The Secret in the Lockers – a gratitude initiative at NHS Digital

I have a really special guest post to share with you today. I think it’s the best thing I’ve read all year.

It’s a tale of hope, kindness, values and looking ahead with a positive mindset. It’s the tonic I needed to read and I can’t wait for you to experience it too. Thank you to Andy Kirby, @andrew_kirby1, comms manager at NHS Digital here in the UK for allowing me to feature your thoughts here via my blog.

Gratitude is incredibly powerful. I’ve been practising it with my children during lockdown, we’ve been writing journals and making a point of being thankful individually and as a family.

One eye on the future
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the next step for us as Comms practitioners, our organisations, the impact of having split workforces once lockdown restrictions are lifted and much more.

What will it mean to have a divided workforce – with some people continuing to work from home, while others return to customer facing roles in PPE or behind protective screens? How can we keep everyone’s eyes firmly focused on the purpose of our organisation, whilst treating them differently in terms of physical space?

If you have frontline workers, that physical difference has always been the case, it often leads to a feeling of layers or tiers in the organisation. But we now have different risks to contend with in all locations caused by COVID-19. As a result, I think we’ll see additional layers and tiers.

This is our time Comms friends to really dig deep. This whole situation needs a different mindset and truly intentional and meaningful internal communication and leadership – in a new way.

We’ve known for years that communication is the glue or thread in an organisation and spend a lot of energy plugging the gaps through channels and ways of working. Most of my Masterclass attendees who create their own “Internal communication is…” statements include that bonding element.

But it’s at risk of fraying unless we have clarity around what needs to be gelled together. The gulf of physical workplaces will make that role harder – but underlines its criticality. I know I will write a lot more on this. One thing I’ve stopped doing is saying post-COVID-19. We need to think about living with Coronavirus instead.

Further reading: What does internal communication mean?

From my own perspective, I’m trying to understand how I can continue to run face-to-face Masterclasses, particularly as I’m locked into a license with my All Things IC Hub office landlords for the next few years. Will I have to remodel the space to enforce a 2m gap? Can I even run them any more and use the space? Will anyone be able to travel to training courses and face-to-face strategy sessions outside of their own company?

So many queries whizzing around in my mind. I know your own situation will be keeping you awake at night too. I published my first Ask me Anything video yesterday to address some of your queries. As ever, I’d love to know your thoughts, feel free to comment below or find me on Twitter @AllthingsIC. 

I blogged about How to prepare your employees for the future the other day. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t done so already. It will help you start structuring your thinking about the questions you need to answer. Note: you’ll have more unknowns than knowns right now. And that’s ok. My unknowns list is enormous. Knowns has one thing on it right now.

But for now, let me unleash this tale of hope on you as promised.

I’m delighted to introduce this guest post by Andy Kirby, he’s a comms manager at NHS Digital here in the UK, and a professional storyteller. Andy says he “currently responsible for surfacing the strategic narrative within the organisation.” Here’s his LinkedIn profile if you want to find out more about him.

Further reading on the All Things IC blog: What is a strategic narrative?

I’ll hand you over to Andy…

The Secret in the Lockers: A Gratitude Initiative

When we’re out of this and we’re finally allowed back into our offices we’ll break the seal of the doors of our workspaces like archaeologists. We’ll be like Howard Carter and his pal Lord Carnarvon nearly a century ago, when they entered the interior chambers of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Our fingers trembling. Holding our breaths. Feeling the draught of a million pent-up memories washing over us.

Carter and Carnarvon found the tombs miraculously intact. Just as we’ll find our workspaces intact. The Kanban boards will still be on the wall (though we’ll have progressed some things since we could last physically move the tiles). The pictures of the whole team when they were babies – a leftover from a long-past awayday. Notices blu-tacked to the fridge about events long-gone.

Though we hotdesked in the old days, before lockdown changed our ways of working forever, we’ll find our favourite mugs and perhaps our favourite pens on our favoured desks. I’ll find the stress-ball Baby Trump on ‘my’ desk. A Movember lapel badge. A SoccerStars model of a large-headed Eric Cantona. Hardly treasures, but memories nonetheless.

Can you see anything?
When Carter and Carnarvon entered the inner chambers they also found a secret doorway between two statues. Having obviously not watched the Indiana Jones movies, Carter – his head filled with dreams of booty – poked his head through, and thank goodness did not have his nose bitten off by a snake or his neck pierced by a poisoned arrow. Behind him, his pal, old Carnarvon was moving his head this way and that, thinking let me see, let me see. Breathlessly he asked Carter: “Can you see anything?”

Carter, a showman to the last, waited before responding. Perhaps he was thinking up a good line. One which would be remembered. Finally he said: “Yes, wonderful things!”

There is a similar secret chamber in the ‘tomb’ of the communications team on the first floor of Vantage House, Leeds. And here’s where our buried treasure drama changes to become something else.

