We’re all ears – Virgin Media’s approach to listening

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For their sustainability listening project, Virgin Media got creative. Entitled ‘We’re all Ears’, the concept of the Photobot was born; a cheeky talking robot that sought employees opinion on the firm’s latest sustainability efforts. The Photobot travelled to five different sites across the UK interviewing employees from different divisions, recording attitudes. Naturally employees were encouraged to don fancy dress while in the presence of the Photobot!

Virgin Media have put digital technology at the heart of their sustainability communications and have a website dedicatedpurely to their initiatives. We featured their  digital approach to sustainability which made their employees the stars of the show, earlier in the year.

Virgin Media are a big operation, with around 800 different UK sites, 12,000 employees and millions of customers.

Their aim is an ambitious one; to embed sustainability thinking within the organisation so it simply becomes ‘their way of doing business’.

The Photobot made up just one part of their ‘We’re All Ears’ report. They also engaged other stakeholders including leading sustainability thinkers and their customers. You can see their full report here.

We caught up with Katie Chapman, Head of Sustainability and Reporting at Virgin Media, to find out more about the intriguing Photobot and whether the fun approach yielded rewarding insights.

SC: Why was 2012 the right time to push a company-wide listening project? 

KC: We saw 2012 as the right time to check in with our staff and our other stakeholders, to get a better understanding of what they thought about our sustainability strategy, what their expectations of us as a responsible business were and test the water on some things we could be doing in the future. We wanted to use our listening project to make our sustainability strategy even stronger as we start to focus even more on how we prove that digital has the power to make great things happen.

SC: How did the concept of the Photobot come about?
KC: As you’d expect from a Virgin brand, we wanted to make the staff engagement experience as digital, interactive and fun as possible for everyone involved. Our agency came back to us with the idea for Photobot, a bespoke talking robot photo booth. The booth recorded video, allowing us to film whole interviews in a safe and private space. Behind the partition, an operator asked a series of questions to find out what staff really thought about sustainability at Virgin Media. The questions were relayed using a voice digitiser, giving the impression that the photo booth was a machine that could talk. And at the end of the conversation, the photo booth even produced a photo for staff to take away as a souvenir.

Once the idea had been signed off by the team here, we hit the road and visited five Virgin Media sites, which broadly represented the different parts of our business: our Corporate teams (Hook and Long Acre), our Logistics and Service Installation teams (Wellingborough) and our Customer Contact Centres (Bellshill and Wythenshawe).

SC: Why not another online survey, surely it’s easier to analyse? 

KC: While surveys can be an effective way to gauge whether people think certain issues are important or how well we’re dealing with them, we were looking to get a deeper understanding of how people really think about the issues. Not only did we get a fascinating insight into what our staff thought on topics like our role in the community or the impact of digital technology on all our lives, but we also received loads of useful ideas about how we could do things better, in all sorts of areas. And across most of the big issues, what our staff told us was pretty consistent. Like there being a lot more to business than just making profits – everyone we spoke to said they considered Virgin Media to be a responsible company. Not surprisingly, this meant different things to different people, but the main themes included things like waste and recycling, reducing our carbon footprint, treating staff well and the contribution we make to charity and the local community.

The ‘We’re All Ears’ project also helped to show people that their voices were really being heard, which often seems to be a barrier to genuine participation in employee surveys. And beyond this, the tour also confirmed just how much Virgin Media staff across the country enjoy dressing up in silly outfits and having a bit of fun!

SC: How did you raise awareness that the Photobot was coming? 

KC: With the help of our facilities teams in each location, we put up small posters that asked thought-provoking questions about our sustainability strategy and invited our staff to have their say on the date scheduled for Photobot to visit. We kept an air of mystery about the actual format as we wanted to create a buzz on the day itself.

We also sought the support from the management in each part of the business we visited – and asked them to make sure staff were given adequate time to take part, no matter where they worked or what their job.

SC: What do you think you gained by physically travelling up and down the country to visit different departments?

KC: A big focus for the sustainability team here at Virgin Media is to embed sustainability thinking across the entire organisation so it becomes our way of doing things. We know that the best way to achieve this is through support and cooperation with employees – bottom up and top down. And getting out there and listening to what our staff think is absolutely critical to achieving this.

