How employee communications came to the fore in Covid-19
Who would have thought 2020 would have been the year it has so far! No amount of continuity planning or exercise training could have prepared us for the past six months and the scale of the Covid-19 crisis which dramatically impacted the world as we knew it.
While not new to a crisis, I am new to policing and being part of this unprecedented situation has been an eye-opener. The professionalism we have shown in challenging times, particularly that shown by our front-line colleagues, has been awe inspiring. The public support behind those who work in emergency services has been humbling. And the dedication of my colleagues to ensure we keep our people and the public safe, while putting themselves at risk of catching the virus, has strengthened my sense of belonging within the policing community.
What struck me early on was, as communicators, we were not just dealing with one major incident. We were dealing with two – policing a pandemic and ensuring we remained connected to a workforce who almost overnight found themselves working remotely, or unable to work at all.
Collaborating with our People Services department, it was our role to ensure our people – whether they were shielding, working from home, coming into HQ or stations, or unable to work – felt informed, connected and confident in us as their employer.
At Surrey Police and Sussex Police, initially our communications centred on the operational response to Covid-19; how we were supporting the Government and our local resilience forums to police the pandemic. A daily bulletin for all staff and one for our extended leadership group was created. Short, simple and clear calls to action ensured people could easily bring themselves up to speed on issues like PPE, policy changes and national guidance. A central page was built on our intranet providing a one stop shop for line manager guidance, employee information, operational updates and IT processes. This was replicated on an ‘extranet’ for those without access to force systems.
Once the operational communications approach was established, our employee communication focus switched onto the engagement and wellbeing of our people. While we were all in the same crisis, everyone was experiencing it differently. Some were in lockdown alone. Others were with family or friends. Some had gardens allowing them to take time outside easily. Others did not and had to battle for the same parks, coastline, beauty spots as the thousands of others trying to do the same. Each of our employees was in a different situation, therefore creating consistency through communication and ensuring our people could connect and support each other through various means became the overarching goal.
New internal communications channels were launched in days and weeks rather than months. We wanted to showcase real people from across the organisation and therefore started a weekly ‘story from the front-line’ where individuals shared how Covid-19 had impacted upon their role. Our people had questions and we needed to answer them therefore our ‘In Conversation’ series was launched. Senior leaders involved in both the organisational and operational response held live Q&As on our forums. Subjects including HR, IT and wellbeing were covered and proved popular. Those who were at home without access to force systems were able to dial into ‘Tea with’ sessions; again, held with senior leaders who would update them on everything happening internally.
The wellbeing of our people was vital, ensuring they were mentally and physically well during a period of high demand and also personal uncertainty. Wellbeing Wednesdays were created, with weekly themes providing tips on exercise, nutrition, mindfulness. We also encouraged our people to sign up to the Oscar Kilo mind-fit cop programme and saw over 200 people participate.
We were in the process of rolling out Microsoft Teams, however the delivery of this was not going to be fast enough to meet our immediate needs around connecting employees to each other. We therefore launched Facebook Workplace as a solution. As most of you will know, something of this scale would typically involve a team of people and a clear launch plan over a number of weeks. That approach was thrown out of the window with Covid! We set it up quickly, we tested it within our own communications teams in Surrey and Sussex and then we launched it in April to line managers initially – encouraging them to use it with those who were at home shielding or without force system access. It has grown organically since and now has nearly 600 active members creating groups, conversations and sharing content. For us, this is not a channel to be owned by corporate communications, therefore while we have provided the framework for usage, we want people to be empowered to develop their areas as they wish.
In my experience as an employee communicator, there has never been a time like this where we’ve had such a captive audience. We were their single point of truth. Our content provided reassurance, confidence and safety. We made a real difference in people feeling that, as organisations, we had this and we had them.
To achieve this, we needed to react quickly, evolve our communications channels, decipher the complexity and provide clarity for our people. I’ve never been prouder of the way we, as corporate communications departments, stepped up to the Covid challenge. I believe our flexibility, advice and expertise in this crisis has opened the eyes of many of our operational colleagues to the ultimate value transparent, clear and creative communication can have within a major incident; particularly when it comes to connecting with our own people.
Emily Rockey is an APComm Vice-Chair and also leads the collaborative People Services Communications Hub across Surrey Police and Sussex Police; focusing on all aspects of people engagement and experience. During Covid-19, she held various positions, including Silver Communications, and now leads on the joint force recovery communications.