Podcast: Measuring Internal Comms at fast-growing companies
Thu, Aug 27, '20 •
How do you organize a remote get-together when you don’t know any stakeholders? Where does Slack fit into the Internal Comms channel mix? And how do you actually measure the business effects of Internal Comms? We're continuing our binge-learning efforts by taking inspiration from fast-growing companies, and this episode is a special one.
Miriam Boulia, TransferWise’s Internal Communications Manager tackled all three questions with smarts and whit – and her insights lead to an episode that is a must-listen for any Internal Communicator out there.
Watch the episode below, listen to it on your favorite podcast platform or read the full transcript! Oh, and don’t forget to rate us on iTunes :)
Jonathan Davies: Alright, welcome. We're back with another episode of the Internal Communications podcast and today...well, I always say that I have a special treat for you, but today I really, really do have a special treat for you – in the form of Miriam who works at TransferWise, which is obviously one of, probably the most well known fast growing companies, right now, particularly for British expats. Miriam's built up a career in Internal Communications and thrives and fast-paced environments. There's a lot of information to share about her Internal Comms approach there as she also has a unique outlook on how we should be measuring Internal Comms and not just output, but also business outcome. Well I'm going to stop bigging you up and let you introduce yourself!
Miriam Boulia: Hi, I'm very happy to be here. Thank you for having me. Great introduction! I'm Miriam. I work at Transferwise. I joined them in the middle of a pandemic. I've actually never set foot in the office. I've been working from home. Which has kind of had its own challenges, but it's also given me a really good insight into how things work as I've kind of started, my role as more of an outsider looking in.
It's a good way to analyze current processes, how we're doing certain things, our channels, what our audience thinks. When I first found out I would be still joining TransferWise during lockdown, which filled me with some dread to be quite honest with you, It's also been very positive.
Jonathan Davies: That’s pretty amazing. First off Internal Communicators need to be really visible in their company. You're not physically visible. What have you been doing to make yourself digitally visible?
Miriam Boulia: When I started I had a look on our HR System and started to kind of get an understanding of the structure of the company and how different teams, where they sat and how they were run. I started just reaching out to key stakeholders in the business to introduce myself and introduce the concept of Internal Communications as a starting point, because I'm the first person to do this role at TransferWise. It was a part educational piece, part introduction, and also part exposure for me.
I managed it and approached it in a very much kind of two way-way in terms of what I can provide you with what you're going to get out of it, but also what I can get out of it and slowly and steadily, my manager has also been, promoting myself as well within the business and Internal Comms, essentially as a function.
I got thrown in at the deep end. When I joined, I started working on one of the biggest Internal Communications projects we have within the the year. Which is our kind of all employee cohort called mission days. It's a twice, it's a twice year-event where we would fly, pre-COVID, all of our employees to three locations around the world.
But obviously this time it was fully remote. I was like I said, thrown in at the deep end. I was tasked with managing this project from an Internal Communications perspective. The usual things of the logistics side of everything, and managing the speakers and where they needed to be and what they needed to, produce for us, but also managing the messaging that they wanted to communicate to our employees to make sure it was aligned with our mission aligned with our strategy, that the product updates were concise, cohesive, that they were communicating in a very digestible manner as well. It was a bit of a culture shock for me as it was fully remote. I never managed anything like that in a remote environment. I'd done stuff like that before, but it was always face to face and because I'd never met anyone face to face, it was super challenging to have to deliver feedback and direct people over Zoom. Because of that in answer to your question, Jonathan, that gave me exposure as well within the business, because I was liaising with multiple key stakeholders. Predominantly for the product team, which is super important for the Internal Comms function at TransferWise because the product directly links to our mission, which is what all of our employees work towards on a day-to-day basis. People really feel very connected to our mission, which is such a nice thing. I've never experienced that before working in a company and it's super positive. I'm really happy to be at TransferWise.
