what’s going on and who will be impacted.
It’s got to be about autonomy…
In fact, not many are arguing that better communication has any downsides. A recent Sage People study found that HR people think better comms will drive better future outcomes whilst David Green, well known in HR circles for his work in people analytics, believes better in-concert working between departments and leadership teams – driven by guess what? – will be the key going forward.
Up to HR
But how to get to this communication-underwritten employment and business utopia – especially when many firms will be suffering from transformation fatigues, as well as a generalised sense of burnout on an individual and collective level after such a frenetic past year? (Many studies have found burnout on the rise with employees battling longer hours and, in some cases, communication overload whilst Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was just one voice, amongst countless research-driven experts and business leaders, who noted the fast pace of transformation last year. “We have seen two years' worth of digital transformation in two months,” he explained in one interview.)
Well, amongst the tiredness and fog, regards where to go next, BT Group charts one way. In the dog days of December, HR Grapevine was lucky enough to sit down with Helen Willets, Director of Internal Communications at the telecommunications giant, as she shared some communication lessons for HR teams, revealing why transparency, leadership buy-in, speed, community advocacy and autonomy are crucial parts of any communication strategy – whilst also revealing why businesses can no longer “mollycoddle” their staff when it comes to information sharing in these uncertain times.
Starting at the start
Whilst BT placed Facebook Workplace at the epicentre of its internal communications overhaul it was driven by guiding ethoses: that communication from business to employee base had to resonate, be trusted and consistent, and deliver the facts well. In practise this meant making sure messaging, taglines, brands and mission statements were consistent across verticals and brands, ensuring that they clearly explained what the company stood for – increasingly a top priority for employees and a key driver of employee engagement, as highlighted by PwC’s Putting Purpose to Work study – and this matched up with day-to-day work. “As every unit usually has their own thing going on and you’re awash with words in an organisation and you often don’t know as an employee what your following and how it matches up to what the company is doing," Helen continues.
“It doesn’t matter what the words are [that describe what your firm’s purpose is] but they should be in total unity about how the company is described. Then you can really easily describe how certain jobs add to the strategy, or purpose. An employee shouldn’t have to look at a piece of paper for that, you should be able to look at the top, tight corporate narrative for that and understand how any job applies.”
Of course, the above is pandemic agnostic – ensuring that every employee understands the nature of the work they’re doing and how it dovetails with business aims is always going to be important – but what the pandemic re-emphasised to Helen is that employers, leaders, and, of course, HR, need to get better at telling the truth. Referencing the year and difficulties that all employees have just traversed, BT’s comms honcho explains: “I think there is a tendency to mollycoddle people and wrap things up and make it palatable and cosy it up into an EVP but the times of spin and packaging are just gone. If [comms] is done well it can bring a truth telling into the organisation. When I advise my CEO it’s always about telling the truth and there’s a way to do it.”
…you should be able to look at the top, tight corporate narrative for that and understand how any job applies…
She continues: “You can still talk about brilliant things but I think you’ve got to do it with an edge and with a realism about what is going on in the world. Your people are adults…and BT have this phrase which is we treat our people as adults that we like. If we go parent-child people see that as patronising and people see straight through it but if you treat someone as an adult that you like you’ll have a different approach to how you engage with them, and that’s key.”
Helen also recommends relinquishing control and being organic in the way that employees share information about the business. “Its got to be about autonomy,” she explains. This means allowing users of whatever comms platform or channels a company sets up should largely be owned by employees – and it allowed quicker and more organic responses to live issues, such as Black Lives matter protests, Pride and even during elections when news cycles impacted the firm. This approach has even allowed natural connections to occur, between employees who have never met, creating a space to connect but also to troubleshoot jobs together. “They’re [workers out on ground] filming on iPhones and asking has anyone ever seen this before and they’re getting instant responses from engineers across the company. Little moments like that all the time means you solve customer issues quicker.”
Strategically implemented comms
Of course, as with any transformation, Helen warns against just changing in-place communication practises or channels to be more concise or be more transparent just because it’s been seen to work elsewhere. She notes that for a new strategy to be successful it should be sensitive to the culture of the business, or function within that business, as well as getting leadership buy in and having a clear purpose for being transformed or being implemented. “There has to be a comms aspect and there has to be a cultural aspect to it too. If you are transforming, don’t go big bang and chuck it all out at once. Look at your own culture before deciding on a comms platform or direction and the way we [rolled it out] was leadership team first to act as a united front. You have to get your leadership to understand what it is.”
But Helen believes if this is in place, re-upping the company comms game can benefit everyone. She even believes – though offers caveats to this – that the results are measurable which, in this environment, is especially useful when tightened belts can mean it can be difficult to get buy-in for a project. “Historically, though we haven’t had great data we know now that we have a high user base [for the new comms platform] and an uptick in advocacy for products and BT as a good place to work, as well as uptick in engagement over the launch period. The new comms approach means we could get to people quicker about the things that are good about BT and share those in a good way.”
I think there is a tendency to mollycoddle people and wrap things up and make it palatable and cosy
And getting information to people quickly will be an incredibly important role that leaders, comms teams and HR will have to play going forward. With uncertainty and change the single top CEO concern going forward, the strength of businesses – as well as how well they react to employee sentiments about the working experience, how well purpose resonates through the company and who trusted leaders are – will likely fall on how well communication works in a company. At some firms, that responsibility will either sit with leadership or comms teams but increasingly, as HR often have been turned to throughout the pandemic, it will be people teams that will be asked to translate quickly changing information into trusted, consistent and reliable information for the employee base to parse. “That’s an important thing: it’s a communication skill and its packaging it in the best sense,” Helen concludes.