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How to communicate with remote workers during the pandemic

Whether your employees are usually based all in one building or spread out across the country, we’re all having to communicate in different ways right now.

How can you best communicate with employees who are working remotely at this time?

What if the majority are providing front-line services as key workers?

I caught up with Naomi Jones, Communications Director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK on this topic. I know it’s one you’re keen to know more about and Naomi kindly agreed to answer my questions.

With employees working in waste management classified as key workers, the majority of SUEZ’s 5,500 people are still out collecting recycling and waste from our homes and businesses, cleaning our streets and running sorting, recycling, processing, landfill and energy-from-waste facilities for the country behind the scenes.

I wanted to discover how they communicate with such a dispersed and operational workforce, particularly at the moment.

Further reading: How to communicate with remote workers.

Q) What are the challenges of communicating with your people remotely?

The majority of our employees have very practical, operational roles that mean they are rarely, if ever, at a desk. Our people are predominantly drivers, site operatives, engineers, loaders.  Over half our staff do not have a work laptop, phone or email account, as they don’t need it for their jobs.

Picture credit: SUEZ.

Many of those that do and can access our digital systems, don’t do so regularly as their roles are operational.

If they do sit down at a desk, their time is very limited. We also have many shift workers, and people whose job requires them to travel a lot and cover large areas. Not to mention the fact the we have sites as far north as Inverness, Scotland and as far south as Poole, Dorset. We also have a fair number of our people whose first language is not English.

Q) What are the new challenges posed by the pandemic?

The pandemic has presented new challenges, the main one being that most of our senior management team and business support functions are now working from home, in order to assist with the government’s safety measures for the country, while the majority of our teams are out in the field as key workers.

Normally, half of my comms team is based out around the business and the rest get out and about in the business regularly. We are currently all working from home. The challenge is not just that most of our employees are remote to us, but we are also more remote to them. This makes it harder to know what matters to them.

It is also very tough for our teams right now, as it is for all key workers. They are working very hard, for longer hours and in smaller teams to aid social distancing.

However, we have a very engaged workforce because we have concentrated over the years on being close to our people, prioritising getting and responding to feedback and focused on manager engagement.

We don’t have the fanciest systems or the biggest communications budget. But ultimately, it has reinforced the strong sense of family that the business has, despite its relatively large size and geographical spread.

Q) What is your approach to internal communication as a company?

A It sounds clichéd, but SUEZ really does have a family culture and actively invests in its people, so many who join the company stay for 10, 20 or even 30 years. I joined at 28 as Head of Comms and planned to stay a couple of years. I am still here as I love my job. Our people are very passionate about what they do due to the environmental role our company plays.

Keeping people interested for that long means you have to try and keep it fresh as much as possible.

We have a strong culture of coming together and sharing across the business – most managers have daily or weekly meeting with the teams, so for important projects or campaigns, we produce printed presentation packs that managers can hold up during these meetings.

We also try not to bombard our teams with information, or stuff that is not relevant to them, so they don’t switch off, and we encourage all employees to share their news, achievements and best practice so that it can be celebrated more widely.

Recognising great work is really important to us, as it ensuring that the dialogue between my team and employees across the business is two-way – due to the size of the company, we rely on people sending us their news, which definitely helps to keep everyone thinking about communicating and sharing.

Picture credit: SUEZ.

Q) What are the most important aspects of your internal comms during the pandemic?

Very early on we identified that our employees needed leadership, regular and consistent communications, employee led communications, recognition and, the all-important ‘virus relief’!

Although health and safety is one of our main topics at any time due to the nature of our business, the pandemic has meant that it is even more front and centre.

Our people are key workers and our priority as a business is to protect them and support them. Being quick to respond to government announcements and concerns from among our workforce to ensure that we are providing clarity to our people during this uncertain time has helped for sure.

It is important that we are able to reassure employees that we are managing the situation, to avoid the spread of misinformation and speculation.

In addition, we prioritise employee-led comms and comms requested by employees. The public support for key workers has been incredible and we therefore ensure daily sharing of the artwork created by kids and the thank you messages we receive as well as the many examples of our employees giving back to charities and their communities.

Our Giving Something Back programme is very important to us and over the last six years we have raised £280,000 for Macmillan through predominantly employee led fundraising. Our support for Macmillan has continued during the pandemic.

We have also put a strong focus on personal health and wellbeing, as we know many people have struggled with being confined due to the lockdown, so we have offered content on mental health and physical fitness from home, tips for entertaining your kids at home, to help make people’s lives a little easier where we can.

Q)  What about the role of leadership?

Our CEO John Scanlon, who has been with the company for 28 years but was only two months into his role when this all kicked off, has been a fantastic leader, very visible and decisive.

John puts out three CEO comms a week, one of which is a video which he films at home and which is then edited by my Visual Content Manager (we do most of our videography and photography in-house). We are lucky he is very tech savvy!

John also hosts webinars so that employees can ask him questions. The last one was attended by over 600 staff, many of whom logged on as teams out at our sites – using safe social distancing of course!

Our CEOs have always been highly visible in the business. Before COVID-19, we held monthly informal lunches with 20 front line staff. Over the last few years, we have met with 2000 employees this way. We are looking at moving this on-line during the pandemic.

 Q)  How do you communicate?

Monthly updates from the CEO are sent to sites and managers for them to display on their notice boards or hand to employees. We also produce quarterly regional newsletters that are more targeted to local sites, that are distributed in the same way. Our employee magazine ‘SUEZ Life’ is printed three times a year and posted to all employees, so this is a vital channel to connect with our frontline employees. All of these products feature stories about our frontline people – it is content for them, about them. We try not to make it too ‘corporate’.

For our people who can access our IT systems, we have an intranet with daily news, a monthly manager’s newsletter, and last year we started using Yammer, which is growing in popularity and has been a key tool during the pandemic while more people are working remotely. Our stats here have gone through the roof, with a 200% increase in users and engagement. (Wow that’s a huge increase! – Rachel)

Q) Do you have any advice you’d like to share with other Comms practitioners?

Work with what you have. We don’t have extensive digital tools, or a big budget and we have a small internal comms team of three people. But we have a very engaged leadership team, the internal communications team I have is fantastic and we have employee advocacy which you can’t buy. That comes from years of genuine engagement.

Q) Is there anything else you want to tell us or think we should know?

Be employee led, get regular feedback and respond quickly.

Love that! Thank you very much Naomi for sharing your insights with us. Do you have any questions? You can find Naomi on LinkedIn, on Twitter @NaomiLJones1 or feel free to comment below. I found it fascinating to hear the range of methods the company is using.

I’m going to sign off with this video from SUEZ (which I defy you to watch without getting goosebumps!). It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at the work that’s happening globally:

Don’t forget if you are working in-house and have a story to share, I’d love to hear from you. Do check out my guidelines and get in touch.

Further reading about COVID-19 via All Things IC

Thank you for stopping by

Rachel.

First published on the All Things IC blog 20 April 2020.

Rachel Miller All Things IC

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