Staff engagement is essential to growth, especially in times of economic uncertainty. Brands are finding that internal social media and other communication tools can boost employee satisfaction, trust and productivity, says Laura Snoad.
Aviva’s life business chief executive, David Barral, likes to quiz his staff on the insurance brand’s strategy. He recently used the firm’s intranet to start a conversation about how Aviva could get customers to plan for the future when their main priority is feeding themselves today.
He received more than 300 responses in just three hours.
Barral is not alone in finding new ways to get his staff involved with strategy. Brands including Ikea, Sainsbury’s, Coca-Cola and the BBC are using new forms of internal social media and peer-to-peer networks to communicate with staff and raise productivity levels.
The need for socially-minded internal marketing systems is obvious. With employees facing difficult economic climes, redundancies and pay freezes, companies need to work hard to regain staff trust in corporate managers.
Contributing to strategy gets employees excited and increases their involvement in a business, says Christy Stewart-Smith, group internal engagement director at Aviva. “This is a pretty efficient way of squeezing out their knowledge while making them feel involved and appreciated.”
Having good communication internally is crucial to how a brand comes across externally, he adds. “A brand is as a brand does. You have to behave as you wish to be received. We recognise that if we don’t get the internal communications right, the promise is going to sound pretty hollow in the outside world.”
For Sheila Parry, a director at the Institute of Internal Communication, talking to staff is even more important in tough economic times.
“If you’re trying to deal with a crisis in a company with a poor communications culture, it’s a double negative, but if your communications environment is more positive and people aren’t afraid to ask questions, you can manage a crisis in a smoother way. Internal communication is more important than ever,” she says (see Viewpoint, below).
Sainsbury’s director of colleague engagement Jacki Connor agrees: “We did some research last year asking what was important for colleagues. We found that what is happening at work and the level of trust they have in the business are very important issues for them.
“They have little trust in the police, politicians or banks, so they need a good relationship with their employer to ensure a sense of security.”
She adds: “When things aren’t going well, staff need to hear what is happening as much as when things are going well because it’s about trust. Our vision is about being the most trusted retailer, both to customers and colleagues. You need to be transparent and honest.”
At the BBC, which has suffered recent job cuts, staff are very keen to know what various parts of the business are doing, says head of internal communications Andrea Gwilliam: “BBC staff based in Cardiff, for example, can feel isolated. They want to understand current issues in other areas in the company.”
The corporation hosts ’town hall’ events, where managers get together to discuss their approaches. The events are recorded and uploaded to the intranet to increase the feeling of connectedness within the BBC.
Gwilliam explains: “Through sharing ideas at the town hall events, staff can understand what the BBC is doing in other areas. It gives them another perspective on how they can produce a programme, make something or research an issue that the public are finding topical. People tell us the insights gained through networking help them to make better programmes.”
Sainsbury’s runs a panel of more than 2,000 employees, who give feedback every month about key issues. It also engages staff as brand ambassadors and has involved them in launching its ’Live well for less’ strategy.
This was launched by the internal communications team using a video explaining what ’living well for less’ meant for them. They reinforced this with in-store tastings and celebrity-judged cooking competitions at the AGM, all of which were filmed to share with other staff.
And to celebrate five years of selling Fairtrade bananas, Sainsbury’s sent a number of staff to a plantation on St Lucia in the Caribbean to see the difference that initiative was making for people there. They reported back to colleagues in workshops and through video footage.
Connor says: “If you know what’s going on in the business, try the products and understand what the Sainsbury’s campaigns are about, you will tell customers about it.
“Customers can see benefits, even if it’s just a smile when they go to the checkout, or whether it’s clearer links, such as people being able to talk about provenance or how to cook something. If you do this well it has huge impact.”
Encouraging staff to create their own content can generate a lot of interest, as easyJet found with its ’Europe by easyJet’ campaign. It asked staff to contribute holiday pictures to a microsite before launching its photo-montage style TV advertising. Of its 8,000 staff, 5,000 contributed (see below).
And Bacardi recently used staff-generated video to support the Bacardi Together campaign, which centred around the idea that nothing can replace drinking with friends. It worked on the initiative with the internal communication team at consultancy Hill & Knowlton, which also included a roadshow, from which live blogs and video vox pops were fed onto the intranet to keep staff connected with the campaign.
Internal social networks
Businesses are not only grappling with how to use and respond to social media externally; they are using internal networks such as Yammer and Saleforce.com’s Chatter to get people communicating with each other internally.
Coca-Cola is working on plans to introduce a social media network to connect its 700,000 employees. Coca-Cola Europe communications channels manager Louise Kelly says: “It’s a dream come true for a brand like Coca-Cola. We have employees all over the globe so the digital connection is fantastic for us. It’s definitely an area where lots of exciting things are being developed at the moment.”
Coca-Cola also hosts its own bespoke intranet, My KO, which features daily news, feature-length articles, insight from management and statistics to explain how the company is doing.
