The COVID Tales - Chapter 2: The Communication Director's Tale.

6th November 2020

Steve Bowman-Finch is the Interim Head of Communications at Tructyre, he gives us his account of what it has been like trying to communicate pandemic specific organisational response plans to employees, clients and suppliers. This was made all the more difficult for Steve as he was new to the organisation when the first lockdown hit. We find out how he didn’t let this impact his work to ensure that essential workers were kept safe and Tructyre’s clients still received the same high level of service they have been accustomed to.


Can you give the reader a bit of an overview of your background?

 I’ve been working in the field of corporate communications for well over 20 years. I started off working for an insurance company where I ended up editing their in-house magazine and decided I enjoyed doing that much more than insurance! A role came up for an internal comms officer in the same company; I went for it, got it and I guess the rest is history. Mainly that 20-odd years has been in-house work. In 2012, I set up my own comms consultancy business and have been working with a mixture of companies in the public and private sectors ever since.

 Over the last 8 years I have primarily supported transformation and change programmes, mainly IT, but also organisational change.


Any Career achievements you are particularly proud of?

 I won the institute of internal communications award for best financial communication in 2012, for the communication of a corporate strategy. Across the company, the strategy had an awareness rate of over 90% which was a great success.

 I’ve also had to prepare pandemic plans in the past, such as for swine flu back in 2009, but this is the first time I’ve had to implement it as well. It’s been interesting to see it through from plan to actualisation. One of the things that has helped me in my current role was drawing from that old work so we could hit the ground running quite early.


So this wasn’t a complete surprise for you?

 I remember one of the first things I did in February was call up a risk manager that I’d worked with before and have a quick chat.. I’ve also written communication business continuity plans for organisations, so it wasn’t completely new to me, but Covid-19 and the UK’s response are still new to all of us, so you have to think on your feet.


Can you give us a bit of background to Tructyre and what your remit is there?

 Yes, I’m the Interim Head for Communications for Tructyre. We are a commercial tyre maintenance and emergency response organisation, and we are part of the global Michelin group and part of Euromaster as well. so we have that stability behind us. We’re mainly made up of mobile tyre technicians who go out and maintain tyres on customer sites alongside a 24/7/365 emergency response. That’s the bulk of employees who are then supported by call centre and admin teams.


What was the immediate impact of the first lockdown on yourself and the business?

 As a contractor I have worked entire contracts from home so being homebased itself wasn’t particularly problematic.

 I think where I did find it difficult was the fact I’d started with Tructyre on the 12th of February this year. I’d gone in to improve their communications and set up a communications function for them, then suddenly Covid hit. That meant I wasn’t able to get out and about in the business as early as I’d like. Internal comms and engagement by their very nature are a social activity and engagement really helps to be face-to-face.

 We kept close to our teams through the increased use of Microsoft Teams, but getting out in to the business has been the thing that I’ve missed being able to do.

 Personally, any issues arising from the crisis for me pale in comparison to the issues other people have had to face. I’ve been lucky I’ve got the space to work in at home, but that’s unfortunately not been the case for everyone. It’s been tough for people, whether that be changing how they work, losing their job, being ill or losing loved ones.

 But even though I’m working from home, my wife says she hardly sees me! And as good as it is working from home, I do find myself working late most nights, which is unsurprising given the situation.


Must have been tricky overcoming those hurdles. How have you dealt with things?

 To be honest I think a lot of companies, regardless of what industry they are in are all dealing with a similar set of issues. I’ve worked in lots of different organisations and although they are run differently, there’s also lots of similarities between them which I think is why with the experience I had coming in to Tructyre I was able to utilise that.

 In the early stages, we brought in some extra channels to help communicate with people more effectively. I’ve also used surveys to see what people have appreciated, and the main thing has been the openness and honesty from the senior management team about how Covid was impacting the business and what we were going to do about it.

 Just like so many businesses in the UK, Covid has impacted us at Tructyre. But we are an essential business and it was imperative that we kept British industry moving, making sure our customers were able to make deliveries to supermarkets, hospitals and chemists, for example. We’ve also maintained our service standards in the vast majority of cases despite the challenges thrown at us.

