Hanson Search talks to Tim Rutter, Head of Communications, Tata Steel UK on the impact of Covid-19

Welcome to our ‘Getting Business Back’ series where we are talking to industry leaders from agency and inhouse backgrounds about the impact of COVID 19 on their businesses and the steps they are taking as we move out of the crisis.

Here, we sat down (virtually) with Tim Rutter, Head of Communications at Tata Steel UK. Read on for his thoughts about the impact of COVID-19 and the transformations that he’s seen take place as a result of the pandemic. 

What impact has COVID-19 had on your business and on your sector as a whole? 

It's been extremely difficult for the steel industry - all the manufacturing industry in fact. It's hit us hard in many sectors, but that's not universal. The automotive sector pretty much came to a stop after lockdown but we’re now seeing manufacturing open up a bit albeit on reduced outputs. The construction industry has been limping through and is starting to recover now. But sectors like packaging, they can't make enough, they are absolutely booming. That's a relatively small part of Tata Steel Europe but it demonstrates that it's not one-size-fits-all in terms of how COVID has impacted our business financially.

Like any other business, we've had to put in quite stringent measures for people's health. But a steel industry works 24/7 in most parts of the plant. Of course, we've provided PPE, put screens up and implemented social distancing practices, so we've had relatively few cases of COVID, and people have been working through. That being said, most of our office workers have been working from home - that's about 3000 people. And of course, the furlough scheme has been a blessing for people who couldn't work. We have about 2500 people currently on furlough.

As a result of COVID-19, organisations have had to move faster than ever before to problem solve and navigate the crisis. How has this pushed your organisation and industry forward positively and which of those measures taken would you like to remain in place post pandemic? 

The whole working from home piece has been revolutionary. There's always been this undercurrent of 'well, if you're working from home are you really working? How many hours a day?' and I think quickly people have realised you can actually be busier, work harder and more productive than you might be in the office. The IT side was solved quickly, so the efficiency of things like Teams and Skype has been brilliant. You can still see people face to face and we've been encouraging teams to interact socially as well as business wise. I meet with my team on video daily for half an hour just for a chat.

As we move forward and a lot of people are asking when are people going to come back into the workplace, I would say 'Why? What's your reason for needing to be in the workplace?' There is something to be said for the collaboration and brainstorming around a table and those social interactions. Definitely the more informal communications that you have -- that is kind of missing at the moment. I think that when we do get back it will be more hybrid. More appreciation of the value of working from home which I think is better from a mental health perspective, personal cash perspective, and an environmental perspective.

From a workers’ perspective, the guys on the shop floor, I'm not sure how much is going to change. Maybe better discipline around hygiene and cleanliness. It will be interesting to see as we go forward.

We're also conscious that we have three groups of people: those coming on site every day, those working from home, and those who are furloughed. None of those is an ideal scenario. If you're coming on site, you're worried about who you're coming into contact with and whether they might have coronavirus. If you're working from home, you have limited interaction and you might be balancing more family responsibilities. Then if you're furloughed, you have all the insecurities around whether you might be at more  risk of redundancy because you've been out of the workplace for a period of time.

Which of your values/your company’s values have truly come to life since the beginning of this crisis? 

We're lucky that we're part of this amazing organisation. Tata Group is one of the most ethical companies in the world and its values are so strong; they pervade every aspect of our business. We are a hugely paternalistic type of organisation. We're very caring and we look after our people. For instance, the government furlough scheme pays people up to 80% of their salaries up to a limit. We’ve been paying people in excess of that to be on furlough.

Health and safety is always our first concern and although the crisis has significantly impacted us financially, that's not stopped us from investing in PPE or putting up screens or managing our workplace. In one part of the plant they put up a traffic light for pedestrians to make sure that they weren't crossing a bridge during a big maintenance project. We've not been shy in spending money to look after our people.

Similarly, through our communications, it's all been very human-focused. This is a human issue. This is about keeping our people in work, on board, hopeful, and motivated, and I think we are fortunate to be in a company that's so strong in its values and ethics about doing the right thing by its people and communities.

Internal communications has never been more business critical. How has your business engaged with its employees and what changes in culture has it resulted in? 

In the first couple of months it felt like crisis comms every day. Everything was changing from day to day, more measures were being put into place, and more legislation and guidance was coming in. We had different scenarios across different parts of the UK. And we absolutely understood the potential of this in terms of how it could affect our operations, for instance, the number of people who could become infected or need to self-isolate or might need to be off on furlough. How would we keep those people on board, informed and motivated to keep going through all of this?

Our local director in South Wales very early on discussed how to pull people through this as opposed to pushing them. Yes, we have to be honest with people about the situation at the company, but there are some things that our workers can affect and some things they can't, so let's focus on those things they can. Let's keep them focused and keep celebrating the great things they do.

We have a whole range of communications tools that we use because we have a lot of offline workers as well as online. Maybe 40% of employees on our steel sites don't have access to email, intranet, Yammer, etc. so we have to consider that in choosing the most appropriate channels.

But a core tool is leadership. You need someone to hoist the flag and say, 'Follow me, this is where we are going.' Working with the Director in South Wales, we've been doing daily blogs that are really human - about facing up to the crisis, working as a team, working more flexibly, and having empathy for those people who might be affected.

