Employee engagement

A vision for the future

BT's new chief executive has adopted a new approach to engaging with employees

Picture the scene. Former rugby international Matt Dawson is centre stage at the BT Sport’s studio in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. An audience of 250 people are milling around the studio while a wall of screens broadcasts live to others offsite. But this is not the latest sports quiz. Dawson is merely the sidekick to the real star of the show: BT’s new chief executive Philip Jansen.

Just four months after his appointment in February, on a basic salary of £1.1 million plus bonuses and a golden hello package of BT shares worth £900,000, Jansen was communicating his vision for the company to its employees. It followed an early pledge from Jansen that, while he plans to share his ten-year vision for BT with shareholders next year, he wanted to engage with his new colleagues first.

He was aware that the reception might be frosty – a year earlier, his predecessor Gavin Patterson had unveiled a threeyear plan to slash 13,000 jobs – about 12 per cent of BT’s workforce – in back office and middle management roles, to save £1.5 billion. It was important, therefore, that this was not a traditional ‘meet the chief executive’ event, with staged questions and little interaction. Neither BT nor Jansen wanted that.

Agency Blurred was charged with bringing Jansen’s vision to life, with founder Nik Govier working closely with BT’s internal communications team. She explains: ‘We wanted this event to be different from anything that had happened before. The key was that Philip Jansen is very energetic and charismatic. We wanted to create an environment in which his enthusiasm, his vision could be shared.’

Jansen’s message was that this is where we are going but I don’t have all the answers but if we work together we can get there

His embryonic vision for a ten-year plan centres around Best connected – which goes beyond BT’s technological network and extends to helping people connect to what matters most. Emphasising the idea – BT Group – 100,000 Strong – the event started with a film morphing faces of employees into each other. ‘With team members spanning four very different brands – BT, EE, Plusnet and Openreach – it landed a subtle point that although different, everyone still needed to be ‘best connected’ behind the new vision,’ says Govier.

In short, Jansen was not solely responsible for BT’s future – he shared that responsibility with his 100,000 colleagues. More than 900 people registered to attend the event, but just 250 were selected to join the live studio audience. A further 54,000 watched live online with more viewing in the following days. The event kicked off with a 40 minute address, before moving to questions from those in the room and via the live feeds.

Govier says: ‘Jansen’s message was that this is where we are going but I don’t have all the answers but if we work together we can get there. That went down so well. It was all about showing staff they are valued, that their ideas can help inform the future.’ Indeed, articles on BT’s intranet are calling for staff input into Jansen’s 2020 plan.

Jansen then choreographed a moment where 100 attendees – each representing 1,000 people – grabbed a placard, moved to a grid reference and held it aloft – to create BT’s new logo, which was captured by an overhead camera. Helen Willetts, BT’s head of internal communications, adds: ‘We were clear that we didn’t want a typical scenario of a chief executive making an address. He wanted to hear people’s ideas, and deal with tough questions.’

Jansen did not shy from the elephant in the room: job cuts. ‘He wasn’t apologetic,’ says Willetts. ‘He said that it was necessary to get the business into shape. Our view is that people should see the reasoning behind a painful decision. Philip is very different from a traditional CEO. We heard comments such as I’ve been working for BT for 29 years and I can see his approach is different and I can get behind him. I think it is because he is authentic and this came across at the event.’

Willetts, who has been in her current role since January 2018, adds: ‘BT is made up of lots of different businesses but the internal communications needed to have a north star in terms of what we’re all getting behind; where people know what BT is all about at its core and be proud of all the parts that add up to the whole.

‘The idea behind this event and going forward is that we are all in this together, that we all talk the same language and have the same belief and aims.’ If the team can successfully harness the power of the staff, it will have an incredible asset.

We are saying if there is something that someone knows they can fix, then go ahead and do it. It is all about getting away from the parent-child scenario

‘We want to create an army of advocates for BT,’ says Willetts. ‘They are the best people to promote BT because they understand what we do. We need to listen to our colleagues’ voices and their ideas. It is like panning for gold – they are invaluable. And it is about trust too. We are saying if there is something that someone knows they can fix, then go ahead and do it. It is all about getting away from the parent-child scenario.’

Jansen ended the event by announcing that every employee was to get £500 worth of BT shares for free. Making every employee a shareholder is a powerful way to demonstrate that BT is ‘reborn’ with its people at its heart. The share gift was the first of 12 planned ‘drops’, spread out every few weeks.

Govier explains the idea was ‘to build excitement, momentum and a belief rather than simply a one-off moment’. The second announcement revealed the date that BT would launch 5G services, while the third revealed the first locations the company plans to invest in as its office portfolio drops from 300 to 30. Others included the launch of Workplace by Facebook and a ‘help a friend’ service which lets BT staff help others get things sorted via a 24-hour texting service.

While the event and ongoing ‘drops’ are part of a campaign, both Willetts and Govier claim that this demonstrates that internal communications is being treated with the respect it deserves.

Willetts says: ‘When I started I wanted to change the perception on internal communications to one of advocacy, making employees the advocates for the business. In some organisations, internal communications are just a channel for the boss to make pronouncements to the staff.

‘I think internal communications has always been important but in traditional companies, it has been very much about telling the employees what they need to know and has not been involving them. But now, some big organisations are realising that prioritising internal communications is the thing to do. Engaging employees and treating communicating with them properly is vital.

‘Our approach is that we don’t treat internal communications as a way of adults communicating with children but as equals. The top down approach isn’t the answer – it is flattening and demotivating for employees to be fed information, to be told what is happening in a half-hearted way. To us, internal communications is about leading by example, telling the truth, ensuring that everyone is given the full picture. It’s essential to be honest and to be seen. And Philip Jansen is a firm believer in internal communications: his view is that leaders don’t have all the answers.’

Govier agrees: ‘The single biggest issue that I feel strongly about and BT did too is that internal communications should not be seen as the bottom of the food chain. That is insane. After all the action of a single employee can affect the fortunes of the whole company so surely it is only sensible that internal communications are treated as seriously as external. Every business should look to how they communicate with their staff. It is disrespectful to them if they are not treated with at least as much care as external. Employees deserve the same calibre of marketing that they receive as consumers, yet so often that’s not the case.’

And Willetts adds: ‘Internal communications is not pricey compared with advertising. It’s pennies, really. But creating advocates for the business is invaluable.’