There’s no question that this remains an unprecedented time - especially for the employee communications function. Although most companies had a basic crisis communication plan on the shelf when COVID-19 hit, the three panelists in our webinar, all heads of employee communications for large organizations with employees spread across the globe, have been adapting in innovative and unique ways.
So what employee communications strategies and tactics have worked for IBM, Wells Fargo and KONE Americas? What hasn’t worked? And what adjustments were made along the way?
Read on to find out.
Carolina Mata, Former VP, IBMer Communications
2020 began the subsequent period of unprecedented change for Carolina Mata, VP of IBMer Communications and the 350,000 employees around the world. IBM had a confluence of significant events - internal and external - to deal with, including not only the COVID-19 crisis, but appointing and onboarding a new CEO, and discussions around social justice in the wake of the George Floyd murder.
One of the effective communications techniques that worked very well for IBM is spending a great deal of time and effort listening to IBMers - seeking input from thousands of employees who have been sharing their views and opinions.
Each year they've held a global, company-wide three-day JAM that gives IBMers the opportunity to weigh in on what has been working, what is not and what needs to change across all of these major health, social and business issues affecting employees and the company. While JAMs were first invented about 15 years ago to take advantage of IBM’s global scale, and technical collaboration capability, they've become a perfect approach to enabling a virtual community during the pandemic.
The outcomes from the JAM facilitate effective communication and engagement at the workplace and have already been incorporated into many areas of the business and how IBM communicates internally.
One of the other extraordinarily positive responses has been to the home-office based video messages by the CEO, Arvind Krishna. These video chats have been very informal - uncharacteristic of the typically highly polished productions IBM has done in the past. The difference in style and production value has effectively conveyed a high level of Arvind’s authenticity, and been an important aspect of the success of IBMer communications from their CEO.
What didn’t work - and needed adjustment?
Quality versus quantity of communications. Initially the company pushed out a lot of information across the vast IBM landscape to keep employees abreast of all the changes taking place practically simultaneously: COVID-19, wide scale work-from-home, social justice, etc.
Carolina quickly realized that, while employees need to be informed - and the confluence of the changes resulted in constantly changing information, there’s a fine line between sheer quantity of communications versus the quality of communications. Caroline was concerned with employee burnout and meeting fatigue, which resulted in pivoting to an effective communications strategy that emphasizes quality and more targeted distribution of communication over sheer quantity. For example, the CEO shifted from a weekly message to one that is reserved for when there is something important that needs to come from him, coupled with more members of the Leadership team helping to communicate to various segments of the population.
A big surprise?
When racial discussions and tensions were at their peak during the first few days of the Black Lives Matter movement, IBM turned to a response channel they had successfully used before - a Slack channel two-way forum called AMA (Ask Me Anything) which is essentially a virtual dialogue - used to provide employees with a means to voice their opinions and get information from the company.
However, with the immense pressure and clamor of employee voices seeking information and answers from the company, Carolina quickly found that the volume of input on the Slack channel was substantial, so much so that they weren’t able to respond as quickly and as well as needed. Instead, they quickly pivoted and implemented one-hour listening sessions with smaller groups of employees - continuing to provide a platform for IBMer input.
The outcomes and answers from these smaller forums have been turned into recordings - “Voices of IBM” which are then made available to all 350,000 IBMers. Carolina found that having a member of senior management be a part of these listening sessions, so they can be seen and adds a level of support, has been an essential part of the success of these 100-person virtual sessions.
For a company the size of IBM, their approach, rapid response and quick course changes have been more like that of a silicon valley startup - with where the mantra is when things aren’t working, better to “fail fast” and learn from the experience than continue to struggle to force it.
Let’s face it, if content is published on your Intranet or HR portal but no one reads it, does it really exist?
David Berger, Sr. Vice President, Communications Leader at Wells Fargo
One of the first decisions David Berger at Wells Fargo made early on in the pandemic was to create a single source of truth for their 263,000 employees. This allowed them to quickly mitigate conflicting information from multiple sources of information and make sure that communications across the organization was more consistent, and that leadership and operations were all on the same page. Their move to implement a single decision tree, with a clear line of communications - including, for example, a single intranet site for all things COVID-19 related, along with a single telephone number and email address for employees to contact for information - worked well. The phrase “single source of truth” has become their mantra.
What Didn’t Work?
Very early on, in the first week or so after the crisis become full-blown, various leaders understandably sought to keep employees in their groups, departments and business units informed as best they could. However, in times of a crisis that federated approach didn’t work very well. Moving quickly to the single-source-of-truth was very effective in stemming any confusion and inconsistency, which also lifted the burden on local and regional managers to convey all the constant changes, so they can focus on managing their people.
How They’ve Adjusted
Wells Fargo has focused on the impact of COVID-19 in two ways. On one hand, there’s the health side, and the outbreaks that many areas of the country are dealing with - often at very different levels of infection, community spread and intensity. But on the other hand, COVID-19 has come to represent the economic after-effects and the impacts of what the virus has done to people’s financial lives - an aspect that’s even more acute with Wells Fargo being one of the largest consumer financial institutions in the country. David shared that they have had to make sure that when they talk about the Coronavirus with employees, that they are clear to focus on either the impact on the employees in terms of health or in terms of economic concerns.
Patrick O’Connell, Former Head of Marketing and Communications at KONE America
For KONE Americas' 50,000 US employees, many of whom don’t work in an office, a steady stream of communication is working. As Patrick says “having robust, dynamic, and frequent communication is a fulcrum of our engagement strategy”. Remember that KONE manufactures elevators and escalators used in hospitals and healthcare facilities. If their equipment needed repair or maintenance, KONE employees were there - the field team has never stopped working.
What needed adjusting?
KONE’s communication team knew that one form and format of communication does not fit all. In their case, they have two distinct audience segments - field technicians who are in hospitals, offices and venues fixing and installing elevators, and the staff who are working from home. Their concerns and information needs during COVID are very different.
While these two main employee groups have always existed, KONE found that in the COVID crisis they needed to create content for, and target communication in a more deliberate and precise manner. The result was a quick pivot, creating two totally separate and parallel channels of communication to meet the very different needs of these two employee groups. However, while this segmentation targeting effort has worked very well for employees, it has essentially doubled the workload for the employee communications department.
As a result, KONE employee communications has turned to others across the company for help in creating and sourcing content. Finding the right balance has meant working out an approach where “it takes a village” to contribute and be sources of content.
What else has worked?
KONE, like IBM, also onboarded a new CEO during the onset of COVID-19. And like IBM, they needed to not only introduce the new CEO to employees, but simultaneously have the CEO be the key voice for the company during the COVID crisis.
KONE set up regular, weekly, small group virtual meetings with the new CEO and a dozen randomly selected employees - from all levels and areas of the company - which create a listening opportunity for the CEO and an input session for employees. In these intimate meetings there was no set agenda. Instead, the CEO asked for input and feedback. The response became instrumental content that is shared widely across the company.
The insights discussed in this blog post were shared as part of a webinar by Velaku and the organizational change consultancy, On The Same Page. These insights are only a portion of what the panelists from IBM, Wells Fargo and KONE shared in the webinar. To hear the full story, including their plans for the future, and more, please watch the full replay here
Velaku engages employees by taking your intranet generated content and blending it seamlessly in the flow of their work using custom-built plug-ins for Microsoft 365. The results are personalized, contextualized and seamless for the employee. Visit www.velaku.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a demo today.