What brings a person to Swindon, the so-called ‘Gateway to the Cotswolds’, on a chilly Tuesday morning in February? For me, it is the chance to spend a day with CorpComms Awards ‘private sector in-house team of the year 2014’ and watch them in action.
But any chance of catching the team at Nationwide Building Society on an average day is slim, since, according to head of external affairs Alan Oliver, who manages the team of 20, such a thing does not exist.
The first item on the agenda today is the corporate affairs team’s weekly meeting. Twelve people gather in the department’s conference room, equipped with an agenda or ‘Radar’, which lists the various points of discussion and the people who have brought them up. A television screen shows two colleagues from the Threadneedle Street office in the City of London, who work in policy and public affairs, attending the meeting virtually, who inform the team on political matters, including an upcoming dinner featuring Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna.
As meetings go, it is an informal affair. Oliver assures me later that his general motto is Work hard, play hard, while media relations manager Nick Burns-Howell insists that there is ‘always time for a joke’.
The informality certainly makes for a happy and productive team. Whilst the agenda and actions to be taken are discussed, compliments are also given for successful work. With the imminent release of a new mortgage consultation scheme Nationwide Now, which allows customers to meet advisers via video, the team was quick to praise their colleague at its helm.
This clearly team-focused attitude extends further throughout their ‘collegiate’ approach to their work, according to Oliver. ‘Everyone’s willing to get their hands dirty,’ he says. Burns-Howell talks about being able to ‘bounce’ ideas off one another, regardless of their position in the office. He calls it a ‘desk brainstorm’, as he sends off emails to the entire team to build an idea and harness their creativity.
The latest plea for ideas surrounds Nationwide’s new woodlands creation scheme. Last year, as part of the building society’s long-term environmental plan, chief executive Graham Beale pledged to plant a tree for every current and future employee, which involves planting 17,000 trees over the next 12 months and about 3,000 per year after that. The planting of the first woodland, which has space for 8,000 native trees, takes place this month. Burns-Howell is keen to promote the initiative with a survey-based story: the only problem is that, as of yet, he does not know which questions to ask. According to Burns-Howell, his email request for help was suitably filled with an ‘unbeleaf-able’ amount of tree puns to get the creative juices flowing.
And flowing they soon are. Eden Black, a former journalist who is now senior media relations manager, runs one-on-one workshops with the team to provide insight and advice on writing press releases for various audiences. ‘The story isn’t about trees; it’s about Nationwide,’ advises Black. ‘It’s about giving something back to the community.’ Soon, the idea comes to launch a ‘Name our Woodlands’ competition, with the chance to win an annual National Trust family membership. [Three weeks later, the survey appears in print: 44 per cent of Britons say an organisation’s environmental credentials are a factor in job decisions, while 40 per cent believe more woodland would make their local area a better place to live.]
Black’s external affairs development programme has been running for around eight months and helps the team hone their persuasive abilities, to improve the way they engage with other groups across the organisation, to ensure, for example, that the leadership listens, and to foster better relationships with the media. These skills are what led Black to Nationwide, having previously worked as the media relations lead for the Olympic Delivery Authority.
‘Where do you go after the Olympics?’ Black jokes. Financial services apparently, as Nationwide was the place that he felt could harness his creative and reactive talents as well as his experience in damage limitation. His workshops are testament to the culture of collaboration that Oliver has fostered within his team.
‘There’s no fear of saying the wrong thing,’ says Oliver. ‘We take judgment out of the equation.’
As a company, Nationwide is slightly reminiscent of a stick of rock: the word ‘PRIDE’ runs all the way through it. It encapsulates the building society’s set of values, expectations and promises, and represents an acronymic set of behaviours that guide employees through their day-to-day business.
The corporate affairs office is full of PRIDE – not just in the work they do (the team’s 2014 CorpComms Award is proudly on display in Oliver’s office) but also in the various paraphernalia decorating the office, adorned with the word. P might be for ‘Putting members first’, but the letter that stands out most vividly is D for ‘Doing the right thing’. The team is encouraged to send one another PRIDE-covered thank you cards for going above and beyond the call of duty, and there is even a PRIDE cupboard, where colleagues can ask for a bottle of wine or box of chocolates to be sent to those they think deserving of the accolade.
The sense of PRIDE runs through the whole organisation. The vast white atrium, which is busy with people waiting to meet their colleagues for meetings and others making their way to the restaurant and coffee shop, houses photos of those who have held the coveted Employee of the Year position over the past five years, including last year’s winner Laura Hogg, senior citizenship manager within corporate affairs. As a mutual financial institution dedicated to its members, its employees are evidently no less valued.
This is, perhaps, what makes Nationwide employees so keen to give back to their community. A PRIDE board in the corner of the corporate affairs office shows photographs of the team wearing their Christmas jumpers to raise money for homeless charity Shelter and taking part in Macmillan Cancer Support’s World’s Biggest Coffee Morning.
