Have you had a chance to pause and reflect on the past few months yet?

I can guess your answer. If you haven’t, I encourage you to grab a cuppa and delve into the diary of Nicola Rowland, HR Manager at Energy UK. She’s kindly written for the All Things IC blog to share her experience of internal communication during COVID-19 so far.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Energy UK for a number of years now, they are the trade association for the GB energy sector, with membership of over 100 suppliers, generators and stakeholders with a business interest in the production and supply of electricity and gas for domestic and business consumers.

Knowing their culture as I do, I love how they’re extending it to support and nurture their employees even when they’re all working remotely. Their focus on wellbeing is spot on and I like the fact it includes sending cakes via post!

I’ll hand you over to Nicola…

How to communicate in a pandemic

Internal communication is something fairly new to me. I have been qualifying as an HR Manager over the past few years and was keen to step up to the plate on internal communications.

I attended a Masterclass with Rachel Miller of All Things IC a couple of months ago. Wow, I was taken aback as to how exciting internal comms could be.

Nicola is pictured on the right of this photo at the start of 2020.

The different channels you could use to enable good communications was phenomenal and I came back to the office with all sorts of ideas buzzing around my head and sat down with my Director of External Communications to work out where we could improve and then attended another session with Rachel to discuss our strategy and put a plan into place for the coming year.

And then Covid-19 happened…

My role instantly became business critical. We had to make sure that all staff were fully kept up to speed on the organisation’s thinking on how the situation would affect our day-to-day operations and making sure they had the information they needed to feel both up-to-date and confident we had a plan in place.

Way back at the end of February 2020 (which now feels a distant memory these days when one day can feel like a week!), we drew up a new contingency plan to cover the different scenarios and measures we would put in place to communicate with staff in the event of an office closure and disruption to operations.

Risk levels were at a moderate level and we were confident that we had plenty of time to discuss and iron out the plan(!). A core group was set up to discuss the plan in more detail and we involved HR, directors, IT and facilities management. It was communicated to all staff early in March to ensure they knew that we were putting steps in place should the pandemic spread and that we were taking the matter seriously.

A week after my initial email to all staff, another was sent. Risk is still moderate and government is encouraging business as usual. However, we took this opportunity to encourage staff to work from home if there was no business need for them to be in the office, and asked staff to take their laptops home every weekend and divert their phone in case of us needing to close the office.

Further reading: How I can support you remotely.

Focusing on wellbeing

Focusing on wellbeing was also central to our approach. While many people at Energy UK regularly work remotely, it was important to remember that for some this was the first time they were working from home so we quickly devised a one-pager with top tips to support wellbeing, reminding everyone of the importance of creating a suitable work area at home, taking regular breaks and keeping in touch with colleagues.

We also reminded staff as well of our Employee Assistance Programme if they were feeling anxious about the current situation and would like some extra support.

Positively encouraging people to work from home was a step that was greatly appreciated by staff and also gave us the opportunity to gradually test systems and establish support and policies.  A test day was set for 20 March 2020 when the whole organisation would work from home.

A week later on Tuesday 17 March 2020, four days before our planned day of the whole organisation working from home, the Prime Minster announced at 5pm that non-essential travel should be avoided in London and we decided to close our office, which is based in the city.

With a handful of people in the office, an announcement was made and followed up quickly with an email to all staff so that everyone working from home was aware.  We felt it was important to advise staff to only come into the office if they needed to collect anything urgently but only gave them two days to do this, also couriering equipment to staff who needed it to minimise travel into London.

So, we had reached the situation where we were all working from home.  Internal communication had gone well to this point with staff fully informed of each stages of development and a smooth transition to working from home with our testing day becoming more of a “live” test!

It was important that the good work that we had done on communicating to staff during the run up to this situation was continued.  Working remotely can be difficult, lonely and it is important to stay connected.  I have been lucky enough to be able to work from home on a regular basis but splitting my time between the office this is very different to suddenly working from home all the time and we wanted to ensure that staff still felt connected.

