AB Thinks  →  16th October 2020

Keeping comms on track in a crisis

AB Thinks

These are testing times for all in internal communications. But it has also given many teams a chance to prove their worth by showcasing the vital importance of clear, frequent and direct communication with frontline colleagues.

This is especially true for Adrian Lowther, Head of Internal Communication, at the train operating company, Avanti West Coast. As the pandemic reached its height and the nation went into lockdown, Adrian was invited to join his executive board’s daily meetings.

Here, Adrian talks about this privilege, the lessons he’s learned as a result of the pandemic and the challenges he and his team has faced, including launching a brand-new channel in the middle of lockdown.

What was it like to be invited to join the executive team meetings?
“The recognition was great. I hope it means we have cemented our position in the eyes of our leadership team and really proved our worth. I took the opportunity to add to the discussion or take the lead where it was appropriate.  It has also given me an instant view of everything that’s going on across the business.

“My relationship with the executive team, as individuals and a group, is stronger. The format of those meetings has changed a little – they’ve reverted back to meeting on their own, but they still invite me to join them quite frequently and are happy for me to stay on the call, as I think they see the benefit of me hearing the rest of the meeting.”

Government guidance has changed frequently. How did you decipher what it means for Avanti staff?
“The government’s guidance would often come out at very short notice and as very broad statements. Their intention was to give more detailed guidance at a later date. Sometimes those details wouldn’t come for another two, three, four days. This meant we had to turn around the government’s high level guidance into policy affecting the delivery of our operations before it became law. We worked closely with our safety teams – if we couldn’t keep our people safe, we couldn’t keep customers safe.

“We produced Covid briefing packs containing timetabling, catering and ticket checking information. That model worked well. Now we’ve moved into a more business-as-usual phase where briefing packs for different teams can be sent once a week as needed, containing everything the frontline needs, rather than a more piecemeal approach.”

You’ve got plans to equip all your people with mobile devices. What’s the benefit of this and did Covid accelerate their rollout?
“It’s in our plans and I’m hoping roll out will start in the coming months. Not all roles have work devices and this sometimes makes connecting with all colleagues a struggle. We rely on paper copies of our communications in some areas and on colleagues’ goodwill to use their own phones.

“We have 3,700 staff and only 600 or 700 are what you’d call office, desk or depot-based. Everyone else is mobile, working on platforms, stations or on board a train.

“The moment everyone has their own work device it’s game-changing from an IC perspective. I would call it the promised land! It will reduce the opportunity for things to be missed and speed up the communication process.

You released a new channel during lockdown. Why?
“The launch of a new news and information app was linked to other technology projects that were forging ahead so we needed to make the transition. There was no time to waste. People wanted to get the latest information quickly and were very engaged.

“I described the introduction of the new app as changing the wings on a jumbo while it was in mid-flight. It’s a credit to my team for managing it so successfully.

“We use Yammer as our internal social network and people enjoy using it. During the pandemic the issues we saw coming through on Yammer gave us a useful steer on the questions we needed to address and what we needed to be crystal clear on.

“With our channels, it’s about using the right tool for the job. Some things need to be a simple one-way message – we don’t need a big conversation. But at other times, we want to co-create, get people’s views and encourage questions. Yammer is great for that conversation and debate.”

What have you learnt during Covid-19, and what lessons will you be taking forward?
“What I found was that, at the height of the pandemic, until internal communications was clear on something and saying it to the business, nothing went external – we gave the green light.

“We put our colleagues first. We never made an announcement about our service until we told everyone internally first. In that way, colleagues could help be the voice to our customers. This worked really well. I also worked closely with our marketing and social media teams. People knew who we were and what we can do but hopefully, our stock’s gone up a bit, and people understand better the value we bring.

“For me personally, my knowledge of the railway industry has gone through the roof! What would have probably taken me three years to learn, I’ve learnt in half the time. That’s been hugely beneficial as it helps me support our colleagues better.

“I’ve definitely built stronger relationships across the business. The entire experience stands us in good stead when the next crisis hits: we’ll know the people and how they like to work.”