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Guest Interview: The Role of the Communicator is Changing, Again.

The world of work has changed forever. And as we begin to reimagine what this means for organizations of the future, we are thinking about the impact 2020 had on communicators who were charged with helping leaders and employees navigate the unique challenges and opportunities last year brought, in some groundbreaking ways.

In 2018, we saw a trend of communicators shifting from producers of “stuff” (newsletters, Town Hall decks, etc.) to strategic business partners helping organizations achieve their goals. This could not be truer than it is today. And the events of last year have already continued to evolve the role and expectations of communicators at light speed.

We recently spoke with Katie Sibley, Director of Employee Experience and Communication at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), to discuss how she and her team met the challenges of this past year and how 2020 will shape communications of the future.

DG: We’ve talked about the fact that a lot of trends have been exponentially accelerated by the events of 2020. What does this look like from your point of view at HPE?

Katie Sibley: 2020 certainly accelerated or influenced a “doubling down” in core focus areas we already had at HPE. When it came to responding to the pandemic, one of the first and main trends was an even greater and more targeted focus on wellness and mental health as well as an emphasis on culture, virtual engagement, inclusion, and diversity. These focuses weren’t just “a nice thing to do” but critical factors we know drive business outcomes. Lucky for me, these are all the areas I’m passionate about and energize me.

DG: Wellness has certainly become a topic that many companies are focusing on more and more. How is HPE tackling it?

Katie Sibley: One thing I’ve always loved about HPE is our focus on wellness, even before COVID-19. We were already wellness advocates and had a great foundation to build on.

What did change was where we put our energy, and we realized that this was not a “one-size-fits-all” approach. We narrowed in on specific challenges people were dealing with, rather than just general wellness and mental health. This included challenges like dealing with isolation, caring for aging parents, and parenting children while working – all during a pandemic.

DG: How did you address that?

Katie Sibley: We started Community Calls where team members dealing with certain circumstances could come together to learn from health experts and then hear experiences from other HPE team members who were navigating the same challenges. What we found most impactful was creating the space for employees to know that what they were feeling was valid – and they weren’t alone.

We also did a big push on our internal social platform. It was amazing how many team members just wanted to connect with each other on a human level. People were vulnerable and that was powerful. Employees shared stories and pictures and connected with each other on a level we’d never seen before.

One of the most important things we did, though, was strongly encourage our people leaders to have regular check-ins with their employees. This wasn’t about checking in on work but rather checking in on them. Asking team members how they were doing, and truly listening was key. This seems simple, but it went a long way.

DG: Let’s talk about inclusion and diversity. How did your focus evolve in this area in 2020?

Katie Sibley: Like wellness, we already had a strong foundation in this space. We had already been talking about the importance of a diverse and inclusive workforce, we had training, programming, all the things you’d expect. All of the social injustice that occurred brought the need to not only talk about the importance of inclusion, diversity, and equity within our company but in the world. It’s something we believed but never addressed quite as directly as we did last year. We felt strongly that we had the responsibility to take a public stance against systemic racism.

Internally, one of the first things we did, which really shaped all the efforts that followed, was to go out and listen to our team members. Again, it sounds so simple but we hadn’t created uninterrupted space for our Black Employee Network and other Employee Resource Groups to talk directly with leadership about their experiences, and gaps and opportunities they saw. Our entire Executive Committee and CEO participated in these listening sessions, and it was a critical first step in refining our inclusion and diversity efforts. We didn’t want to have a knee-jerk response. We wanted to listen first and then find a way to do better and be better.

The listening sessions were so powerful, we wanted to bring some of the stories that were shared with our leaders so we created a podcast. The podcast captured the voices of a handful of Black Employee Network team members who shared their personal stories. We asked leaders to take a walk while listening to the podcast and try to place themselves in the shoes of the voices they heard. When leaders heard the voices in this “unplugged’ way, the stories really resonated, much more than anyone just saying inclusion is important.

I’m really proud of the efforts both from a communications and programmatic standpoint we delivered last year. The racial injustice that occurred made us hold up a mirror and ask what we could do within HPE and in the world to make a difference. It pushed us to do better.

DG: As a communicator, a lot is put on you to help lead the way. What was that like, especially as you and your team were also navigating the “new normal”?

Katie Sibley: We had to learn how to balance “we have to do this right now” with “it can wait until tomorrow.” And as a leader, I had to be very aware of how fast we could move and how much we could do, without ignoring the fact that we were dealing with the same circumstances as everyone else. I didn’t do it perfectly, but I tried to be supportive by showing that I was human.

So often when we talk about work-life balance, we start with work. Shouldn’t it be life-work balance? I embraced this notion and tried to demonstrate it while ensuring we were meeting the needs of the company.

What this meant practically was a lot of prioritization. We couldn’t do everything, so we had to focus on impact and scale.

DG: As you reflect on last year and the future of work, how will corporate communications functions need to operate differently? 

Katie Sibley: If you think about it… when you were working from home before 2020, kids walked into the background or dogs started barking, and we’d apologize for it – as if we didn’t have kids or dogs or a life outside of work. But we do. Now, we’ve been forced to embrace our humanity. And as communicators, we were tasked with helping our team members navigate that.

As we continue to have a hybrid workforce, and our team members continue to work at home while managing their lives during a pandemic, we’ll need to adjust to reach out to people where they are. One way might be micro-communications – bite-sized communications that go out more often and continue to focus on specialized topics.

We’re also becoming more informal with our communications and engagement with each other. Not just from our communications team but from leaders as well. For example, we were on a technology check before an All Team Member Meeting with our CEO who showed up in a Pink Floyd t-shirt. I thought any second he would go change for the All Team Meeting, but he didn’t. The number one question that employees asked during the meeting was about his favorite Pink Floyd song. It’s a reminder that suits and polish don’t carry the weight they used to. I’ll take authenticity and realness over polish and flash any day.

DG: Last question. What’s the one piece of advice you would give to other communications who are navigating this time? 

Katie Sibley: I think the one thing I would say is to be open; open to showing your own vulnerability and struggles and to help others do so too. Be open to trying new things, learning from mistakes, and improving. We’re all in uncharted waters, but there’s so much we can learn if we’re open to it.