Acting quickly to aid internal collaboration

We acted quickly to introduce new systems to aid internal collaboration and ways of working, including adopting Microsoft Teams installed – a great platform for calls, chats and an opportunity for the different teams to create channels to keep in touch, set up meetings and work collaboratively on documents. I also ensured there was additional support for line managers and that they were regularly keeping in touch with their team, not only from a work perspective but also to make sure they were personally OK and encouraging them to maintain a positive work/life balance.

I also used these channels for social and health and wellbeing communications. I started a campaign on top tips for working from home.  A tip a day for two weeks reminding people of such things as taking a break, ways to improve your sleep, keeping active and positivity tips. I encouraged for ideas for coping strategies to help their colleagues and some brilliant photos and stories – even recipes – were shared which was really positive.

Further reading: How to communicate with employees using tech during COVID-19 and How to run a virtual Town Hall.

Encouraging employees to take their annual leave

We were already due to launch a campaign to encourage people to take their annual leave – often something difficult to do in a fast-paced, busy environment. This campaign became even more important as people began to cancel holiday given the lockdown and no one able to take a traditional holiday, but there it was even more important for people to take a break given the pressure of the situation and increase in workload for many, and people coping with the realities of life in the lockdown.

The campaign will run over a week or so showing the importance of taking a break and suggesting ideas of what staff could do with their day off during lockdown. I will be encouraging staff to share their ideas and post what they have done. Starting with myself as I take a day off to finish painting the garden fences and take the puppy on a long walk!

And then there is the social and fun channel.It is great to see staff posting on here. From pictures of their remote desks, quizzes, funny anecdotes from employee’s children, recipes and general chit chat. And, of course, the social call for the whole organisation on a Friday afternoon. Energy UK is a very social organisation with most members of staff getting together on a Friday night. So why not continue it.

A chance to share a “virtual” drink and have a chat with colleagues about anything and everything. Some have even changed their background image to the local pub to the office!  I have joined a few of these over the last few weeks and it is good to see people engaging in this way and enjoying each other’s company, even if it is remotely.

Energy UK also make an effort around birthdays. Cards are always circulating in the office for signing and cakes and treats bought in for everyone to share and we were keen that people didn’t miss out just because of the lockdown. Therefore I organised virtual birthday cards for all seven birthdays in April with help from our very talented in-house designer, so everyone received their birthday wishes from the rest of the team and also received a letterbox cake to their front door.

It is a strange time for anyone leaving or joining an organisation at the moment. We have not neglected anyone leaving the organisation with virtual cards and a nice welcome back message for one member of staff who returned from maternity leave.

What have I learned from all this?

Internal communication does not stop if everyone is remote. It is even more important to communicate in a timely manner and fun to find new and creative ways of doing so.

We’re tried hard to make sure we get it right for staff and we have received positive feedback and thanks from staff on the process in the run up to, and during, the lockdown and particularly for our focus on wellbeing.

In fact, during the lockdown, we received confirmation that we had improved upon our Investors in People Accreditation and had received silver status which was great news and a positive boost for us all that Energy UK was recognised as a great place to work, and our efforts to invest in our people and their wellbeing is being recognised.

So, we know we have at least the next few weeks as we are now but what next? The uncertainty for all will mean internal communication will remain a key priority for us – as will planning for the return to the office which is already being thought through and discussed with the core group.

Who knows if we will return to our traditional ways of working and communicating or whether we will chose to adopt any of these new ways of working permanently? Time will tell but I will look forward to maintaining many of the positive aspects we have adopted including the focus on staff wellbeing and more creative ways of communicating.

Post author: Nicola Rowland.

Thank you Nic for sharing your diary with us. What do you think about what you’ve read? You’re welcome to comment below or find me on Twitter @AllThingsIC.

Do you have a story other Comms practitioners could learn from? If so, do check out my guest post guidelines and get in touch.

Further reading about COVID-19 via the All Things IC blog

Thank you for stopping by,

Rachel

First published on the All Things IC blog 29 April 2020.

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