Trying to connect staff working in such huge organisations can be tricky. For a business to understand the expertise of its staff requires good communication. Consultancy Deloitte uses business networking tool Yammer to solve problems and pass on information that might be outside individuals’ immediate communities.
Deloitte head of online solutions John Whiting explains: “The thing about an organisation of our scale and complexity is that you know the answer is there somewhere, but without that connection it’s very hard to find out.
“If you put a question out to a large community, someone will often know the answer, or know someone who does, and we can get them involved in the conversation.”
Ikea is also looking at internal networks while rethinking its internal communications strategy. Earlier this year, it found that staff wanted it to improve its internal contact methods.
“Many of our staff are young, so we’re keen to investigate social media – it is important to speak their language,” says internal communications manager Lois Blenkinsop.
The benefits of this kind of system include a lighter workload for IT support staff as problem solving is spread across the organisation. It can also mean issues are resolved more speedily for both staff and customers.
Internal social networking brand Chatter – part of Saleforce.com – claims that its service can increase staff efficiency. Chatter clients saw a 12.5% rise in productivity and reported that people could find information 52% faster than before, according to a study by Nucleus Research.
It also claims that users have 27% fewer meetings, a 30% reduction in email use and 39% more collaborations between staff.
Business development consultancy IG Global began using Chatter six months ago as rapid increases in staff meant a lot of information needed to be disseminated very quickly.
“The speed at which we’re recruiting means we needed a new way to give staff access to information,” says IG Group chief information officer and marketing director Alastair Hine.
“One of the big problems we find with internal communications is who to tell what, but with the Chatter application, I can subscribe to things that are relevant to me. It’s not just about collaboration, but about efficiency as well.”
Sainsbury’s is also looking to build stronger communities through social media. But as many of its staff are based on shop floors, screen-based communications might not be the most practical solution. It is trialling social networks to assess whether staff have an appetite to share best practice and ideas across stores and regions.
Sainsbury’s Connor explains: “A third of our employees are under 25, and to them it’s second nature to communicate in this way. We’re involved in trials in pockets of the country to see whether it could help colleagues communicate better, and whether there would be a good return on investment.”
The BBC has also used Yammer to discuss its move to Salford and the 20% budget cuts with employees, by posting news and starting discussions about the cost targets.
The aim was to make the process into a two-way conversation, where staff can post comments about cuts proposals so that they feel included in making difficult decisions.
The BBC also still runs an intranet, as well as Ariel Online, which has replaced weekly internal newspaper Ariel. Ariel Online features directors’ blogs, impromptu video interviews with staff about their thoughts on the day’s news and in-depth information about programming.
Although the results of Ikea’s internal communications overhaul will not be seen fully until early next year, the brand has decided to close its early morning radio station because changes in its stock replenishment system mean fewer staff are working in the early hours.
Many brands prefer to develop bespoke systems to match their specific needs. IBM originally created social media platform IBM Connections for its own staff before marketing it to other companies. The system features profiles, blogs, bookmarks, files, communities and wikis, which allow employees to connect freely with each other and access the wealth of information available within the organisation.
Earlier this year, IBM overhauled the intranet’s interface to make it more ’social’ by integrating IBM Connections and making the home page much like an adaptable Facebook-style profile and newsfeed.
IBM’s social business manager for smarter computing, Karl Roche, explains: “The redesign was about making the intranet people-centric rather than content-centric, allowing staff to connect and share and giving them control over the information available to them.
“We merged the intranet and the social network so there’s a cross-pollination between the strategy and the conversations that are going on. Executives can post blogs, performance updates are put up on Connections, and then that links with [IBM intranet] W3, but it is all housed in Connections,” says Roche.
Similarly, Leeds Metropolitan University created a bespoke app to measure the health and happiness of its staff. It claims it has saved £75,000 in salary costs (see below).
Aviva has also created its own intranet, Aviva World. Launched around the time of the company’s rebranding in 2009, it was designed to reflect the company’s customer and employee promises of individual recognition and to enable global collaboration.
Aviva World is available to all 36,100 staff and can be accessed in 12 languages. Last month, it received 7,873,500 hits. Aviva has made attempts to address two of the biggest challenges of peer-to-peer focused internal communications: an unwillingness among senior managers to use the platform and an uneasiness about flattening the communications hierarchy.
“You have to take a leaf out of the book of your external communications colleagues and recognise the limitations of your control. You have to trust that abdication of control leads to an increase in responsibility,” admits Aviva’s Stewart-Smith. It’s almost impossible to create an authentic experience if you don’t step away from that 100% control attitude that has been the way businesses have been run in the past.”
Case study: Europe by easyJet
In September, the airline launched ’Europe by easyJet’, which featured still travel photography from destinations around Europe. Its message – that the airline connected people to experiences, places and other people – aimed to inspire customers and staff alike.
