As a longtime Verizon customer, I was curious to learn about the inner workings of the telecoms giant that employs 200,000 employees around the world.
I had the chance to catch up with Chief Communications Officer, Peter Thonis, in his office overlooking New York’s trendy Tribeca neighborhood.
“We have to reach our employees where they live – for example, we can’t just depend on every one of them being on the intranet every day because in many cases, employees may not get onto the intranet until the evening. So we have to be able to reach people in a lot of different ways,” Thonis explains.
According to Kathleen McKenna, Verizon’s Vice President of Global Employee Communications who dialed in for the interview, one of the greatest challenges of reaching a global work force is ensuring employees remain connected in a rapidly changing business environment:
“There isn’t a business going through change at breakneck speed that isn’t constantly asking employees to sharpen their focus, find ways to become more efficient, find ways to innovate, collaborate, share and transfer knowledge…and at the end of the day deliver the next best (fill in the blank) ahead of any other market competitor. When I think about all that is coming at our employee base, that is ultimately the Holy Grail that we’re striving for.”
McKenna relies on Verizon’s external communications team to help balance what employees learn about the company via mainstream media and what they hear internally.
“It’s very beneficial for employees to understand when we’re making announcements about products, what it is we’re doing and the why of it. That’s what I think employees are most looking for – to help them connect the dots and how it ultimately affects their job and how they deliver services to the customer.”
Calling all tools
Walk down any street in New York and odds are you’ll see a Verizon truck go by. McKenna and her team work hard to ensure field employees stay connected with the rest of the business.
“We have a lot of technicians in trucks, working to construct our network, who are servicing our network, provisioning our products, making repairs. We do several things (to communicate to that part of the work force), but their main source of information quite frankly has been the same for decades, and that’s their supervisor.”
Still, when on the go, field workers use many of the gadgets that Verizon is in the business of selling. Techs are armed with BlackBerrys – even laptops – allowing them access to electronic content like email and the intranet.
“We have message pop-ups that come to them on a daily basis with the headline of the day. They also have down time to check email when they’re waiting for a customer to come to the door or waiting for software to load when they’re installing FiOS Internet.
“We’ve also deployed what I like to call high-tech solutions for low-tech tactics. We took the old-school bulletin board system and created electronic downloads for supervisors to insert into slots on the boards. Every month, we provide eight sets of content that get printed locally and inserted into the slots so we provide consistent messaging on a monthly basis.”
Among the information supervisors can expect to find are figures related to sales performance, new product developments, as well as employee recognition news and announcements.
At Verizon hubs, field workers are kept informed via electronic message boards before heading out onto their morning routes. Typical content may include three or four top headlines of the day (internal or external), closing stock prices from the day before and health and safety messages.
Back at the office…
Being a company on the cutting edge of technology (Verizon recently announced that iPhones will go on sale February 10th), it’s no surprise that they’ve been dabbling in social media for quite some time. Their newly re-launched intranet – MyVZweb – just made the list of Nielsen Norman Group’s Ten Best Intranets of 2011.
The overhaul of the site took nine months before introducing a soft launch to employees.
“We put a space there called MyVerizonNetwork offering blogging and wiki tools so employees could find it and develop it on their own. We’re getting ready to put some business cases together for our leaders around what makes sense to deploy and leverage. For instance, my belief is that, in an organization that goes through a lot of change as ours does, one of the things that often challenges that kind of environment is knowledge transfer: ‘How do make sure that there is a smooth hand- off of the baton as employees move into different spaces and take on new assignments?’ That can be an asset to the company that is wasted if there’s not a good way for knowledge transfer to occur,” McKenna explains.
Better search functions
To meet the demands of employees – search is the number one reason they visit the intranet – Verizon is looking at a way to marry people’s profile tool with a Facebook for the enterprise. The vision is to create a space where employees would upload their own pages and discuss products they’re working on, thus creating a new network of subject matter experts. The site would foster increased collaboration and allow for a bit of personal information as well, promoting camaraderie and engagement among employees.
“If I am sitting here as an employee saying, ‘I’ve got to work on this FiOS billing and I need subject matter expertise that I’m lacking,’ being able to go in and search for colleagues’ profiles in a dynamic way and quickly come up with five or six people who have stepped forward to help, is enormous. Without that kind of tool you can have that employee sit there for three or four or days trying to find the right person to help them with their project. So we’re trying to show how a social media tool can create a much more rapid response to those pressing business issues,” McKenna explains.
Video is a particularly hot tool used to spread knowledge at Verizon. The company has created their own internal video site called V-TUBE which allows user-generated content and video posting. The site is most widely used by IT and the Sales Departments.
“In our complex sales organization, it’s important for those teams to stay abreast of new products we’re bringing in to serve the enterprise business space, so very often those teams create user generated content around new products and service capabilities, what our competitors are doing, as well as featuring sales presentations that have been made around those products, in the government space, banking space or healthcare space. A lot of it is about helping with knowledge transfer and getting the information shared very broadly and quickly,” McKenna explains.