Jonathan Davies: I'm just imagining, I'm just putting myself in your position of starting completely a new and a new company. Then one of the first things you have to organize this, this massive company-wise remote event that you've never done anything like it before.
To be fair, I think there are a lot of Internal Communicators that have never organized a big remote event before. Pre-COVID, we could do a lot of things offline. I guess my number one question related to that is you had to liaise with a lot of key stakeholders. Adjust your messaging. You had your own input, your own ideas, your own fresh, especially that fresh new energy that you want to bring into a company, but you have no relationships really to get those things across. How did you help people tweak their message in a way that they would accept your tweaks?
Miriam Boulia: I think first and foremost, TransferWise is, day-to-day, a very feedback driven company.
It's not abnormal for someone in say customer services to give feedback to someone in the legal team. Again, I think it’s a very unique part of our culture. It helps our teams kind of deliver towards the mission because you can always get input from anyone. I think it's so easy when you're working on a project that you’re managing to get stuck into that, and just keep going in the direction that you think is best without kind of understanding or sense checking or hearing out from other people who might have some other good ideas, right? This is really unique to TransferWise. It's something I've not experienced before. It helped with, as a new joiner in this remit to deliver feedback.
There's that part, but there's also the stakeholder management element that I made sure I did prior to the feedback for our mission days. I made sure that I reached out to the various presenters and speakers that were going to speak at the event, and just got to know them a little bit and set up 15 minute calls with them, just to kind of understand what they wanted to get out of mission days. I could introduce myself and kind of present to them a little bit about my philosophy and my Internal-Comms way of working so that they could understand what the direction was. And also, see Internal Communications, i.e me, as a valuable service to help them land their messages for our audience who could then really relate to what we were doing in terms of mission progression. Understand what it was going to take to get there, how long potentially, and basically their role within that. Making people feel really connected. I used that general explanation with everyone that I spoke to, to enable consistency and to really kind of make them understand how my feedback could be valuable to them. In turn, just ensure that we were working towards our mission together and that's the key thing.
Jonathan Davies: Actually it's funny because I've recently been talking to a lot of Internal Communicators that want tips and starting their own Internal Comms podcasts. From doing this podcast quite simply, one of the first things I always tell people is just have a call and get to know somebody first.
I think that already proves just how important that is, but I think it's really great to have that kind of “here's what's in it for you” attitude. It’s definitely an aspect that sometimes it's maybe taken a little bit for granted, sometimes Internal Communicators get so overwhelmed with everything they want to do, that they're really focused on all of that output and not on, what's going to be the outcome of the person at the receiving end. Now we're going to dive more into output and outcome in a bit, because we've had such a good talk about that before that I just basically want you to share your knowledge with the audience again.
However, I have a really interesting question. Well, I hope you find it interesting. When it came to TransferWise, because it's a really fast-growing company in the tech space. They, at a certain point, decided “we need an Internal Communicator.” They didn't have that before you joined our first one. Why did they decide that they need an Internal Communicator?
Miriam Boulia: Interesting questions. I know that they understand how Internal Communications could have a direct effect on employee engagement and therefore reduced attrition. I think that they were doing quite a lot in the way of Internal Communications, but there was no real strategy and no real understanding of audiences, i.e segmentation, and channels as well. They relied heavily on Slack and still do at the moment, but there are plans to progress that and kind of see if there's anything else that we could launch internally to improve Internal Communications. When I went for my interview, They described how Internal Communications was running. I think they did themselves a bit of a disservice, to be honest with you, because they kind of positioned it as though nothing was happening. They [said they] didn't know what they were doing. It was just a lot of information being shared – which is true. There is a lot of information. There is a lot of noise. However, I think that they were managing to a certain level. I think the reason why they then decided to hire someone in is because we have growth plans to scale massively. In order to be prepared for that growth, It was imperative at that point that they would, they would hire someone to come in and help with the changes that are going to happen and to ensure that our employees remain connected to our mission. That they remain informed and continue their journey at TransferWise and stay, and that our employee experience improves as well. I think that's really important. Like I said, we are about to embark on a huge growth journey. And with that inevitably comes a lot of change.
