The importance of connections Article icon

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 From day one of lockdown, Kate McFerran, director of communications at LNER, knew that it was imperative that the rail operator kept a connection with its people, its customers and the communities in which it operates.

But keeping connected when services were slashed, dropping to just 35 per cent of capacity, and those trains that did run were virtually empty, used mainly by key workers, including LNER’s own people who needed to get to their operation bases, brought its own challenges.

‘We are a public sector organisation so we didn’t furlough anybody,’ explains McFerran. ‘The majority of our people – about two-and-a-half-thousand of our 3,250 odd people – work in a customer facing role. They are our customer experience team. They love dealing with people… but there were no people to deal with. We were concerned about keeping morale up throughout this but also making sure that we could look after everyone’s mental health.’

She adds: ‘Normally in a big change situation, you’re trying to give certainty. You set out very clearly what the change is going to be and how it is going to happen. But this was change without that certainty. There was no textbook on this. We did not know where it was going to go nor how it was going to play out.’

McFerran’s team had to come up with a way to keep LNER’s people involved with the business while still staying true to its purpose We put the heart into every journey. ‘How could we still bring the heart to what we do? Because our people live along our route, it meant that they were near a food bank or a care home, something that they could support in their local community to make a difference.’

The answer was LNER Reserves, which empowered the rail operator's people to make a difference directly in the communities in which they live through a community volunteering programme.

The Reserves complement the LNER's Customer and Community Investment Fund, which provides £500,000 every year to support projects helping local communities along its route.

The LNER Reserves launched after gauging staff interest and a database of people interested in volunteering was created. Regional champions were appointed to identify local opportunities and, crucially, create virtual groups to speak to one another, share ideas and inspire.

LNER also approached organisations with networks along its route to identify the first volunteering opportunities for colleagues, such as with food banks FareShare and Trussell Trust, as well as Age UK and NHS Responders. In this way, the rail operator was able to manage the logistics and ensure that one charity was not overwhelmed with volunteers while another was crying out for help.

An easy-to-use platform for recording hours and locations of volunteering was created for colleagues to log their activity. McFerran explains: ‘A lot of people were feeling quite disempowered. They were thinking What can I do to help? I’m stuck at home, but I want to help. By helping our communities. It was helping our own people as well to deal with the situation.

‘We branded LNER Reserves. They had their own caps, gilets and badges. And we worked hard on our internal comms to share what they were all doing. Some of them saw it as an opportunity to learn new things or try something different. The Reserves were going out into the community and doing all sorts of things, such as delivering blood supplies.’

Since launch, the LNER Reserves have logged more than 6,300 volunteer hours, worth in excess of £100,000 to the organisations they have helped. There are now more than 170 active volunteers, supported by colleagues across LNER.

Yammer is LNER’s predominant, internal social channel, and soon its people were sharing their stories and experiences as a reserve. In the early days, the food orders for onboard catering were still coming in, and the weekly order of 5,000 sandwiches from Bradford-based supplier Tiffin had to go somewhere. Up pops a colleague on Yammer showing the rest of the company that the sandwiches are being distributed to charity FareShare's Yorkshire centre in Leeds. (Similarly 500 eggs used for First Class breakfasts were donated to make Yorkshire Puddings for hundreds of NHS workers.) 

‘It was connecting different parts of the business in a different way. Suddenly, they were dealing with our catering teams where they might not have previously worked with them. It developed a spirit of helping which is germane to our culture,’ says McFerran.

Indeed, one of LNER’s values is ‘always care’. ‘But it also comes from the top. Our managing director David Horne does genuinely care about each person in this business, and a lot of our managers and leaders are also like that. We know that is something quite special and we want to protect and nurture it.’

Like so many businesses, LNER was swift to set up a dedicated Covid-19 microsite. LNER Connect, which became the main resource for its colleagues.

‘Within 24 hours of making the decision to do this, it was up and running and we were promoting it. We have uploaded all the latest guidance from governments across the regions because we travel across England and Scotland. We have regional information,' she adds. 'If you are confused about what the rules are in your area, you can go to our microsite and it will tell you. There’s frequently asked questions and all sorts of resources. For example, it will point you to where you can get mental health support. We deployed our team to get behind internal comms and just push the information out.’

When LNER decided to start making and selling face coverings, it was another opportunity to stay connected. ‘I’ve never put together a strategy on how to manufacture and retail PPE, but I wanted to do it in a way that met our objective of staying connected. It was important to me that we only worked with suppliers along our routes. We connected with those small businesses that needed to pivot and turn their head to something new,’ explains McFerran.

‘We connected with businesses that could make the fabric, who could turn the fabric into masks and who could then help us get them onto a website to sell.’ There are currently three accredited suppliers of face coverings, including Carol Pettigrew, the owner of a home decorating business in Harrogate, who could no longer visit clients during lockdown, on LNER’s website. More than 2,500 face coverings, which come in different designs, including regional themes, such as thistles to reflect Scotland and white roses for Yorkshire, have been sold.

The proceeds have gone to the Campaign Against Living Miserably, LNER’s partner charity, in support of suicide prevention. McFerran explains that CALM usually benefits from passengers donating their Delay Repay compensation sums, which can be claimed when a journey is delayed more than 30 minutes. However, with fewer people travelling plus a timetable that is currently ‘pretty much running on time’, CALM has not received what it normally would at a time when the charity particularly needs help.

CALM will also receive the proceeds of a soon-to-be-published cookery book which brings together lockdown recipes. ‘Our chefs who normally cook at 125mph and still don't chop off all their fingers, weren’t able to cook onboard. All our catering has been turned off. Instead, they have been cooking for food banks and sharing recipes,’ explains McFerran. ‘We created community cafés where people could share recipes and have virtual coffees and stay connected. They have all come together to create this cookbook, the proceeds of which will go to CALM. We’re just trying to find ways to replace some of the donations it has lost.’

In 2019, CALM launched an annual fundraiser called The Lost Hours Walk, where participants walk to honour those who have taken their lives – for whom there are no more hours. Unable to host the major event last year, CALM invited supporters to walk at some point in October, a month in which mental health is recognised. ‘I said to our executive team that we were going to go out and do a walk, any length, any time. We cut short one of our weekly meetings and broke into two teams, because we had to have social distancing but also resilience,’ explains McFerran. ‘We’ve always made sure that, from a business resilience point of view, if we are together – say, the York team or the London team or whatever – they do not stay in one group.

'It is the same with communications, if I bring the team together it is never as one group. You need that resilience to be built in in case something was to happen.’

Half the executive team walked in York and half in London. The London team, led by McFerran, walked from its headquarters in King’s Cross to Camden along the Regent’s Canal. ‘We raised about £2,000 for CALM that way, but it was great. Even the directors said that it had helped their mental health, simply getting out of the office,’ she adds.

As the year draws to a close, and McFerran reflects on the work of her communications team, of which part is she most proud? ‘How could I choose just one thing?’ she exclaims. ‘I’m immensely proud of the LNER Reserves because that was my baby. And to see where people like Penny Bond took that, was just inspiring. And LNER Reserves will now become a permanent fixture in our business. We didn’t have a formalised volunteering policy before the pandemic, and now we do.

‘But I think it is also the way in which the team responded to what was a mentally, professionally, physically, gruelling challenge really. In every way, this was challenging, and they had to deal with their own stuff separately.

'People were having family members pass away and they kept going. They turned their hands to so many different things. It was really inspiring to see how. It was not just about resilience or creativity… it was kind of the Blitz spirit. Literally, there was nothing more I could have asked of my team. Nothing at all.’