Throughout her career Kirsty Bowen has been a high performing internal communications leader, working at organisations such as RICS, OCR and now Coventry Building Society. As Senior Internal Communications Manager her role has played a crucial role in its operations over what has been a turbulent last 18 months.
From helping employees stay connected to communicating new strategies, Kirsty has built and led the internal comms team over the past eight years for the UK’s second largest building society.
As well as this, Kirsty has been using her experience to help the IoIC as a Board Director. Furthermore, she is an ambassador and a strong advocate for the organisation’s #IChoseIC campaign, helping to show students and those who support them the possibilities of a career in internal comms.
The initial effect of the pandemic
Moving quickly was key for Coventry BS when the pandemic struck. The first stages were described as ‘crazy’ by Kirsty, as she and her team looked to keep the organisation’s near 2,500 employees informed and updated.
“People’s lives were impacted, their families’ lives were impacted from the pandemic, and we have quite a role to play in that,” Kirsty said. “Whether it’s supporting our colleagues or supporting our customers.”
Kirsty mentioned how the nature of services Coventry BS delivers made the preliminary stages of the pandemic especially difficult. Despite the country going into lockdown, banks and building societies needed to stay open, along with their call centres, as people needed to continue to access to their finances.
Like most businesses, its approach to the pandemic was a reactive one at first which made the process of setting up remote workers and assisting head office staff complex. Once this settled down, the internal comms team turned its attention to employee wellbeing.
Lessons from the pandemic to take going forward
Those working in internal comms will have learned a lot during this time. Coventry BS worked hard to keep up a sense of community for its employees and this was reflected in the lessons from the pandemic Kirsty has taken forward into their IC strategy.
Comms focused on individuals
Often internal comms teams use a ‘broad brush approach’ when reaching out to employees according to Kirsty. This often brings difficulties for those working in complex organisations such as Coventry BS. Everyone’s experience of the pandemic has been different and internal comms should reflect that.
Kirsty admits this was not recognised initially, but when it came to helping employee wellbeing it was essential. Even now people’s emotions and concerns towards things like social distancing differ, which needs to be considered.
Authentic human leadership
Seeing leaders as people rather than figures can be vital to allowing employees to take messages on board. Kirsty mentions how it is important to acknowledge how they are feeling and how they have been affected by the pandemic, which also helps build connections. Storytelling through channels like blogs and videos is a great way to do this, which can allow people to feel more comfortable with their own and others’ issues.
Wellbeing should be led by the employer
Pre-pandemic there was a lot of good work in this area says Kirsty, but since then the topic of wellbeing and mental health has been brought to the forefront. More isolated and restricted conditions have played their part and Kirsty reveals there is no hiding from the fact that organisations should be helping break stigmas and encouraging people to talk about these issues.
For those in internal comms, they can signpost where employees can get support and ensure there are enough ways for people to talk and, most crucially, be listened to. For Kirsty, it is vital to keep this going forward and is something she now feels is part of her responsibilities.
Contact with line managers
This links to the mental health lessons as Kirsty feels communication with line managers can help create a sense of belonging, which is particularly important for new starters. The shift from spending all day with colleagues to spending all day in isolation took some adjusting to. Making sure these relationships aren’t neglected is what can help drive employee engagement.
This new way of working brings challenges to new staff who may find it difficult to build relationships with their colleagues, but a strong team dynamic can help them overcome this. Going forward, this needs to be considered to keep up these connections given new ways of working.
Kirsty mentions how Coventry BS, like most organisations, are just at the start of their hybrid working journey but are taking a ‘team led’ approach to help employees balance their home and work lives.
Remote meeting etiquette is important for collaboration
Craig and Kirsty both agree that although Zoom (and alike) has been a great tool during the pandemic, it has also implemented some bad habits for employees. Hand up functions and chat boxes are great for communicating information that doesn’t quite fit the flow of the meeting, but the lack of face-to-face interaction can make it difficult when it comes to observing things like a person’s body language.
Coventry BS has begun letting staff engage in ‘hybrid meetings’ which has brought a few challenges. Kirsty says these need to be managed well for optimal communication, being as inclusive as possible. This means everyone gets the chance to speak regardless of their location. It can involve extra preparation, but this new etiquette is vital to helping build collaboration.
The value of internal comms
Undoubtedly IC has played a positive role in how organisations have reacted to the pandemic, and it is crucial this momentum is not lost. The lessons from the pandemic must be taken forward into our ongoing IC strategies. Kirsty describes it as a ‘turning point’ for the profession as it has boosted the value organisations recognise strong internal comms can bring.
Not only have they seen the importance of broadcasting messages but also the role IC professionals play in building and maintaining connections which otherwise would have been lost in the challenging circumstances. This also has an effect at a strategic level, with guidance from internal comms experts maximising organisational impact.
Kirsty says those in the profession have always known their importance, but the pandemic has highlighted this to leaders and that is something she says that can’t be lost going forward. This links to her involvement in the #IChoseIC campaign, as now is a great time to help attract new people to the industry.
Final thoughts on IC lessons from the pandemic
A ‘learning mindset’ is something Kirsty feels a lot of people in internal comms possess and this has been very beneficial during the last 18 months. From this, she feels that any lessons from the pandemic need to be acknowledged and taken into account to help improve engagement and the working lives for all employees. This will ultimately help people feel a sense of belonging to the organisation they are working for.
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/kirstybowen/