We see ourselves internally as very much still a startup, unfortunately part of that will evolve and change. I think we don't want to lose people through that journey. We want to make sure that people stay connected. Like I said, and I think it was when they realized that, that they knew that they needed someone to come in and help them with that part of the mission.
Jonathan Davies: Awesome. It really was about, we want to scale our culture as we grow. Basically we're growing, we're scaling the amount of people we have from the offices locations, all of that stuff. Our culture needs to be sustainable and go along with that. That's amazing. That's a very good business problem, I suppose, for an Internal Communicator to tackle.
Miriam Boulia: Well, that's a huge opportunity for me :)
Jonathan Davies: I understand. Actually you mentioned, another thing that I hear so frequently, particularly in the tech industry and with other fast growing companies is, everybody loves Slack back, which we do too. I think it's a great tool for fast-paced messaging, essentially.
In fact, it's probably the best for that to be very fair. You mentioned that they're trying to run everything through it. Now, without talking about any solutions that you're trying to figure out to take place, I'm just curious: What are the problems that you are encountering with using only Slack?
Because I hear so many Internal Communicators that want to bring in different solution, but they're hearing from the executive level: “Well, we have Slack. This is, this is what you need to deal with.” Why is that? Why does that not suffice?
Miriam Boulia: I hear that a lot as well from our leadership team. It’s very common that we'll push something through Slack as that's our main medium at the moment. The feedback I get when I challenge how far the message has gone is that, well, if it's been posted on Slack, that means everyone's read it.
The reality is it's not. Firstly, and I don't know if this is unique to TransferWise, but this isn't a problem with Slack. I really like Slack as an instant messaging, information-consuming tool. It's that as a company and as apart of our culture we are encouraged to share and collaborate and, and share our successes and achievements stories. There are lots of channels because that's part of the culture I was just explaining. Sharing, and people are trusted and supported, and feel free to share their experiences. But with that comes a lot of noise, as you can imagine.
The implication of that is that you have some parts of the business who are constantly on Slack and constantly consuming information. For that part of the business, I think Slack is a really good tool. However, you have some other parts of the business and I'm sure it's not just unique to TransferWise, who don't have the time to constantly follow Slack, and scroll through channels to see what information they've missed. I think that is the main issue and the main challenge that I'm facing at the moment. It's just far too noisy and there's far too much information. In addition to that, there's no real strategy for Internal Communications on Slack.
I.e. announcement-only channels, where people can't also post. They can just react so they can do the emoji thing. There's also no strategy in terms of when's right to posts or understanding of channels as well. Often you'll find that, there were multiple channels for the same purpose and a lot of inactive channels.
This can create a lot of confusion and essentially be a complete blocker to some parts of the business who don't have the time to spend looking for the information. That's where I think the biggest challenge lies for me.
Jonathan Davies: I think Slack is probably one of those tools that I'd recommend every business to have, to be fair. I actually think that if you take out that lack of stickiness of those messages, if you supplement that with a different channel, what you're essentially creating as you're creating a better Slack, because there's a little bit less noise and becomes a little bit easier to deal with.
I like your approach there and certainly something that we hear quite a lot within Internal Comms, particularly in the tech space now. Now those were channels. We've talked about tactics. Yay, good fun, but let's get to the meat of the matter, because one of the things that we spoke of before is how you were always looking at turnover as a metric. You’re saying well, we've run a campaign and we've been doing this on communications and though it wasn't yet TransferWise, but at your previous company, where you said you want to measure the results of that campaign versus the [employee] turnover that we're having. That I think is probably one of the most crucial messages that we can ever put out as a podcast, which is that people need to stop just measuring their direct output within Internal Communications and start focusing on actual business outcomes – i.e. reducing turnover. Tell us what you did. What are your thoughts on it? How can people start implementing it right after they've listened to this podcast? Because I'm sure a lot of people are wondering exactly that.