Marketing director Peter Duffy explains: “Because we’re a service-oriented business, our people are the frontline of our interaction with customers. We wanted to engage them with the brand before we rolled it out.”
EasyJet launched the campaign internally two to three months before releasing it to the public via a bespoke microsite. The creative focuses on travel photography showing holiday-makers having fun, says Duffy. To get easyJet staff behind the campaign, the microsite encouraged them to upload their own holiday photos, which would then be used internally and externally.
Duffy explains: “It involved getting them to co-create the campaign and contribute to the material.”
Out of easyJet’s 8,000 staff, an impressive 5,000 contributed to the campaign. “Advertising is one of those things that everyone has an opinion about. Staff want the company’s advertising to be good, they want to be proud of it and they want it to work. The opportunity to get involved in the development of that is quite unusual,” says Duffy.
The thinking behind the internal campaign was not only to inspire and engage employees but to strongly align external and internal communication and empower staff as brand ambassadors.
“The way the brand comes to life inside the organisation has to be the same as how it comes to life on the outside, and those boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred through social media.
“We spend a lot of time on how we articulate ourselves on all those internal things – appraisals, how we hire, how we develop and train our people – which are focused on a thoroughly consistent mind and brand positioning.”
The idea has been kept alive since the launch with a weekly photography competition and the public-facing Facebook app Memory Maker, where customers can make their own version of the ad using their own photos.
All the staff imagery has been banked and while it is currently only used internally, Duffy says it will also be one of the ways easyJet sources photography in the future.
Case study: My Wellbeing app
Intranets and specialised microsites are not just the first port of call for internal information about a brand or new campaign. They can also contain information for employees about health and safety, fitness and general wellbeing.
One such site is mywellbeing.org, which was developed by Leeds Metropolitan University’s (LMU’s) student-led in-house development studio, to tackle the biggest cause of absenteeism among staff at the university – stress.
LMU head of safety, health and wellbeing John Hamilton says: “In 2009, we were in a tricky place at the university – relationships with the unions weren’t great and we needed to invest in engaging with our staff, particularly around wellbeing.”
The site, which was developed in 2009, features more than 190 topics ranging from repetitive strain injury to pregnancy, but has been designed not to overwhelm users by only featuring five key pieces of information on each page.
The user interface has also been created to be approachable. People have the option to pick from a range of emotions which lead them to relevant information, or key topic icons.
Hamilton says: “The way it has been branded is neutral from the organisation so it doesn’t look like the university wagging its finger.”
After the university introduced the site for its own staff, other organisations began to show interest and at the end of 2009, the studio started developing bespoke solutions for clients such as Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Northumbria NHS Trust and London Metropolitan University.
LMU launched a mobile app version of My Wellbeing last month as a response to the needs of its mobile workforce. As well as being useful for those without a fixed work space, the free app allows users to dial useful numbers straight from the content.
The university calculates that it has saved £75,000 a year in wages since introducing My Wellbeing, as well as qualitative research suggesting higher staff morale.
Hamilton says: “If employees feel you’re a bit more caring and you’re trying to do something to point them in the right direction, it has a very positive effect.”
Sheila Parry, education and accreditation director, The Institute of Internal Communication
A recent student survey conducted for the institute sought to uncover whether social media is increasing within businesses and in which ways. The findings show that there is still a reluctance in senior teams to use social networking and they’re still concerned that it’s ’more social than media’.
Companies that are using it are seeing the benefits in terms of creating a sense of transparency and trust, easing isolation for remote workers and providing channels that suit how and when employees want to communicate. Internal social media also helps to remove the silence between departments because more is being communicated online rather than in people’s inboxes.
The survey finds that 53.3% of senior leaders embrace social media but still rely on email and newsletters to communicate, 20% fully embrace it and 20% see it as a waste of time. That last 20% is reducing but there’s still a body of people who don’t see that these are ways of communicating that employees prefer, so they will get far more involved than they will with channels that are top down or one way.
People still rely on email and newsletters to communicate because there’s still a top-down culture. The resistance to democratic channels, with broader user-generated content, stems from the fact that a business has to relinquish control over the kind of messages available to employees.
The residual hurdle is some companies still want to hold control. But it is control versus trust. In businesses where the culture is more trusting, these channels are more prevalent.
Can social media change a culture from competitive to collaborative? No way. But social media is an accelerator of that change. So companies that are already collaborative have embraced social media because it helps firms to collaborate and departments to share jobs and projects.
Those companies that don’t foster a spirit of collaboration don’t jump on the bandwagon of social media and are quite fearful of it. Then there’s a mass in the middle that have moved, and they are the key target market.
We’re seeing a lot of companies bolting social networks on to their intranets, which still enables the employer to publish what they want, but with the addition of social media elements, through video, blogs or moderating comments.
These are really effective solutions and companies that use them are also allowing discussion and debate, which fosters a much more healthy working environment.