Checking in, not checking up: the Health and Safety Executive’s 2020 takeaway

The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Internal Communications team discuss how virtual events, two-way communications, and cultural change helped to increase the visibility of senior leadership even during home working.

From home schooling to home workouts, 2020 has been the year of trying something new – whether we like it or not.

While some of these new routines will most definitely be left in 2020 (or rather, once restrictions are lifted), some are welcome changes that we’ll take forward into 2021. Finding new walking routes, catching up with distant friends over Zoom and spending less time commuting are unexpected new habits formed for many of us this year.

The same can be said for our Internal Communications practises. Like many other organisations, when all colleagues at the HSE were told to stay at home in March, we had to wholly rely on our corporate communications reaching and engaging our audience. And like households up and down the country, we had colleagues dealing with the varied challenges of lockdown.

From teams involved in the national response, to those simply unable to work due to the nature of their role or home circumstances, we were acutely aware that colleagues wanted both transparency and reassurance in what was happening.

The virtual town hall

That’s where our Virtual Town Hall came into its own. It’s a weekly 90-minute call for colleagues to hear the latest from our Chief Executive Sarah Albon and Executive Committee (ExCo). But these were and still are much more than just a broadcast.

Sarah set the tone for these calls, sharing honest and immediate thoughts as to the constantly changing situation, and giving insight from her calls with Cabinet Office or attendance at the Downing Street daily briefings. She would repeat the key messages week after week around looking after our own health, safety and wellbeing.

What worked well, and something we had always worked towards, was giving colleagues updates about changes to our policy and approach before the changes were shared externally. We worked closely with our External Communications team to make sure HSE’s activities relating to coronavirus were shared internally first where possible.

We made sure that those involved in high profile activities – such as being part of the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) or coordinating the spot inspection campaign to make sure businesses were COVID-secure – were part of the Virtual Town Halls. Our approach was inclusive, involving colleagues across the organisation and using their voice to tell the story of our response to the pandemic. With this, our internal and external communications felt much more joined up.

Questions and answers (Q&A)

Most of each Virtual Town Hall, however, was dedicated to Q&A.

With very little moderation, colleagues had the opportunity to ask a question or raise concerns directly with any member of the senior leadership team. And we have never been short of questions! Sometimes challenging, sometimes difficult, but always acknowledged and answered with honesty and empathy.

The regularity of these calls, combined with the shared experience of connecting from home and hearing that even our senior leaders are not immune to talking on mute or having technical difficulties, helped bring authenticity to them. And ironically, despite being remote from each other, leadership visibility increased significantly as a result.

This was also helped by the approach encouraged by ExCo to ‘check in, not check up’ on colleagues, which we weaved into our corporate communications. Having regular chats about wellbeing as well as work has become commonplace for line managers and direct reports throughout HSE.

Continuous improvement

We’ve honed the Virtual Town Hall as the year has gone on, using our monthly pulse survey to check how useful colleagues are finding coronavirus-related communications (on average 92% positive).

Changes made as a result of colleague feedback included reducing the frequency to fortnightly and moderating-out repeat questions to keep the content fresh (but still making sure those questions were raised separately).

We’ll continue to build on the momentum gained in the use of this channel; the more authentic voice, the joined-up communications, and the focus on wellbeing, to guide our colleagues into 2021.