Miriam Boulia: I'm a big believer in data and data-driven approach. I think that there's so much more, that us as Internal Communicators can do in that area to improve the way that we communicate, but also the way we engage employees and as a result, reduce that attrition. If I could just go back to my previous role, which was for a high-fashion brand, traditionally very corporate with lots of people feeling disengaged. They weren't getting enough information about the position of the business and what the strategy was. They also didn't understand how their role fit into the direction or the next three-year trajectory trajectory of the business.
This all came out from the employee-engagement survey. This isn’t anecdotal, this is pure data that came out. I looked at that data, from an employee-engagement perspective to see what drivers we could look at to help increase retention and because our retention was extremely low. I kind of analyzed the key areas from the engagement survey, where we were scoring really low to see how Internal Communications could help drive some of these focus areas as I like to call them, to increase that employee engagement. And therefore retention. One of the main parts that I looked at was leadership communication, because we scored really low with that. The analysis that we did, it seemed like there was a direct effect on trust and communication from the top down. Again, the results of people who were at risk of leaving scored that really, really low. I looked at how we could use Internal Communications to improve that. What I did is I worked really closely with the leadership team to influence them to start communicating more and sharing more about the culture, our values, our purpose, our strategy.
It wasn't easy. It was very, very challenging because being a very corporate company, it's not something that - and I'm not saying every corporate company behaves like this, but maybe it was unique to that particular company - but we'd kind of fallen into a rut of just kind of “businesses as usual” and people being very siloed and not sharing what was happening in other parts of the business. It was a retail company, so we had these really hard-to-reach audiences who are customer-facing, with the highest attrition, which is quite standard. Very disconnected from what we were doing at HQ level. It wasn't just those hard-to-reach audiences. There were pockets of areas in the business at HQ level as well, who we saw consistent turnover for. I devised a 12-month engagement plan. Using our culture drivers, I picked out various topics that we could focus on to help build a comms plan, to start encouraging our leadership team, to share information and record themselves. One month we focused on our factory teams. It’s that kind of storytelling element that brings to life that area of the business that people knew nothing about, but they were the garment creators, they were, they were making our garments and they were disconnected from what the rest of the business was doing. We were disconnected from them. We had 12 people in our leadership team. That was one person per month who was then responsible for driving these messages around different key themes. What I did is I gave them almost a toolkit and advise them on how and what channels of communication they should be using, but also data and our audience who you need to be communicating most with what channels we can connect with those audiences. We can connect those audiences through, and again, helping them write the content and create the content.
We use a variety of different tactics in terms of content. Video blog posts and some audio as well. Podcasts in very short snippets, but what it did is it connected back to the strategy and back to the culture and the impact that it had, which sadly I can't see now because I'm no longer there, but what happened in the middle of the engagement plan was the start of this global pandemic, which meant we had a portion of the business that had been furloughed and therefore no longer working on the shop floor and able to access content that they might not have had time to do before. We saw huge increases in engagement from them in terms of two way communication, dialogue between them and leadership and other parts of the business. It then encouraged the sharing of knowledge, not just from leadership, but from other teams. Sharing their plans, their strategy, what was happening in their part of the business. It really made people feel connected . Anecdotally, I got a lot of feedback from many teams that mostly the retail teams on how much it had helped them stay connected during this kind of very uncertain time.
I think the reason why it worked is because it was very much a top-down business. I wanted to use leadership as an example, and I know that sounds quite negative, but I mean it in a positive way. What I saw leading up to this, the start of this plan was if leadership did it, then we saw engagement through that and it encouraged other people to follow them and do the same.
