Evaluation has always been an essential part of what we as communicators do. So when teams have come through five months of intense, unique work it’s fascinating to take a look at the outputs, outcomes and lessons learned.
by Michael Carden
We are starting to see some excellent pieces being written about how communications teams are taking on the important challenge of evaluating the impact of their work during the pandemic response. In our case, we have just completed our Trust’s annual internal comms survey and shared the results with senor leaders across the organisation.
We run this survey every year, using largely the same questions each time to help us build a year-on-year picture of how useful staff find the different ways we communicate with them. We also use it to gauge awareness of specific campaigns or initiatives to see how well they cut through the daily noise of working in such a large organisation.
When we sat down to think about how we wanted to run it this year, we knew we needed to approach it differently. Without wanting to lose the thread of cumulative intelligence, many of the questions we used to ask about how we did things pre-COVID just felt irrelevant.
As a High Consequence Infectious Disease Centre, we were one of the first Trusts in the country to treat people for coronavirus. We sent our first all-staff email out at the end of January, and received our first patient the following week. We’ve treated some of the highest numbers of patients requiring critical care in the country, including the Prime Minister. Our teams haven’t just been on the hospital frontline either – we run community services for two large London boroughs.
It is now therefore six months since we kicked off our response, and every single day of it I have been in awe of the way our staff have pulled together, cared for our patients and supported each other through all of the various challenges we have faced. It has felt relentless, exhausting and emotional. But what has made it so different to other crises or incidents has been the way it has affected each and every one of us outside work as well as professionally. Coronavirus has invaded every single inch of our lives, physically and emotionally.
When I think about my own toughest moments at work over the past few months, they weren’t actually to do with the work. Yes, ever-changing guidance about PPE and Friday evening announcements were a nightmare, but ultimately that’s what we’re all good at dealing with. And managing a team of people all juggling their own challenges and circumstances has been hard, really hard, but again, that’s the job. What has been most difficult has been trying to focus on some of these issues while also, like them, handling my own personal worries. Am I putting my young family at risk by travelling into work? When will I see my shielding parents again? The same sort of things that NHS staff and other key workers up and down the country have been coping with while trying to carry on doing their jobs, many of them making much more difficult decisions than I have had to.
So what’s all this got to do with internal comms? Well, everything really.
Our comms has absolutely had to make sure people know what they need to know. What mask is it this week? How do you wear it? How do I get into work? What do I do if someone at home has symptoms? So the information flow never stopped, and we made lots of changes to make sure that this information was both more frequent but also more accessible. Since the end of January we have sent out 56 all staff emails from our Chief Executive about coronavirus related issues, and these were going out on a daily basis for a good number of weeks. We shifted our all-staff briefings online.
We created a coronavirus hub on our intranet designed to be the single point of information for staff. And when people working remotely told us that they were having issues accessing it we quickly created a solution. The information covered everything from clinical action cards and PPE guidance, to wellbeing support and practical tips around transport and accommodation. It was a one-stop shop for working life through a pandemic. To date, these pages have been accessed more than 350,000 times.
All well, good, and incredibly important. We got 3,135 responses to our survey this year, our highest ever response rate, and 95% of people told us they found our communications very or quite useful. 88% of respondents said it was very or quite easy to access up to date information from the Trust during the pandemic and 82% said they received the right amount of information. Our daily Chief Executive email was by far the most popular way for people to find out information, closely followed by our pre-existing staff bulletin and the intranet.
But going back to my earlier point about the emotional impact of working through a pandemic, how did our internal comms make people feel and act? It’s not a question we ask enough really. Did you know about it? Tick. Did you understand it? Tick. Objectives achieved. Well, we certainly didn’t have time to sit down and write objectives for our pandemic comms response, and there was no off the shelf plan to dust off. But if we had, we know we would have wanted our comms to help staff feel informed, yes, but also that the Trust was there for them and valued everything they were doing.
We tried to be open and honest about the ever-changing PPE situation. We produced posters and films, supported the many re-writes of the guidance, and when we didn’t know the answer to something we said so.
We used very opportunity to recognise achievements and to say thank you – the daily Chief Executive messages, the newly virtual all-staff briefings, a thank you film, and a new interactive ‘thank you wall’ on our intranet.
We highlighted the contribution that everyone was making, not just the clinical teams, fantastic as they were. Everyone, whether in a clinical or non-clinical role, providing frontline or support services, based in our hospitals or in the community, working at home or remotely, caring for adults or children, has played an absolutely vital role in our response, and we wanted them to know that.
We couldn’t be happier with what people told us. The vast majority of people told us that our communications made them feel part of a team (87%), appreciated (77%), proud (81%), reassured (74%), safe (80%), supported (84%), motivated (72%) and, yes, informed (92%). In terms of influencing behaviour, only 2% of people were not aware of our highly visible ‘Stay safe, keep apart’ campaign, and 71% said it had encouraged them to follow the social distancing guidance.
With statistics there is always the inverse of the position you’re promoting, in this case the people who didn’t feel all of those things as a result of our comms. But it’s important to remember that we are not the sole influencers of our staff, and we have no ownership over their feelings. And nor should we. At times of such heightened stress and uncertainty, with inconsistent information flying at them from so many different sources, it is our job to help our staff navigate this, to make it easier for them to do their jobs and to be there for them when they need us.
I will leave it to one of our respondents to have the final word:
“At a very difficult time, clear, concise and well balanced communication made all the difference in making staff feel appreciated, overviewing what was going on across the Trust and helping to navigate through these incredibly difficult, confusing and sometimes harrowing times.”
Michael Carden is head of media and corporate communications at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. You can say hello on Twitter at @mdcarden
Image via Go Digital