When it comes to external communications, Thonis says Verizon is quick to ensure that employees put the company in the best possible light when engaging online.
“Employees are blogging and tweeting and using Facebook, and we recognize that empowering them with these tools in the office and on smartphones enables employees to improve the way they work and collaborate. The issue is how do we make sure they know what they should and shouldn’t be doing and when. For example, we put out guidelines for employees about etiquette and how they should use blogs, how they should communicate. We don’t say ‘don’t communicate’ because we know they are going to be doing so.
“If you’re with Verizon and if you’re engaging on a Verizon topic, these are rules you should follow so you don’t embarrass the company and that you represent yourself and Verizon well. For example, you don’t start chiming in and defending the company without identifying who you are.”
Amid all the shiny tools and innovative comms channels, Thonis says face-to-face communication at Verizon is still an important priority for senior leaders.
“People like face-to-face. Employees like to meet and get to know people and interact…when you can do it. We have a huge organization – it’s not always possible to meet with everybody but to the extent where employees can meet senior management, we like to make that happen fairly regularly; it shouldn’t be a situation where our management team is secretly meeting out in the wild blue yonder. We should all be quite accessible.”
At the time of our interview, Lowell McAdam, Verizon’s Chief Operating Officer (and soon-to-be Chief Executive Officer) had just returned from a meeting with overseas staff in Great Britain and Germany.
In January, Verizon “pulls out all the stops” with their internal communications to ensure employees are in tune with the strategic goals of the business and what the company plans to accomplish during the year. Kick-off meetings are held, presented by McAdam to 200 of Verizon’s top senior management. The information is then cascaded to the rest of the organization throughout the month of January.
McKenna says, “The kickoff meetings will have a content package consisting of slides, videos, talking points and handouts that we’ll post online for leaders in the organization. Directors and VP’s get it in a day or two; after their business unit kickoff they will have the package that same day. They’re also instructed to watch the live webcast or the replay and take the content and cover it with their teams. We need to get people on board with what we need to accomplish so we echo that messaging throughout all our platforms including our website and our employee publications. We try to find various ways so we can shine a light on what we have going on in the business and how people can be connected and help make Verizon a success.”
Management is quick to involve employees in that process, thanks to an “Ideas” section on the intranet, allowing employees to submit ideas on how to improve the business. Employees have the opportunity to vote thumbs up or thumbs down on the suggestions, giving business leaders a look into a steady stream of ideas and deciding whether or not they want to incorporate any of them. The program has completed a pilot period and is being assessed to determine how to implement it across the business.
Keeping employees “Updated”
McKenna and her team oversee an online e-newsletter called Update, published three times a week. Thanks to the level of interactivity it allows, the company is kept abreast of any questions or issues employees may have. Story ideas are often formed from comments and feedback.
“We cover the business like a beat system. I have people on my team that are assigned to a business unit and it’s their job to be out there talking to leadership and mid-level employees about what’s going on in the business. We have a robust system on keeping tabs on everything and developing story ideas. We often hold stories back because we are so content rich on a particular issue,” McKenna points out.
Stories are also developed via information that comes out of focus groups, led by McKenna and her team in response to business challenges the organization is trying to tackle.
“We’ll test tactics with small groups of employees. Out of that we will typically get story ideas. For years, Verizon has had a two-way communications process. There really isn’t anything that comes out of my part of the organization that doesn’t provide feedback loop for employees.”
One particular piece of feedback that resonated with McKenna was the fact that employees felt overwhelmed by the amount of information they have to absorb every day. As a result, the company did away with smaller, niche-oriented employee publications and opted for Update’s format with blended news and its three-times-a-week publishing schedule.
“Rising tides raise all ships. Whereas someone could have gotten five emails containing five newsletters a week, employees now get three a week but all the content is in one place. They have an easy place to go back to for archives, and a niche publication that may have only gotten 1500 or 2000 views is now getting 35,000 or 40,000 views because the information is now presented in a richer environment only three times a week.”
To reach employees on the go, Update is also published in a BlackBerry-friendly edition for people to scan and read on their smartphone devices.
Mobile communications is an area the company is still exploring. While Thonis says smartphone usage is increasing “pretty rapidly,” it’s not “completely pervasive yet.”
As it continues to evolve, Thonis and McKenna are taking steps to get to the next level.
“I think our next step is to take our intranet and get it off the desk and into people’s pockets and provide an easy way to access – certainly not every page – but, at least, the top layer of news and information. Creating an “intranet lite” is the next horizon for us,” McKenna forecasts.
In the end, though, she says, it’s all about growing the business.
“At the end of the day, is Verizon winning or losing? We need to contribute to Verizon winning so as we seek out our most potent tools and tactics, we’re looking to see, ‘Are we helping Verizon beat our competitors, outthink them and win? Did we make our sales goals this week? This month? This quarter? Did we make our targets this month and if we didn’t, what did we miss and how can we help drive that?’”