In the early days, we also set up a Yammer group for which I modified the name of a 1980s Smiths song, so it's called 'Home Workers of the World Unite'. And we have hundreds of people on there saying, 'I can't make my computer do this' or 'I've got nothing to do with the kids.' We have people sharing drawings and projects for their kids, and tips on IT. It got very lively, certainly in those first few months. It was basically user-generated content and that was a really important way of helping people feel connected, but also to help them work efficiently.

Obviously, it's different for the offline workers. For about 15 years in the UK we've had a printed newspaper - it's about 12 pages every two weeks - for the very reason of keeping in touch with our offline workers. And then in a crisis like this, it's not just about the offline workers, there are also thousands of contractors who are on our sites who need to be aware of social distancing and temperature checks, etc.

And what about those people who are furlough or working from home? Early on we took the decision to put our employee updates on Facebook, which some people considered quite risky as you're putting internal comms in an external environment. But really there's no such thing as internal comms anymore. If you print a newspaper, anyone can walk up to the Visitor Centre and walk out with a newspaper. We did have to consider the pros and cons of putting that message out externally, but found that there weren't that many cons.

The people who decide what information goes internally and what goes externally are your communications people, the experts. They decide what's appropriate. So, if I'm creating this content with the local directors, I should be able to make a sensible call about whether that's safe to go externally or not. And it's gone down incredibly well because a lot of people - either offline workers or contractors or families and people in the communities - are suddenly seeing inside the steel industry and seeing its humanity. They're seeing a leader who's celebrating success whilst being honest about the changes happening in the organisation on a daily basis. It's been incredibly powerful, and I think it will be difficult to stop now.

That perspective encouraged us to launch podcasts. We'd been talking about it for a while and never got around to it. We weren't sure how to make them private but accessible. And this pandemic has just made us bite the bullet and put them in the public sphere.

Because if you think about those people who are furloughed - how do they keep up to date with what's going on in the business? It has to be through the public sphere. So, we've really broadened out the range of tools that we're using with good reason and relatively low risk.

What challenges have you faced leading people remotely and how have you had to adapt your style? 

It is challenging and certainly in the early days when we had to take 3000 of our people and send them to work from home--our network was not designed for that many people to be accessing it all at once. And it was binary; you have a work laptop, you log in and straight away it goes to the IT system. Some people needed those systems, like procurement, finance, and operational teams. For many others like me, you actually don't need to be in that environment. You can access the tools you need through the cloud. So, our IT team asked anyone who could use their personal laptop to do so. And it literally took them just a couple of days to help us get our own PCs sorted and work through the cloud rather than the IT system.

You also have to understand that a lot of people are working at the dining table or they have kids at home or partners who are also trying to work. Situations that are really difficult and quite stressful for many people. You also have no-one looking over your shoulder, so the responsibility of getting your work done sits completely with you. Then there's also a huge responsibility on the line manager to be actively conscious of their team’s mental health . You have to balance your work-life situation and your family. As a manager, I have to encourage that to ensure I have a team that still enjoys their work and is still contributing to the business. It's a struggle, but predominantly people have coped well.

As companies move from reacting to mitigating the impact of the outbreak, what is your strategy to move forward over the coming months? 

It almost entirely depends on how quickly the markets recover. Lots of the people who have been furloughed are office staff, but lots are manufacturing staff as well, so during the lockdown we've taken operating lines down in most plants in the UK. For those operational people to return will depend on those markets to start picking up. Fingers crossed, Boris Johnson's Build, Build, Build programme should be good for our construction business. The automotive sector is a big one for us too. It's high value and reasonable volumes, so we're desperate for business to pick up.

On the other side of the fence, in terms of offices and people going back to work, we're ready. We have building owners and meeting room layout plans and we've been sending out guidance about how many people in an office and formal risk assessments. So, we are getting ready for people to come back but the message is still that if you can work safely and effectively from home, then you should do so.

I think any sort of normality is a way away yet. People in the steel works who've worked through it will say it's been fairly normal; we're still rolling, making steel, packaging it. It might be for different customers, but we are still making steel and coming to work every day.

What do you feel are the major communications challenges once the recovery begins? 

I think something has changed fundamentally in the last three months and that's the desire for more human communications. The world of stiff, corporate, formal, jargon-filled communications is gone. People want to see and follow people - human beings. They want to know that their leaders speak the same language they do.

That's why I call the leadership communications that we’ve been doing since the start of the crisis, blogs rather than all-user emails.

I've done hundreds of employee updates in the past that were just saying,' Today we're announcing blah blah blah...' whereas these updates are much more human, pulling in quotes, or things that are happening in society or featuring on the news.

And people are soaking it up because it's their language. It's authentic. The challenge for communications people is to help their leaders to be that. And I'm not sure how well equipped the communications industry is to lead that new style of informal communications.

There's a risk with it. You have to try and get the mood right, but I think that's where the future is. We're trying to bring that into our monthly briefs now as well, which were very formal with PowerPoint slides and agendas. Now we're looking at how we can make them more informal. It needs to be more like you're down the pub, or hosting a chat show. And it's going over well because more people feel like they can get involved.

Another interesting aspect of these online briefings is that as an online participant, you feel like the presenter is speaking directly to you, whereas in a room of 50 people you’re just one in a crowd.

I never thought online communication would be more engaging than face to face!

I think that's the way forward. It will be easier in some organisations than others, but I think that's the challenge for us. Being brave about this internal/external piece, that's what we're paid for. We have to make those choices that are the best communications solutions to the challenges in front of us. I find it quite exciting.

Posted on 07.09.2020

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