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Southeastern is one of the UK’s biggest and most complex rail operators, running 2,200 trains a day, 170 million passenger journeys a year, and employing nearly 4,000 people in London and Kent. Andy Bindon, who was Southeastern’s human resources director until September 2014, tells us how the organisation has used social media to improve engagement with employees.

For nearly three years now Southeastern has been using social media as a way of improving communication and engagement with employees. This has attracted quite a lot of interest and recently featured in a major piece of research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (Putting social media to work. May 2014).

I think part of the interest is that Southeastern is probably atypical of companies you would expect to see at the forefront of using social media, because the rail industry is perhaps perceived as having a fairly 'traditional' approach to people management, particularly when it comes to industrial/employee relations, and because this is a franchise business. But like many organisations in traditional sectors, Southeastern has ‘twin-tracked’ this approach with a broader employee engagement programme, focused on involving its people in meaningful ways and on meaningful issues.

New communications and engagement programme

In 2008 we started to develop our communications and engagement programme with the aim of building it around two key milestones; the launch of the UK’s first domestic high speed service in 2009 and the key role our services would play in the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. These were not the ‘end game’ in themselves – like all businesses we have a range of annual targets to achieve across a host of measures – but they gave us two very high profile, different but related (in that high speed service was a key part of the Olympic transport strategy), and visible events to rally people around.

Over the period up to 2011 we involved our employees in a range of initiatives: setting a new vision and objectives for the business; producing a 'big picture' to capture the complex strategic narrative and holding facilitated discussions with all employees; establishing company level and local focus groups across the business which involved about 10% of our people; achieving Investors in People Silver status (since achieved Champion status); achieving over 60% of employees with a minimum NVQ 2 qualification; focusing on improving the people management skills of our leaders and managers; devolving the running of our employee recognition scheme to an employee focus group.

During this time we saw improvements in our key business and people results, but we wanted to find ways to involve more than the 15% or so of employees regularly being involved in business issues, and social media seemed a way we could harness technology to accelerate momentum.

Trial launch of new platform

In late 2011 we trialled a platform called Socialtext which we branded as WorkMate (WM). We went with this platform as we felt it best met our needs to communicate, learn and share more widely. Basically, it provides functionality similar to Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia. We placed all our key company information on it and some tools that would help people do their jobs better, like live performance information, other train company timetables/maps and an employee directory We encouraged staff to log on and try it. There would be minimal regulation (other than our standard code of conduct) and no constant monitoring/moderation of content. People would be able to use it as they wanted – have conversations, ask questions, express opinions, set up private groups.

We ran it for three months alongside our static intranet and the results were phenomenal! During the three months our static intranet had about 550 visits (about the norm) whereas WM had over 52,000! Other results included: employee directory accessed 80 times on the intranet, over 40,000 on WM; vacancy information viewed 70 times on the intranet and over 2,000 times on WM.

Formal launch and metrics

After further evaluation and feedback from employees, including a focus group overseeing it, we decided to scrap our intranet and formally launch WM in April 2012, just a few months before the Olympics. At the same time we were running special Olympic engagement events which were attended by over a 1,000 of our employees, so it gave us a great opportunity to promote WM. It proved an extremely popular and valuable tool over the Olympics, not only carrying the latest company information but also enabling employees to exchange stories, pictures and just keep in touch.

On the back of this, WM really took off after the Games. As of September 2014 we had:

- 80% of employees voluntarily registered
- About 2,200 employee visits a week and about 500 posting something
- Approximately 60 business questions asked every week
- 120 active private groups (about 65% are work related! the rest are social)
- Since April 2012 over 100,000 conversations on WM (the longest – on a work issue – involving over 60 people over three weeks)
- Created a new set of company values and produced a 'values in 60 seconds' video which has had over 6,000 views on WM
- Used it for pulse surveys and added many more work tools and toolkits (an employee engagement toolkit, launched in July 2013, was accessed over 2,500 times in the first three months)

WM still runs with minimal regulation, it primarily being down to the users to self regulate and we have had no major issues, with only a few people being asked to amend comments. People can and do criticise the company on it, and we welcome that! We can also sense when issues are bubbling up, so recently when we made changes to our pension scheme, despite extensive communications a lot of questions and misinformation surfaced on WM and we were able to respond to this quickly. I and others don't spend all day looking at what people are talking about (we are conscious of suspicions of 'Big Brother'!) but every time we log on to WM, the home page highlights the latest employee conversations and issues, so you can get a sense of things that are topical.

Everyone has a home page which they can customise as they wish. So for example, colleagues can look at mine, see my messages, which groups I'm involved with and what we're working on, can 'follow' me, so they're alerted when there's any new activity by me.

Other results

So what other results have we seen where we feel WM has had an impact?

- Best ever performance and customer satisfaction scores and best ever people scores on a range of metrics (for example, formal grievances and sickness absence levels have been at their lowest ever)
- In only our third ever employee survey, response rates rose from 68% to 80% to 89% in 2014
- The engagement metric from the survey went up by 10% to 70%
- Other areas like clarity of what we're trying to achieve, personal contribution, how change is managed, quality of information and understanding values improved by 3 -5%
- It has definitely helped improve communications and climate and provides an excellent 'red signals' mechanism to gauge the current mood. We recently used it to collect staff views and opinions on how our services may change over the next 5 years.
- As a ‘spin-off’ we developed a sister tool ‘IdeaMate’ to ensure that we didn’t lose the wealth of ideas that come up on WM.

Future plans include more personalisation, more pulse surveys and toolkits, more dynamic content, integration with the HR system, encouraging greater use by our trade unions (some have embraced it more than others).

What have we learned?

- However, extensive your communications, you might not be as communicated as you think. We extended WM to mobile devices to help employees who don't have regular access to a PC and then placed it in the 'Cloud' so it could be accessed anytime, anyplace, anywhere
- People do want to connect, with colleagues and the business. Many employees are working in relative isolation, and just being able to have an online conversation has helped people feel they are not alone!
- It's a great tool for people to share information and ask questions. The engineering team has created a complete engineering wiki, covering every process
- You don't need to over regulate it. People respect it and its use. If you have concerns, have you really considered what they are and weighed them against the benefits?
- Social media is a part of everyday life, not the preserve of the under 25s! Resistance is futile!
- The cost-benefit has been easily proved. The net cost, once we scrapped our intranet, means that the cost is a few £s per employee. There are a whole range of products available, from free to expensive, but there'll be something that meets your needs.
- It provides momentum to your engagement programmes. You have to put the hard work in before you launch something like this. If we dropped something like WM into the organisation in 2008 it would have invariably bombed! If you look at the scores on some of the employee survey results, they have improved but not as much as you may expect in some areas, so don't be lulled into thinking this is a universal panacea!
- You still need to work hard at other channels. Since launching WM we have strengthened channels like briefings, forums and launched a monthly employee phone-in to directors (where a summary of the calls and discussions are published on WM within an hour of the phone-in closing).

Voice is integral to engagement. Hopefully, through WM Southeastern is enabling people to connect and voice opinions, concerns and ideas more than ever before....but also using it as part of an overall strategy of meaningful dialogue in making big decisions.

Andy Bindon is HR director for Govia Thameslink Railway and HR director for Southern Railway
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