That was part of the approach and the reason why we did it like that, and it worked. When I left in the middle of the pandemic, it was so nice to see how much we had supported and kept our employees engaged and informed, increased engagement through what could be seen as quite a simple tactic and simple process. It's not rocket science. It's just about connecting the data that you have and seeing the trends, and then as a result testing, what could work, in order to drive that engagement and hopefully – increase retention.
Jonathan Davies: That was a 120 month initiative, which you made it seem as if it was simple. It's not, you did a lot for this. I'm going to try to summarize, I want you to correct me if I'm wrong here. Step one, you started at a business problem, which is “we have high turnover” and we need to do something about it. Cool. Then we have step two, which is okay: what's actually the cause of that problem? You survey people to figure out what is there? You need data, right?
Miriam Boulia: Yeah.
Jonathan Davies: Okay. Then you have that data, then you start to figure out, okay, what's a realistic way that would work for this specific company where I can use that data to actually hopefully make a positive impact.
Miriam Boulia: Exactly.
Jonathan Davies: Then you decided, for example, that a communications toolkit for leadership would be better. Cause you can sit there and communicate as the Internal Communicator all you want, but if that's not how people would prefer to receive our Internal Comms, then they're not going to be engaged with it. Right?
Miriam Boulia: I think that the key really is in that understanding. Not just obviously the data piece is really, really important to help show the impact that you're having, but also, as an Internal Communicator, I think understanding your business and audience, even from a [what makes] sense point-of-view, and having those conversations and being that listening device to connect your employees to the business or leadership, whoever it is – to enable that flow of information is really important.
Jonathan Davies: Yeah. Then the outcome is that you, unfortunately, you didn't get to measure this because you had just switched jobs to TransferWise, but in a normal circumstance, you would have a look at, okay, what are our immediate analytics? Probably survey and actually find out did that make a difference? Then look at, okay: the survey says it made a difference. Now, did it actually mean that our retention decreased?
Miriam Boulia: Yes. It was a mixture of, we, there were plans to, kind of pulse people in a few months. but then COVID happened. We didn't want to inundate people with requests, for feedback and things like that. We put our focus on continuing the communication to make people feel supported and informed during this period of difficulty. We kind of changed our focus from that perspective, but it worked well because where we couldn't measure through a pulse, we actually could measure how many people were sharing the information, how many people were reading the information. We used a tool to share and communicate with people. The analytics part was really helpful to see it. Literally, we kind of pre-COVID start of campaign, engagement plan, growth, slight growth and then COVID happened and then a huge spike up. That was really handy, to see how, measure how well we were doing.
Jonathan Davies: Here's the thing I've been trying to, essentially preach about this for, I think the past year, is that we need to get better at not just measuring what we're doing, which unfortunately, a lot of people still aren't doing.
That's indeed. The posts, the likes, the comments, the reads, the actual passive consumption of your communication. What's happening with that? We need to be better at that. Then that ultimate step is to be able to say, well, here's what's happening with turnover because the way I see it is let's say that you approached executive leadership and you stayed at this company, you approach them and you said, well, listen, we've seen massive engagement from this initiative. That's working. The survey says that the problems people were experiencing are no longer problems. However, let's say our turnover was still high. At the very least, even if that's the case and you can go to leadership and say, but the problem isn't you guys not communicating or our culture not being great. The problem lies elsewhere. We need to find out and put our attention there.
Miriam Boulia: Exactly. I think it's about testing and learning from that and continuously improving. There's no harm in rolling out something positive, like what I did at the previous company, and maybe you do get to the point where you're measuring your attrition based on the initiatives that you've rolled out and seeing actually it hasn't had any effect because you've still seen other forms of employee engagement increase. Again, there's another opportunity to not just increase retention, but also, through your discovery of why the retention hasn’t improved, there are other ways. Through the discovery, you could find new ways or other more effective ways to engage, and hopefully, again, through that discovery, find out why the retention isn't improving. I think what I'm trying to say is there's always things that you can do and you have to understand the audience and use data to kind of support why you're choosing to do certain things, but don't be disheartened if there isn't a direct effect on the final result that you want to achieve, because, even if you don't, even if that plan doesn't get you to where you need to be there are more positives and other positives that have come out as a result and you just have to go back, review the data and try something else. I think you should be confident in yourself. There are many things that you can do, and it's just about finding the right one.