 If you think about the early days of the pandemic, with things like the toilet paper shortages, we helped keep the supermarkets’ fleets moving by making sure their tyres were in top notch condition. We’ve been really proud of the part that we’ve played - and continue to play - throughout the crisis.

 As it became more apparent that we were on the verge of a pandemic, we set up a daily Covid Teams meeting for the senior leadership team. We could see the way it was going so we wanted to understand the potential impacts – on our business and on our people, and put plans in place to mitigate them. For example, as we got into lockdown it helped us understand that we would need to make use of the furlough scheme, as some of our customers were scaling back what they were doing. It was things like that that were vital to business continuity and helped us make the changes we needed to make.


Did any of this change the message you wanted to send your staff?

 Not really, Our ethos throughout the pandemic, which is something I’ve always believed in as well, is to be as open as possible with your people, especially during change. The mantra we have had and that guides our decisions, is to protect our employees, protect our business and keep customers moving.

 Where we could take people out of an office environment and work from home, we did so, freeing up space in offices to increase social distancing. We already had stringent health and safety procedures in place for our tyre technicians.

 When our tyre technicians go out and fit a tyre, you have to remember that these tyres are huge, so if you are pumping them up with compressed air, it can be a risky job. So, we already had a lot of safety precautions in place. One of those being if somebody is out on a road changing a tyre the driver of that truck can’t stand close to the work (and therefore our employee), they have to keep their distance. This meant that it was easier for the 2m rule to be observed, as that’s how we operate anyway. Our technicians work alone as well, so our normal safe working practices meant that social distancing wasn’t as big an issue as it could have been.
We also brought in new procedures where necessary, such as contactless job authentication, rather than physically signing a job sheet.

 Around the office, we insist people keep 2m apart and wear face masks; even when the 1m+ and back to work came in we also stuck with 2m and working from home, which in hindsight was a good move.


Would you say the measures you put in place have worked?

 Well we had no confirmed cases of Covid in Tructyre during the first wave. We had some people self-isolate but over the summer, we went over 100 days of having no one self-isolating, which we are pretty proud of. It proved the safe working practices we put in place have been effective, and also shows how our employees have played their part. I keep reviewing government guidelines to make sure we aren’t just meeting their regulations, but exceeding them.

 One other thing I did was write a Covid-19 safety and security policy for our customers, staff and suppliers to show our risk assessment process and how we are making our workplace as safe as possible.

 We’ve recently introduced additional measures so that when people walk around the office, we have asked that they wear a mask. This isn’t general practice in the UK, but we thought it could make a difference and there’s been a good reaction from the staff about it. Senior management have been championing it by doing the same when they visit offices. Lots of the restrictions from the government are for social settings, rather than work, and we’ve asked employees to be as conscious of those as possible when not at work.


What method of communication do you feel worked best?

 Teams calls have been great and, as we don’t yet have an intranet, I set up standalone SharePoint site, where we post a recording of our weekly Teams call, along with supporting information and Q&As. I also send out an email with the highlights of the call, so those who couldn’t join don’t miss out. I ran a survey on the channels and the SharePoint site was seen as extremely useful. We also use it as a platform to share good news stories and great feedback from customers.


How are you looking towards the future now?

 Our focus is now on the future: we believe we have everything in place to get us through any further issues, so we are now looking at re-starting some transformation projects that got out on hold because of the pandemic and winning new business.


Any tips for anyone facing the same sorts of issues that you have?

 We’ve heard the word ‘unprecedented’ used more in the last 6 months than in
the last 6 years, but what that means is Coronavirus has been a really scary time for people, so you have to be as open and honest as you can. Ask people what they want to hear from you and do your best to get those answers for them.

 The other tip is to keep communications as clear, simple and consistent as you can, which has been vital for us during the pandemic. We’ve all seen in wider society is that serious issues can arise when communication isn’t simple.


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