You see, there’s a bank of lockers which form a partition wall for our breakout space. Something of value – something of values – has been left in one of the lockers, like the mystery packages hidden in railway station left luggage in spy thrillers. In some ways, what has been left is the shimmering, priceless soul of our team.

Cut to new scene.

In November last year a couple of us in the comms team launched a new initiative by stealth. A colleague and I were looking to spread the love within the comms team. We wanted to find a way of thanking colleagues for a doing great job, for providing a helping hand, or simply for a bit of kindness. That kind of thing. We called it our gratitude initiative.

In the end, we settled on thank you cards. The cards we chose were bespoke designs for us, produced by EyUp! the charity of South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (SWYPFT) – so our initiative had the added bonus of helping local health services. Two hundred were produced, all profits going to EyUp!

An empty locker
As I say, we introduced the initiative by stealth. We wanted the gratitude initiative to spread organically within the team, and then into the wider organisation. So we found an empty locker. Office services kindly provided us with a secret code.

And then we started. I wanted to thank Kirsten for all of her hard work on the ShadowMe programme so I sent her an email which read like Mission Impossible. I sent another email to a guy who works in the cyber team. He’d helped me out when I fainted giving blood. Walked me back to the office after making sure I was OK.

Their mission, if they chose to accept it, was to find the secret locker. Enter the secret code. Find their card. And then take two more from the pile, and, when they were ready, give them out to people who’d helped them, or done a good job. Then those people were supposed to send out two cards. And so on, and so forth.

My fellow gratitude ninja who helped set this up was also busy being grateful; passing cards to say thanks for support, for great work, for kindness. And, each time, passing on the secret. She even got a card back about a week later, telling her about the secret cards. Wonderful things!

But before the initiative could really take off… lockdown. Now the cards lie lonely and undiscovered in the secret locker, waiting for a Carter or a Carnarvon to find them.

And we will rediscover them. And we will start again with the initiative because saying thank you is who we are. It’s the way we do things around here.

Working on values
At the same time as working on the gratitude initiative, the business partner network (a team within the wider comms team) were working on our values. What made us us. Our soul, if you will.

In the end we settled on the following:

  • we are bold
  • we are skilful
  • we are professional
  • we love to learn
  • we embrace change
  • we are ourselves.

The gratitude initiative speaks directly to that final value. Our team are friendly and kind. We have empathy. We know what matters to each other – and we respect that. We choose our words and conversations carefully, so we never inadvertently offend. We have integrity and never cast blame. We’ve got each other’s backs. We love to laugh.

We never forget to say thank you.

I have a lot of people to thank, not least Paul Cartwright, Head of marketing and communication at SWYPFT who helped us arrange all of this. Not least every one of my colleagues within the business partner network and the wider comms team. Not least my family. Not least keyworkers. I’m sure you do too.

If there is one silver lining of this lockdown it is that we have – already, and collectively – discovered the time capsule which contains ‘thank you’. We have remembered to use it, and we do en masse every Thursday evening – the day which forms the centrepiece of all of our weeks now. NHS Digital’s internal comms team have started their own gratitude initiative – a mechanism by way of thanking staff who’ve done good deeds during this weird and worrying time. We walk past houses with words of thanks chalked onto their driveways, or blu-tacked up in windows.

Thank you’s become big-time again now. For now the cards remain in their own lockdown, but when they are re-discovered I think they’ll fly out of that locker.

Now we’ve recalled the words, we shouldn’t ever stop saying them.

Post author: Andy Kirby.

See what I mean?! I defy you to be feeling anything other than lifted and encouraged right now. How does this translate for your company? What were you in the middle of doing physically in your workplaces? How have you translated them digitally?

I’ve helped All Things clients think through how to shift their values launch from their physical spaces to virtual spaces and digital formats over the past few weeks. We’re all having to adjust, pivot, evolve. Call it what you will, it’s exhausting! If you are feeling overwhelmed but energised at the same time as you’re able to use your skills in a meaningful way, I hear you.

Thank you again Andy. I can’t wait to hear the next chapter once your people are back at the NHS Digital office in Leeds at some point in the future. Do please come back and update us.

Further reading about values via the All Things IC blog

Do you have a story to share? If so, please check out my guidelines and get in touch. I love featuring stories from in-house Communication practitioners to inspire others.

Thank you for stopping by


Published on the All Things IC blog 4 May 2020.



  1. […] The blog post I published on LinkedIn regarding the gratitude initiative we set up at my workplace has now been picked up and published by the fantastic ‘All Things Internal Comms’ site. You can read it here. […]

  2. […] My ‘gratitude initiative’ blog has gone viral. As well as trending on both Twitter and LinkedIn, it’s also been picked up by the ‘Alive with Ideas: Creativity in your Corner’ site (here). You can read the post here. […]

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