Jonathan Davies: I love this. I think that I'm going to leave you with one final question on this topic because you've hit a sensitive spot within that subject. As we start measuring what we're doing, our first step is as Internal Communicators is the baseline, the hygiene factor that we need. We need to understand our output much better and measure it better. The second that we do that, the next step is measuring the relation between output and business outcome.
But then I think comes that third step. That would be: if you don't directly affect that business outcome, through the initiatives that you've run, which is something that can happen, right? Let's say turnover, didn't get reduced. It's not that desirable result, but then you still spotted an aspect of your company culture that’s not the problem, namely communication. Essentially you're able to advise leaders much better than when you're just taking the approach of, let me just send a bunch of articles and see what happens. Do you think that this is the way that Internal Comms is evolving, maybe on the higher level?
Do you see yourself as what HR does with an HR business partner? Do you see yourself as an Internal Comms business partner in that sense?
Miriam Boulia: 100%. I think we had this conversation before, it's so easy to fall into that trap where people see you as that copywriter. You can sit there and write emails and communications and Slack posts for days, but is that going to have an impact?
It's a really fundamental question. I think you have to review that and see, but for me, no, it's not going to have a huge impact. What will have an impact is, as you say, partnering with the relevant people, advising them on the information you've managed to obtain through your analysis, your discovery, and from the engagement survey – whatever it is you use to measure engagement or success, you can provide those stakeholders with a very detailed and basic communication process that will enable them to reach the audience they want to reach, communicate effectively to those audiences, use the right channels and therefore have a direct impact on in my case, our mission. It's evolved in that sense and it's still evolving.
What I do now is, and what I'm starting to do more of here at TransferWise, empowering those people as well to create their own content and create their own messages. I am more of an editor essentially, and can help advise them on the tone. Like I said, the channels, also more tactical, examples of say, if they've tried sending a message on Slack, they haven't had as much engagement as they would like – okay, then I can help you explore other channels or other avenues or other tactics to increase that reach and increase that engagement or two-way communication, whatever it is you're trying to achieve. So yes, I have a feeling. There are many Internal Communicators out there who spend a lot of time writing communications for various people in the business, whether it's leadership or HR or whoever. I think there's always going to be an element of that. However, it's about balancing and you don't always want to be that gatekeeper and the person who controls the messages or controls the tone, because there's so much more and so much more value that you can put your energy into to have a direct impact on that main objective.
Like I said, in my case, it's attrition and mission. Making sure people are connected to that mission and understand it and know where they fit within that. I think that's where the mindset needs to kind of change slightly in my opinion.
Jonathan Davies: Yeah. I agree. That mission part is essentially the alignment function of Internal Comms. The attrition part is essentially what you achieve through engagement, a reduction in that. There's a third level to that that we'll be able to talk about pretty soon, because I've been doing some research into that myself as well. That will be fun, but that's for another time.
Miriam you are the future of Internal Communications. That was an amazing approach. Thank you for sharing that with our audience. I'm sure a lot of people learned from this. I really look forward to hearing about people implementing this type of methodology and showing the way they have impact on the business.
Thank you so much for your time. I hope you had as much fun as I did, and I would love to see you back in future. Maybe you can tell me how you've reduced attrition at TransferWise in the future!
Miriam Boulia: Thank you so much for having me and for anyone out there who wants to discuss this in more detail or wants to kind of brainstorm any tools and how to achieve this, or work through this methodology, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and we can have a discussion.
I'm always open to learning from other Internal Communicators too. We'll definitely get in touch! Let's build our networks. Let's change Internal Communications and make it more data driven, more measurable, and have a higher impact on attrition and employee engagement.