When it comes to communicating a corporate narrative, storytelling is often seen as the best way of landing your message with employees. But how do you do this effectively when the internal and external landscape seems to be constantly changing and throwing challenges your way on an almost daily basis?
For Elliott Davis, Internal Communications and Engagement Manager at Yorkshire Water, company culture is everything – as is finding that common ground that speaks to the many without alienating the few…
Gallagher: You’ve faced a fair amount of change at Yorkshire Water in the past few years – from COVID-19, to large-scale transformation programs, to new CEOs, to navigating the reality of a very unstable global economy. How have you managed to communicate your change journey while setting realistic expectations that will keep colleagues engaged?
ED: We launched our Big Ambition – our new story and behaviors, our promise and our purpose – at a big event in March 2020; and then something [COVID-19] happened that took a lot of focus away from that…
But, like a lot of organizations, we adapted. We revisited it and asked ourselves: Who do we work with? How do we do it? And because we'd got ongoing transformation programs and also continuous improvement that we want to spotlight and engage colleagues around, we had to change our way of working.
In order to for us to do it right, we asked: ‘How do we align ourselves to deliver the best communication that will help bring to life what we want to do?’ And not only did we create a kind of narrative device to help us do that, but we aligned ourselves to it in terms of who we are working with internally as an organization.
Gallagher: Talk us through this narrative device – sounds interesting…
ED: We work in ‘Buckets’ at Yorkshire Water: Bucket 1 is about continuous improvement – our everyday work, our business as usual; Bucket 2 is all about delivering for our people and giving them what they need to do a great job – that ranges from health and safety to facilities to wellbeing, and it aligns to our promise as an organization; and Bucket 3 is where we plan ahead – it’s all about getting ready to meet the expectations of the future.
We're heavily regulated organization, our customers expect more and we’ve traditionally used internal communication to try to reiterate that. So what we've done is essentially build little project teams that look after each of those Buckets and we channel our work that way, which helps us time things right, coordinate our schedules and tell our story repeatedly and consistently.
This means that when we’re talking about something that is a long-term change initiative, we can go straight to Bucket 3 where there is a team that’s capable of delivering on this. It helps us fundamentally adapt in terms of how we manage our work, which has really unlocked the regularity of which we can tell, and embed, that story through the content that that we are creating.
Gallagher: That doesn’t just sound like a true coming together of business units, it sounds like it’s adding clarity to the overall proposition too – is that a fair assessment? And how do you make it work?
ED: Definitely. We all have week-by-week and month-by-month plans to not just help us do that, but to help us stay honest too. So if we see, for example, two big change programs in Bucket 3 that need similar resource, it really helps us to not only plan ahead and unlock our true potential really efficiently, it helps us make sure that we're not overwhelming colleagues too.
I’m not saying it’s perfect – nothing ever is – and it’s still a work in progress for us, but it’s truly changed how we manage our work and I believe it has made things much clearer for colleagues.
Gallagher: That's so important, isn't it? But how does data come into play here? How are you measuring and reporting your wins and your challenges at Yorkshire Water?
ED: Internal communication is never a priority – until it is; and so what we have to do is make sure that when that priority comes round, we're ready for it. That’s not to say we're not valued as a function; it’s just the nature of a business like ours, when there are emergency situations like storms and leaks that we have to focus on.
That’s why it was so important for us to invest in our data suite – so we could see what worked and what didn't, because the one thing you have to be really ready for with that data is knowing what doesn't work.
Our suite of data includes Google Analytics on our intranet pages, which helped us find out really quickly that, first and foremost, our intranet is a self-service tool for colleagues. So we quickly adapted to make sure that people can easily access what they want while, at the same time, ensuring that they fly past all of the exciting stories and content that we're creating for them too.
Gallagher: And what about the human element? In an organization like yours, that’s full of very dedicated people who want to show up and make a difference, how important is it to gain their buy-in when it comes to really living that narrative?
ED: Before we launched our Big Ambition, I went out with one of our technicians in the West Yorkshire area and I asked him if he was aware of what we were doing and what he thought about it.
He said: ‘Yes, and I get it, and it's a nice sentiment. But how is it going to reduce leakage and water use in Halifax? Because if you can tell me that – and if you can tell me how I’ll play my part – I'm all in.’
That’s the challenge, isn’t it? The ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor. Unfortunately, as a central comms function, we have four-and-a-half-thousand individual cases of ‘what’s in it for me?’ – and, unless you have the resource to make it personal for every single colleague, you have to maximise impact with what you’ve got.
It’s really all about forming a strategy, then pushing it to see what happens and how it much impact you’re having. Just make sure you measure everything or else you’re just shouting into nothingness.
Gallagher: How have you seen this play out in ‘real time’ at Yorkshire Water?
ED: Our frontline operational teams in waste water are a really good example of this. One of the things they have recently asked for is more support around mental health. Bearing in mind that the majority of colleagues in this group are middle-aged males, finding out that this was one of the three big things they actively want to gain more understanding of really shocked me.
I had pre-conceived notion that things like pay and working hours would be top of their agenda, when actually being able to connect them with emotional support and provide space to learn and feel empowered and supported in this area is what will make the biggest difference to them.
So don't underestimate anyone and try not to assume. Get that data and insight however you can, and spend time doing it so you can be as effective as possible for as many people as possible.