Communicating to LNER’s 3,300 colleagues is never easy at the best of times.
They are geographically dispersed across more than 900 miles of rail track, work varying shift patterns at different bases, ranging from an engineering depot to a driver’s seat, a ticket centre or helping customers at a gate line. There are also offices the length of the rail operator’s network, which stretches from London to Aberdeen.
In ‘normal times’ there are two full-time internal communications specialists, but when Covid-19 and lockdown struck LNER’s director of communications Kate McFerran quickly deployed members of the communications team to offer support and assistance.
The objective from the outset was to clearly and concisely communicate an enormous volume of information, such as offering vital guidance on staying safe onboard trains or at LNER’s facilities and offering support to those now working from home.
But the communications also had to be mindful that not all colleagues faced the same challenges: some may be working at double-pace, but the vast majority had been ‘stood down’, who were keen to find out when they could return to their duties.
The enlarged internal communications function’s aim was to achieve a sense of unity, promoting positive conversation and support for its LNER family while keeping colleagues continuously updated on vital information about ongoing operations and their roles.
It needed to build and populate platforms, communicating in a timely and accurate way, but also provide colleagues with opportunities for two-away conversations, so they could ask questions or gain feedback on certain issues.
Operationally critical colleagues, who continued to work at stations and onboard trains, needed advice on safety measures and crystal-clear instructions on what to do in new, unchartered situations.
The situation was complicated because guidelines were subject to regular change, and there were differences in the approaches taken by the governments of England and Scotland – the two countries crossed by LNER’s route.
In contrast, about 2,500 colleagues who had been stood down needed opportunities to keep in touch and reassurances that their roles would continue to exist and their incomes would not be adversely impacted.
In the week before lockdown, the internal communications team built and populated a bespoke internal microsite LNER Connect within 24 hours, which allowed colleagues to access information in an easily digestible form on any device.
LNER Connect hosted guidance on the latest regulations, frequently asked questions, a wellness section, containing information and contact details about the rail operator’s 100 mental health ambassadors, who were available to take calls, and information on free subscriptions to Headspace, a mindful and meditation app.
The microsite also contained a special portal, offering employees the chance to learn new skills, including foreign languages with Dualingo and OpenLearn courses, supported by The Open University, or simply to practice their Victoria sponges via an online cookery class.
The team also created a dedicated Yammer strategy to promote positive conversations, including the launch of #BrightenMyDay, where colleagues shared amusing anecdotes or images.
Newly-launched weekly Monday Motivator and From the Frontline emails kept everybody up-to-date with inspirational stories and ‘need to know’ information. Weekly vlogs, recorded by members of the executive team from their homes, offered useful business updates or personal anecdotes about their experiences of the pandemic, providing a useful insight into their lives. One vlog recorded more than 400 views within days.
The team also created and co-ordinated weekly all-managers' calls and facilitated question and answer sessions with LNER's managing director David Horne and his colleagues on the executive team.
Within three months, 14 Monday Motivator emails had been set, hitting a 60 to 70 per cent read rate at the peak of the lockdown. As the numbers started to fall, the platform has been used for more 'business as usual' messages.
Dozens of community cafes and virtual messrooms were formed on Microsoft Teams keeping colleagues who were working from home or stood down connected. And more than one third of the workforce logged into the online learning portal.
The internal messaging focused on a Your safety is our priority platform, which was cascaded consistently through all internal communications, but focused predominantly on those in the workplace.
The strategy for those working at home focused on engagement and opportunities for virtual socialising and networking, such as fitness sessions and Zumba classes, online community cafes and virtual messrooms, where people could ‘meet’, share information and stay in touch.
In total, more than 70 per cent of LNER’s workforce has visited LNER Connect, amounting to more than 60,000 unique visits including in excess of 8,200 views of the health and wellbeing portal.
Pulse Surveys revealed that more than 90 per cent of LNER colleagues agreed it was doing its best to keep them informed about its Covid-19 response, while 86 per cent praised the opportunities to connect with each other.
The survey also showed that 77 per cent agreed there had been sufficient and clear communications from the leadership team.
The judges found that LNER provided ‘not only the baseline activities expected of a large business (emails, CEO updates and social content) but went further with a series of initiatives designed to hit multiple and diverse audiences'.
They added: 'A uniting ‘always on’ approach, as well as redeploying resources into the local communities created high levels of internal engagement and advocacy.'