FIVE MINUTES WITH CHRIS LEES
Chris Lees, head of internal communications at Virgin Media, speaks to Communicate magazine about the biggest challenges he faced as an IC professional when Covid-19 first hit, how quickly he was able to respond to the 'new normal,' and what were the most effective communications channel during the peak of the pandemic.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, as an IC professional, when the pandemic first hit?
Wow, this feels like a lifetime ago now! At the very beginning, the biggest challenge we faced was the changing landscape of the situation and not knowing what to prepare for next. We had 15,000 people up and down the UK working in offices or out in the field, waiting for the latest updates, so there were lots of different operational messages and information my team needed to land with speed and absolute clarity. Our main priority at Virgin Media was to ensure our people were safe and our customers remained connected. As we go into more ‘crisis as usual’ then challenge was then more about how we stay connected to each other and continue to embed the incredible team play approach we’d seen at the beginning of the crisis. This is still our focus today.
How did you navigate the new norm and how quickly were you able to respond?
I’ve always veered away from using new norm with hope. If we’re in the new norm now, then I’m definitely focused on creating a ‘new better, because even now this way of working and life doesn’t feel normal or particularly fulfilling. Fingers crossed all goes to plan for June! The business did an incredible job in deploying laptops to ensure our people had the choice to work from home very early on. Initially, we made a conscious decision with our leaders to over communicate and ensure our people continued to be informed, engaged, inspired and ultimately connected. We were already in the process of introducing agile ways of working across the IC team, so we were able to react quickly and work together as one team to get the job done. Looking back, I’m pretty proud of how quickly we adapted and continued to support the business.
What did you find was the most effective communications channel during the peak of the pandemic and why?
We always challenge ourselves to push boundaries, and find ourselves in the privileged position to have the freedom and playful tone of the Virgin brand to help us do that. We’ve a wide and varied audience to consider, so we need our channels to work really hard – we know it’s not one size fits all, so we measure the effectiveness and turn off or refresh anything that doesn’t perform. If I had to choose one stand out success, working closely with our fantastic agency Top Banana (insert link), we’ve raised the bar and taken the Virtual Event format to another level. Landing on a winning combination of studio broadcast with guest speakers, pre-recorded VT content, hosted panel discussion and delegate interaction. We then take all of the great content and package it up into bite sized chunks, so it can be cascaded and land really important messages right across the business in a consistent and engaging way. There’s never going to be a silver bullet, but having that mix really works for us. If you’re looking at Virtual Events, Top B have got your back!
In your opinion, has the pandemic helped shine a light on the importance of internal communications?
Yes, absolutely! The importance of IC as a business support function (and pressures that come with that!), has never been more valued. From day-to-day operations, to CEO and Executive Committee leadership messages, IC gives our people visibility of what’s going on and clarity of what they need to do, with a credible and consistent approach. We provide the reassurance our people have often needed during this challenging period. It’s also helped shine a light on communication in general! Our purpose at Virgin Media is Building connections that really matter, and it’s never been more relevant than now. I’ve spent more time connecting (virtually!) with my team and stakeholders than ever before, and it’s definitely something I’ll continue to do as the country starts to open up again…
How has the pandemic impacted the future of internal communications?
If it wasn’t appreciated before, one thing we’ve proved throughout this pandemic is that IC is absolutely critical when it comes to business continuity, culture and performance – strengthening the bond of those within a business and bringing people together to achieve amazing things. The demand will only increase, which is great news for all IC professionals, so as we come out of the other side it’s important to continue the positive momentum built up over the past 12 months and prioritise where we add the most value. On a more practical note, we’ve proved virtual is a viable and powerful way to communicate and increase reach, so I expect this to continue and evolve. We’ll save face-to-face activity for collaborative working or something that really can’t be done properly virtually… like socialising! It’s hugely important we find the right balance between old and new world and IC will be at the forefront of shaping what that looks like. The future is both incredibly exciting and full of opportunity.