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When a staff survey revealed employees were feeling slightly disengaged from Oxford-based leadership, we knew we needed to take action fast. The answer was ‘Ask Me Anything’ – an online forum that encouraged staff to ask leaders literally anything. And they didn’t hold back. Oxfam writer Heather Beresford reports.


A passionate workforce is our greatest asset at Oxfam, and we rely on people’s energy and talents to deliver rapid humanitarian support, great programmes and dynamite campaigning worldwide. So when a routine survey revealed staff were feeling remote from leadership, we knew we needed a digital solution.


Sprawling


Oxfam is a sprawling organisation with thousands of highly committed people working in more than 50 countries – from aid workers in Liberia, to shop workers in the UK – so we needed a digital way to break down barriers and open up communication.

We’d already convinced our leadership team to move from cascading communications to conversing with staff. But we needed to put that concept into practice in a way that demonstrated a clear, cultural change.

We’d also run a series of ‘global conversations’ online, getting employees talking about key issues, and many directors took part. But we now needed something more specific to help strengthen bonds between leadership and 5000 employees worldwide.


Groundbreaking forum


The answer was ‘Ask Me Anything’ – a groundbreaking online forum where staff and volunteers could ask the leadership team anything, comment on each other’s questions and vote for their favourites.

We based our platform on the original ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) site that first sprung up on www.reddit.com. Celebrities and politicians alike have taken part on Reddit – even Barack Obama jumped online, answering questions on student debt, foreign policy and White House beer. So we swiftly repurposed the format for Oxfam staff worldwide.


Building trust


The main objective was empowering the leadership team to connect with staff on a more casual level, answering their questions and learning what’s important to them. Ultimately, it was about interactivity and creating a familiarity and greater trust between staff and leaders. At its core, ‘Ask me Anything’ was about shunning top-down monologues and embracing unpredictable live dialogue in an online space. And it worked.

For the first time ever, staff and volunteers asked questions – about literally anything – directly to the main decision makers.


Lucky pants


All Oxfam staff and volunteers were invited to participate. Taking part from the leadership team was the well-liked CEO, the Director of International Programmes (new to the post) and the Director of Fundraising. And the site, which was translated into French and Spanish, quickly proved popular. Questions ranged from challenging to frivolous, and big to small. People asked what made truly successful development programmes, they asked if male directors were feminists, and they wondered whether the CEO wore lucky pants to big events, Tony Blair style. Hundreds more wildly diverse questions quickly poured in:

High engagement: In just three weeks, almost 600 staff and volunteers participated, posting 180 questions, 280 comments and 940 votes!

Global reach: the site attracted staff from 33 countries

In true AMA style, when we got to the end we filmed the directors answering their top five most-voted questions. Those videos were viewed over 1,600 times on YouTube. They also took part in a live, online Q&A, attracting 155 staff on average to each session.

Our budget was exceptionally small, but we managed to negotiate a low rate for the Ovation platform we used, and we managed the entire forum ourselves, seven days a week. All promotion was done through our established staff communication channels.


Feedback


As well as high levels of participation, feedback was almost universally positive; with staff saying they felt the leadership team seemed more approachable, modern and receptive to staff ideas. Overall, leadership and staff alike have reported a much improved communications culture at Oxfam, and we’re now planning new AMA sessions for later this year.

www.oxfam.org.uk
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