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Employee communications in complex organisations | S2 E23

First published: 17 August, 2021

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Engaging Internal Comms Series 2
Engaging Internal Comms Series 2
Employee communications in complex organisations | S2 E23
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Employee communications in large, complex organisations | S2 E23

Craig’s interviewee for this week’s episode is Neil Jenkins who is an award-winning internal communications director and leader. Neil and Craig discuss employee communications in large complex organisations. Neil has over 20 years of experience across FMCG, technology, manufacturing and engineering in organisations such as Siemens, Vodafone, Coca-Cola, BT and, more latterly, Iron Mountain. Neil is passionate about using the power of communication to get the best out of people, connect them to their organisations and build reputation and trust from the inside out.

Neil is based in the UK near South Buckinghamshire and in normal circumstances would work in the office in central London several days a week. He’s hoping to get back there towards the tail end of the summer. He’s also looking forward to seeing people again, talking face-to-face and reconnecting.

About Iron Mountain

Iron Mountain are an information management company, celebrating their 70th anniversary this year who began life as Iron Mountain Atomic Storage. They started out at the height of The Cold War when organisations were getting quite worried about how to protect and store precious things such as records and artefacts that mattered to them. Their founder, who was a mushroom farmer, had invested in an old iron ore mountain just outside New York City and spotted an opportunity and started storing records etc for their first customers back in the 1950s, hence the name of the business.

Iron Mountain’s first sales office was in the Empire State building, but they have grown rapidly since then, now they are present in about 58 countries, have around 225,000 customers, are a $4 billion company in terms of revenue and serve about 95% of Fortune 1000 companies, with about 25,000 employees.

They are now increasingly digitising records as well as storing them and coming up with innovative solutions to help clients get more out of the information that they store for them which could be to improve their own operations or the experience of their customers.

Within Iron Mountain they have different divisions, there’s an entertainment services division which stores original music recordings, a fine art division which stores precious paintings. Some of the ways they store things and serve their clients is interesting.

How to communicate to a diverse workforce

The workforce at Iron Mountain is very diverse and truly global but with a large presence in the US which is their home market, and headquarters now in Boston. However, half of the workforce is now outside of North America. They have people in very different roles with half of their employees in front line operational roles such as driving trucks to take records from their customers to storage facilities and back, taking care of those storage facilities and there’s also a large commercial team and people working in support roles too. As Neil says

“When you add to the mix cultural diversity, different backgrounds and the experiences that people have, the way we communicate to people needs to cut through in a very consistent tone of voice.”

Wherever you work in the world and whatever role you have you are hearing from the company and hearing people communicate to you in a consistent way. They have developed some tone of voice guidelines which they are now embedding within the business, for employee communications, and really focus on three key things –

  1. Always remember we are people talking to people, we don’t want our language to be too corporate or full of jargon.
  2. We want to be straightforward in what we’re saying which sometimes means not making employee communications too long but also means getting to the point and being transparent.
  3. We also want some personality in the message as people are from different backgrounds, different parts of the world so it’s important that they own the communication.

These are the guiding principles which are helping make their employee communications and messages a little bit more human and personal. These principles are linked into the culture of the organisation and particularly around taking ownership and inclusion and teamwork. The organisational values also talk a lot about integrity, making sure the message is transparent, adding value to their customers so when the business is communicating internally, they need to remember their audience. Their prime core value is safety and security, and you may not see an obvious connection with tone of voice but again it’s not easy to understand if it’s not straightforward to read. Iron Mountain are looking to connect to their values as they are important to them as a business, their people respect them and more and more of their people are living them.

Communication during the pandemic

During the pandemic safety and security have been top of the list for employee communications. This has been the same whether you have stayed in your workplace because you have an operational role serving customers or whether you had to move very quickly to a virtual way of working that you may not have been used to.

Iron Mountain have spent a lot of time making sure that people understand what guidelines to follow wherever they work and whatever they do, understand how to stay safe doing that and how to stay connected and continue to work as much as possible. They’ve tried to make employee communications as frequent, if not more frequent, than they were before the pandemic. They have leaders who travel frequently around the world visiting customers and employees and with them not being able to do that, it was a case of ramping up their virtual visibility and doing a lot more online. They did things like hosting online Q&As and making sure there was a constant connection to give employees the reassurance that they have a stable business, they’re resilient and here are the steps that we’re taking to make you, our people and customers safe.

Helping people to understand that Iron Mountain were continuing to be at their customers side was important as they relied on them during the early days of the pandemic. In the UK they helped the NHS store PPE equipment and create space at hospitals for extra beds. In the US they had customers who needed to process welfare and unemployment benefits much more quickly as people were being furloughed in different states. So, Iron Mountain played a vital role in helping those organisations continue their own operation and do their bit to address and face the pandemic. It was the frontline teams who helped Iron Mountain’s customers to do this, so they really focussed on these teams, not only in making sure that they understood what they needed to do during this period of so much change, but also recognising the enormous effort it took and celebrating that. This was a really unifying experience for the company, it really brought people together whether they worked remotely or in an operational role and helped create a stronger bond which is something they want to build on going forward.