Each employee is allowed 14 hours every year to volunteer on an initiative of their choice. While three in five of Nationwide’s employees have signed up for volunteering schemes, within corporate affairs the figure is 85 per cent. For example, Burns-Howell chose to help out a charity working with asylum seekers, while others have volunteered to be paired off with an elderly person, calling them at designated times once a week as part of Nationwide’s partnership with Age UK.
The tree-planting initiative, too, has captured the organisation’s attention, as citizenship communication and reporting manager Jennifer Williams asserts that within an hour and a half of asking for volunteers to plant the first 3,000 oak, blackthorn and hazel saplings over three days, the 120 spaces had been filled. (Children from a local school will also be involved with the planting, which is taking place just 11 miles from Nationwide’s headquarters on a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust site.)
The organisation is also well aware that charity begins at home. Nationwide House itself is very eco-friendly, with solar panels on the roof and a machine called Oscar behind the scenes in the canteen crushing up leftover food and turning it into fresh water. (It is yet not known, at least by Burns-Howell, how it does this.)
Across the building society, the corporate affairs team is also well-known for its love of food, so much so that in the head office the division has been nicknamed ‘Corporate Eclairs’. Fittingly, perhaps, they recently compiled a recipe book, the proceeds of which helped to fund support for a colleague’s disabled child.
Oliver contributed his recipe for roast chicken, while Burns-Howell added his personal recipe for sausage rolls. Oliver himself sings the praises of the latter, though their prowess was not enough for Burns-Howell’s eight strong team to achieve the prestigious honour of winning the department’s Come Dine With Me competition, based on the Channel 4 reality series of the same name.
With a lot of their time spent volunteering, cooking and doing their day job (which includes handling around 300 calls from journalists every month, although this figure goes up around the time of financial results and when the House Price Index is released), it is a wonder that the corporate affairs team has any time to leave Nationwide House. But with a gym, restaurant and hairdressers all on site, it might be hard to see why anyone would want to.
Employees can even do their banking on site at the Croft branch, which sits alongside reception. The branch is particularly innovative, piloting a new laidback, coffee-shop style format that Nationwide hopes to roll out to other branches in the near future. The brightly coloured sofas and chairs are all accompanied by iPads, so that customers can choose if they want to bank online in-store and save themselves the hassle of queuing to see a friendly face.
They also can make customers who would otherwise be unaware of digital channels realise the ease with which they can bank online. Likewise with the organisation’s social media offering, the use of iPads is part of Nationwide’s commitment to offering customers choice in their transactions.
Nationwide also has plans to change the way their customers can meet with mortgage consultants in branch. Nationwide Now allows customers to connect with consultants via video, which has reduced the potential for customers being turned away because a consultant was not available locally. Having started in four branches, it is now available in 62 and is expected to rise again to more than 100 by the end of March.
Surveys suggest that 97 per cent of customers are satisfied with the service and Burns-Howell remarks upon the clarity of the screen; customers have even been known to try to shake the hand of their adviser at the end of the consultation.
Any worries of losing the personal touch are unfounded. Mortgage consultants can still order a coffee for their customers through their computer systems, even if they are sitting hundreds of miles away, and Paul, the consultant who is demonstrating the technology to the team, says that he has even been known to use the printer available in the customer’s room to print Star Wars Lego pictures to entertain children. Documents can be scanned and printed out via Paul’s link-up and a screen in the room can show customers exactly what he is looking at on his monitor if necessary.
If customers have any follow-up questions, they are able to maintain contact with their consultant at another time. For Nationwide, technology is not about vanity; it’s about ‘enhancing the personal touch with technology’. Oliver expresses general dislike for ‘gestures’, saying that he ‘would rather do fewer but more tangible things than lots of gestures.’
The effects of his team meetings are therefore suitably tangible. They ensure that all areas of the business are kept up-to-date and that there is a consistency across all departmental communications.
This means having a good grasp of internal communications and what employees are doing on something as widespread as social media. Oliver attends a weekly service meeting, measuring and evaluating customer service with the help of social media manager Paul Beadle and new internal initiatives such as the adoption of Microsoft social networking tool Yammer mean that employees can build circles and share expertise between themselves instantly, without fear of having their communication ignored.
And Nationwide’s social media presence is not merely left to potentially fester without governance. While branches are also encouraged to tweet on their own accounts, Beadle is keen to make sure their communications remain undiluted by dormant, unmaintained accounts. Today, he is also presenting a paper for the weekly service committee, with recommendations on how to educate members and staff on cyber security threats. ‘The carrot is education,’ says Beadle. ‘Governance is the stick.’
The misunderstanding of social media as a communications channel is one of the reasons Oliver dislikes the name ‘Press office’. ‘Press office’, in his view, fails to take into account the range of the work that the 20 people in corporate affairs do, including social media and policy and public affairs. For Oliver, ‘Press office’ is ultimately reductive regarding the work that corporate affairs do to maintain the high reputation of the organisation.
And whilst a typical day might evade the communications team at Nationwide, Oliver is happy to concede that ‘variety is the spice of life’ in corporate eclairs.
Sorry, that’s corporate affairs to you and me.