On a personal level, it was also great to have the opportunity to talk face to face to so many of our staff about what we’re doing to become a more sustainable and responsible business. I met some fantastic people, including one of our female technicians, who has since been blogging for us about what it’s like to be a woman working in our technical teams and the measures we’re taking to improve the gender balance in these historically hard to attract areas.

SC: What were employees’ reactions to the initiative?

KC: The reaction was overwhelmingly positive – staff were queuing to take part and have their say at each location we visited. It was great to see a real buzz at the Big Red Shed in Wellingborough and at our contact centres in Wythenshaw and Belshill. It was our new Director of Public Affairs first day in his job when the photo booth visited London and I think he might have been a bit bemused at first. After all, it’s not every day you get chatting to a talking robot about sustainability. But we’re actually developing the concept to use in a public-facing conversation, so he was won over pretty quickly!

Take a look at short excerpts from the Photobot in Virgin Media’s video.

RESULTS

 

SC: It looked fun but did it work?

KC: Yes! The topics and issues raised by our staff were wide-ranging. With so many conversations going on, there were loads of useful and insightful perspectives to consider, as well as plenty of ideas about how we could do things better. We got a much deeper understanding of what our staff thought about issues like being a responsible company, embedding sustainability within our business than any survey could have given us!

SC: Is 200 staff representative of your organisation? 

KC: With 12,000 staff, we’d never be able to interview everyone using this approach. But the five locations we visited reflected the different areas of our business, so it was representative in this way.


SC: Did the fun part produce better results in your opinion? 

KC: The fun part made people want to take part in the first place. But it was equally important to make sure that once people were inside the booth, they felt comfortable talking openly and honestly – so the private space and having a fully briefed interviewer helped a lot. It’s the combination of all these things that made it successful.

SC: Your ‘We’re all Ears’ project focuses mainly on qualitative data -what were your reasons for this focus?

KC: We were looking for the kinds of insights from staff, sustainability experts and consumers to help us build on and develop our sustainability strategy that we wouldn’t have got from quantitative research.

Some of what we heard reinforced things we’d already started to form an opinion on, like getting a better understanding of what our consumers think sustainability is about, or learning that the experts like our innovative approach to sustainability reporting. In some areas where people would like to see things done a bit differently, like our role in the emerging debate about the impacts of our increasingly digital lifestyles, the steps to improve are already underway. But we recognise that acting on some of the things we heard present some much bigger implications for our future plans. That’s why ‘We’re All Ears’ also sets out the issues that we’re talking about most across all three stakeholder groups, explains what we’re already doing and what we plan to do in the future.

THE EVALUATION

 

SC: What have you learnt from this initiative? 

KC: Over the last couple of years, we’ve really changed the way we think about engaging staff in sustainability more generally and I think we’ve learned a few key things:

  • Sustainability is a great “leveller”. We’ve had the CEO and front line staff take part in the same projects. It’s important to get people to contribute from different levels of the organisation – top down and bottom up.
  • Give people the tools to get their voice heard – and make sure they know what they say will be listened to.
  • Have a plan for activating “key moments”. It’s one thing to get loads of great content from your staff but it’s not that valuable if you haven’t thought about how you’re going to get it out there! Especially in a business like ours where most staff are not based in offices.

SC: Is there anything you would do differently?

KC: ‘We’re All Ears’ was the start of a different kind of conversation with our staff about sustainability. But we know it’s only the beginning. When we do it again, I’d like to visit more sites and make sure we get our CEO and other members of senior management into the Photobot – unfortunately they were all in the London the day we were at our HQ in Hook!

SC: What advice would you give to others looking to do a similar scale listening project?

KC: Knowing and tapping into the culture of your organisation is probably the most important thing. Not every company is going to embrace the idea of using a robotic video booth to listen to what staff think about sustainability while they’re dressed up in comedy glasses. But what other companies can take away is how to empower employees to be the voice of the company, to help them “show, not tell” on key issues. Businesses are really about the people that work there and we wanted to start a different kind of conversation about sustainability with our stakeholders – one where our staff take the lead, giving an honest answer in their own words.