The future of the workplace

Flexibility and choice are the principles Iron Mountain are using to get people back to the workplace, putting the employee at the heart of the decision making. As an organisation they have said there is no expectation on any of their people that they need to return to the office where they worked before the pandemic. This will give them some time to step back and think about what they want the workplace to be for the future of their organisation and enable them to best serve their customers. They also need to think about their own employees and the experience they have of working for them, which if it’s good should make a positive impact on the customer experience they want to deliver.

Already some of the senior leaders are talking about the workplace as now being the place where you connect, where you collaborate, where you learn. The last 18 months have shown us that we can do ‘work’ from anywhere and maybe the office of the future is where you come together to make those connections and to learn and collaborate. People will need to think about whether the office is set out to enable this new type of working to take place and if it isn’t what needs to be done to enable it to happen. People’s individual styles of working may have changed and this needs to be recognised, it will not be a return to how things were by any means, and this could be progress.

Ensuring quality communication with offline employees

About 65-70% of employees are frontline at Iron Mountain which is a significant proportion, and they are often offline. This means these employees may not have regular access to email or other technology so effectively engaging them and keeping them informed is a challenge. Neil has a few ways that he finds are important for communicating with them:

  • Equipping the line manager is key as most of the frontline staff will look to them for information and to ask questions. Line managers therefore need a good understanding of where the business is heading and how they and their teams fit in. They also need to feel confident to communicate and do it effectively with their team. Get communication right with the line manager and you’re on to a winning formula. This is a focus for them at Iron Mountain.
  • Digital channels are also a way to reach frontline teams particularly where most people have a mobile device. However, you need to make a choice about how you do this and what you share but don’t expect it to become the primary way of communicating. It’s about your workforce’s choice as to how they use it. As communicators it’s about making the content and the experience as compelling and relevant as you can.
  • Make use of what’s already there, so at Iron Mountain they have a lot of electronic scanners that frontline staff use for scanning barcodes on boxes prior to transportation and they have the capability for carrying videos so they can be used as a communication channel. Also make use of more traditional forms of communications such as bulletin boards and digital signage.
  • Meaningful and relevant content is probably the most important thing, making sure the employee sees where they fit in and contribute and using a tone of voice that makes sense in a style they’re used to.
  • Understand your audience, their working day, how much time they have to take a look at what you’d like them to and develop your plan around that.

If you take these issues into account, Neil believes you should have a better outcome when communicating with offline employees.

Craig agrees with Neil about how important the line manager’s role is in ensuring good communication with frontline employees and if you want to know more listen to series 1 episode 22 of the podcast where Craig talks to Chris Coburn about the importance of a line manager.

Skills and behaviours for internal communicators

Neil thinks as internal communicators we need to be closer than ever to the needs of the business and really get under the skin of what the business is all about, how it operates, how it may need to change in the future and really understand what is on the minds of the leaders we support. Neil thinks top of the list is to understand what keeps them awake at night, what their big challenges are and how they see the future. While other skills are essential and a bit more foundational, demonstrating business acumen is going to continue to be important. Connected to that is that if we are going to continue to work in a virtual way in the future, we need to understand how to make connections and build relationships in a more virtual environment. It may not be as easy to pop your head round someone’s door or grab a coffee with them to get to understand them a bit more and what they’re working on, so we need to find ways to do this virtually and make the most of the times when we are together in person.

Storytelling is also something Neil feels we need to build on and it’s going to be increasingly important as an emotional way of connecting to our people. As communication has evolved through this pandemic there seems to be more of a focus on emotion and it’s not been a rational 18 months by any mean! We need to recognise and embrace how we communicate and bring to life what it is that we want our people to know and do in a way that helps them connect and feel like they belong. Storytelling is a very powerful way of doing this and something we need to continue to do.

As communicators, data is something that is available to us, but we probably don’t make enough of it to really understand our business or our audiences or how people are feeling. There are many ways we can make use of the sheer amount of data that’s out there, we need to tap into the areas of the business that own these data sources so we can demonstrate how we are making plans based on this data.

Summing up effective employee communications in large, complex organisations

The reason Neil enjoys what he does is that it is all about people and helping them feel connected to the organisations they work for. As communicators the more we can make our employee’s experience engaging, enlightening, interesting and fun then we’re doing our jobs. Organisations are seeing the value of that and the difference it’s making to their own reputations. This is where building trust from the inside out really comes from, get it right with your own workforce then they’re going to talk positively about your organisation.

Key take-outs from this interview:

  • A consistent tone of voice is important for employee communications in large, complex organisations
  • We will be returning to a different type of workplace so think about how that should look
  • Reaching offline employees – line managers are key but ensure compelling, meaningful and relevant content, use lines of communication that are already there
  • Know your audience – develop your communication plan around them
  • Skills and behaviours for internal comms – understand what is on the mind of the leaders, use storytelling and data

Useful links

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/neilcjenkins/

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