From USAA, a 3-pronged internal comms effort during the pandemic

A communications exec details how shifting nearly 35,000 employees to work-from-home status was just one aspect of the huge process. Keeping them socially connected was a crucial priority.

USAA comms tips

Beyond the logistical issues of working from home, the absence of day-to-day interaction brings new challenges for employees and communicators alike.

Lauren Daniels, assistant VP for employee communications at USAA, explained at Ragan’s April 2020 Best Practices in Internal Communications and Culture Virtual Conference how that member-owned insurance and financial services provider has prioritized the human aspect of remote working in the COVID-19 era.

That vital interpersonal factor should not come at the expense of delivering important information, of course. A balance must be struck.

As early as mid-March, staffers were voicing concerns, notably about internal messaging, Daniels said in her presentation, “How communicators must keep employees connected during the COVID-19 crisis,” which opened Ragan’s Best Practices in Internal Communications & Culture Virtual Summit.

“Employee comments on our internal job satisfaction tool were pretty telling about the state of both urgency for information and frustration with not getting it fast enough,” she said.

Direct feedback about communications has been rare, she said. The new surge of concerns “was really telling during a time of chaos, and we knew we needed to act quickly.”

Within a couple of weeks, USAA had to move nearly 35,000 people to a work-from-home protocol. “At least a third are member-contact call-center workers,” she said, “and many did not have the basic equipment to do their jobs from a remote location.”

That put her team in a key position, Daniels said: “Communications was at the tip of the spear to get the right information at the right time to the right people so that work could go on.”

For that herculean effort (with the fleetness of Mercury thrown in), she said, “We had to throw out our communications playbook and write some new rules.”

Daniels offered three takeaways from USAA’s successful transition—not just for the business side, but for employees’ physical and emotional well-being.

The key elements of Lesson 1:

  • Five-minute meeting buffers, encouraging people to get up and move around
  • Work-from-home guidance on in a central, accessible hub
  • A leadership toolkit, looking at business-side concerns, including leading in a remote work environment, and maintaining workers’ emotional wellness

The communications team emphasized unifying the messaging around three key components: Be safe. Be smart. Be well.

Lesson 2, loosely dubbed the “watercooler,” emphasizes the social nature of the workplace.

  • Keep the culture connected.
  • Prioritize daily team connections.
  • Fill the void of not interacting every day.
  • Have managers ask questions about how workers are doing, as well as being open and authentic themselves.

Part of the above effort was affording people a chance to introduce their “at-home co-workers”: family members, pets and even their plants. Not forgotten are those whose paths wouldn’t cross in meetings or day-to-day collaboration, but who might run into each other in the hallway or cafeteria.

The effort has made an impact, she said: “Some would say we’ve actually gotten to know each other in new and different ways that have strengthened that bond and that culture.”

Among other things, Lesson 3 provides, through a dedicated channel, opportunities for employees to ask questions, be they business-focused or more social in nature.

“We respond to every question,” Daniels said.

The communications team enlisted subject experts, especially from IT and HR, but employees also want to hear from top leaders.

“For us it was our CEO, who really stepped up in a new way,” Daniels said. That CEO, Wayne Peacock, stepped into the top spot on Feb. 1.

“He’s been a comforter and delivering a lot of inspirational messages to employees,” she said, “but also continuing to serve as the business leader and reminding employees that our business priorities continue, that our focus is on taking care of our customers, as well as our employees.”

Leaders’ input is important in times of tumult, of course, but everyone wants a voice.

“We realized it was important for employees to tell their own stories,” Daniels said, “to share and learn from each other.”

The Work @ Homies features brings people closer together. For example, more experienced telecommuters offer tips and support for those new to the process and its challenges.

Along the way, Daniels said, it’s crucial to keep monitoring the employee experience with pulse surveys.

As for the future, USAA has an eye on the “new normal,” she said. “We expect things will be different when we return.”

There might be many who like working from home, or some who seek particular accommodations not previously considered, she said.

“We plan to keep our operating annual flexible and fluid,” Daniels said, “to build new watercoolers to keep the human element front and center in all of our activities, and to open up new opportunities for storytelling, for inspiration and, ultimately, hope for the future.”

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