How Schroders' people-first culture drove its internal response to Covid-19 Article icon


 The leadership of Schroders is proud of the culture of the business so it is not surprising that, as the Covid-19 crisis broke, the internal communications team was clear in its objective that, whatever else, this should not be adversely impacted.

‘It is a people-first culture,’ explains Sophie Whitwell, communications manager at the global fund management group. ‘One of the first things the senior team and our board said was We must not let this erode our culture.’

With a significant Asian footprint, Schroders had some experience of the pandemic’s impact on its operations even before the UK lockdown was imposed.

And the communications department had a permanent seat on the crisis management team, which was up and running by January 2020.

Senior communications manager Dan Barley says: ‘We were clear that good communications needed to be part of that response, even as the situation was evolving.

‘At first, we thought it was going to be a split working structure [in the UK], where we would have people alternating [one team coming in one week, another the next] until obviously the Government said Right, lockdown and everybody – or 99.99 per cent – went home.

‘As we had been working on our communications strategy from early on, we were able to pivot very quickly. That was one of our successes.

'We were able to adapt our message super early, even though there was a lot of uncertainty around. We got a lot of positive feedback from the business about the clarity of the message, even though we would say something one week and then change it slightly the next.

‘That would normally be a recipe for confusion, but it was actually a good thing. There was a common purpose at that point: we were all going in the same direction.’

But while the messages may have evolved, the underlying strategy has remained constant throughout the crisis. 

Prior to lockdown, when there was still much uncertainty, the communications team assembled a war room and gathered around a white board to develop an agreed strategy on how to approach the myriad issues they would need to communicate over the following months.

Their strategy had to appreciate that most of Schroders' 5,100 colleagues, across 37 countries, were new to remote working and that face-to-face was an integral part of the business culture. Equally, they knew that should be a focus on resilience and mental health.

(The white board, with all those initial scribblings, still stands proud.)

‘We started throwing all these ideas together, but then realised we needed to put them into buckets which is how we came up with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,’ explains Whitwell.

This theory is often portrayed as a pyramid with the most fundamental needs at the bottom, which must each be fulfilled before further progress can be made by moving up towards the apex.

She adds: ‘We recognised that we couldn’t do the culture communications at the top, which are really important to us, if people can’t log on, because that gives them permission to play. Then there were issues like wellbeing and productivity; people who moved into remote working, who had to manage teams: that’s different. How to have an effective call, chair it, make your point: that’s different.’

Consequently, early communications focused on simply helping colleagues as they adapted to working from home.

As they got more comfortable with the technology, the internal content moved to support productivity or collaboration, in the absence of face-to-face meetings.

‘We started to bring in more about how do we keep continuity going, how do we not just keep talking about Covid but instead talk about the things that are important to our clients and are, actually, the purpose of our business,’ says Barley.

Whitwell adds: ‘The other thing I think we did quite well was to introduce a lot of spaces to gather ideas from different teams, and then to connect those teams – including globally – to share those ideas. We’ve now reduced the frequency, but those calls are still very well attended because it joins everybody up and we can decide what we should communicate on. You could send out ten communications a day, but we needed to focus and agree on what would take priority that week. Do we go with a wellbeing focus? Do we go with an upskilling focus? Do we do a blend? What matters most to the business this week based on the feedback we’re hearing? And how do we capture that?’

From the outset, Harrison hosted a weekly podcast, Inside Schroders, in which he shared business updates and amusing anecdotes about his home life. His first 21 episodes averaged 2,600 listeners apiece, with a total audience in excess of 55,000.

​Other senior leaders also shared their experiences, opening up around topics from mental health to blogging about how they were also struggling juggling parental responsibilities, home schooling and the day job.

Whitwell believes this authenticity and ‘personal persona’ has encouraged a culture in which colleagues, including senior management, willingly share stories and show a more human side to their characters. ‘I don’t think that is going to change,’ she says.

Harrison’s approach echoed the strategy adopted by the communications team in the early days, which was to support colleagues and to help them still feel part of Schroders, even though they were working in remote mode.

It was about creating shared experiences, which led – in turn – to A Day in the Life of Schroders video series.

‘By setting the tone up front and rapidly, this opened up the (virtual) floor to encourage our people to share more of themselves – and share they did! We were overwhelmed by the contributions of individuals across the business – from sharing on the intranet and LinkedIn to creating videos and team socials to gym challenges - and proudly sharing them with us/their colleagues.

'It shows the power that internal comms plays as facilitators of culture – setting the tone, but not controlling it,’ says Whitwell.

‘We wanted to celebrate that people had different things going on in their home lives and that there was a blend of the home life and office life coming together.

'We wanted to embrace that. When we first went into remote, that content went down really well with people because they were feeling lonely and isolated.’

The early communications also focused on highlighting the support services, which, in many cases, were already available within Schroders but perhaps not widely known.

‘A lot of people didn’t know about them at the beginning of lockdown, perhaps they didn’t use them before, things like the employee assistance line, that you can phone and is totally anonymous,’ she adds. ‘At the beginning, we made sure that was in every single communication because we knew, at any point, people might need that service.’

Today, the focus is on issues, such as mental wellbeing. ‘The fatigue has started to set in, so the content that would land now is different to the type of content that would land right at the beginning,’ she adds.

‘We’ve probably moved along in terms of what we’re talking about just to reflect the tone of the moment.’

From the outset, the team has monitored progress (and the impact of their work) by building in feedback loops, such as surveys, engagement monitoring and holding regular stakeholder conversations.

They also welcomed creative ideas from their colleagues, which prompted the design and production of a 'colour me calm' riddles booklet.

But they also received an abundance of unsolicited messages from colleagues, grateful for their efforts. Each received a response,  with a picture of the internal comms team in the sign- off signature. 

The internal communications team was also mindful of the need to keep its own members connected and talking.

‘We built in our daily, stand up calls, so that everyone on the team had visibility of what each other was working on.

But also, just that we had that connection in terms of How are you feeling today? I think we did that really well,’ says Barley.

‘It was an important priority for us to keep our team going. We’ve had challenges – such as health challenges within the team – and obviously, people have got kids to get to school.’

Whitwell adds: ‘We had a team social every Friday as well on Zoom, where we’d do Show and Tell, or people would take it in turns to do quizzes or whatever. We don’t do it as much now because the need has changed.

'But in the beginning, it was important for us to get together after what was usually a very busy week, to sit down and be like ‘Whoa!’

Barley adds: ‘We also joined the Investment Association as a working group, the Investment Association of Internal Communicators, where we were sharing what we were doing and how we were responding.

'The Investment Association represents quite a mix of some of the big asset managers, like us, and some more boutique outfits.

I think joining those sessions always made me feel confident. I could sort of benchmark what we were doing, and that gave me a lot of confidence.’

Whitwell and Barley were co-managing the team last year, covering for their boss Meriel Crawford who was on maternity leave, under the oversight of Natasha Power, head of brand and advertising.

What have they learned? Schroders' internal comms team say they've never been closer, that they've learned that not everything will be perfect and that they do not have to say 'yes' to everything.

‘It’s been quite the year for us,’ concludes Whitwell. ‘Luckily, we’ve all come out stronger and still smiling.’