"Cross-functional collaboration has augmented in this crisis - it's something we’re going to take forward into everything we do" - Emma Springham, Post Office CMO

What has been the role of marketing in successfully navigating the Covid-19 pandemic for businesses and employees? One person who has been on the frontline of this is Emma Springham is Chief Marketing Officer at the Post Office. Here, she reviews key learnings and how cross-functional collaboration has augmented to improve business functionality across the board.

The HR World (HRW): How has the Post Office’s brand played a central role in dealing with the impact of the pandemic?

Emma Springham (ES): Post Office branches are often at the centre of their communities. It was a priority for us that as many of these as possible stayed open during lockdown. In the end, fewer than 10% of our 11,500 branches had to close. Of course, we had to do this while keeping our postmasters – colleagues who run branches – and customers safe with social distancing, PPE, cleaning and everything else. There was also the safety of our supply chain to consider. Post Office is the biggest provider of cash in the UK and this has to get from branch to branch somehow.

From a brand perspective, we created the wrapper ‘We’re stronger together’, which became a focus for our customers, postmasters and employees. We saw an amazing response from many of our postmasters, who delivered food and other necessities to vulnerable and isolating customers and went above and beyond for their communities. We also changed our proposition to help vulnerable customers access cash with Fast PACE (a same-day cheque encashment service), Payout Now (sending customers a cash-redeemable voucher barcode) and Cash Direct (cash by post). These are useful products for the people who need them most, and they wouldn’t have been rolled out anything like as quickly without the needs created by a pandemic.

HRW: What measures that were already put in place supported this?

ES: We’ve always had crisis management processes and we convened a rapid response team instantly. We were all set-up from a tech perspective: all of our office workers are able to work from home anyway and we’ve been agile for some time. And of course we were listening to what the government was saying in the early stages, but straight off the bat we started doing our own assessments of risk and getting teams to work from home.

Our branch network was already set up to provide things like ‘golden hours’ (dedicated early morning opening hours for NHS and frontline workers). Post Office is a diverse business, both in terms of our workforce but also with respect to the sheer number of different roles and responsibilities that exist. So we also had a responsibility to make sure that whatever plans we created to protect and support our colleagues were appropriate across the board. It wasn’t as simple as saying “Okay, everyone’s working from home now.” There was loads more to it. Everyone truly came together from day one. It was inspiring to watch.

HRW: What were the major initial challenges and how were they overcome?

ES: Ensuring the safety of our postmasters and office colleagues was a priority and an enormous undertaking. Getting PPE and screens out to branches when it seemed like the whole world was after the same thing was a challenge. We sell 170 products operating across different verticals and industries, so the idea of a “one size fits all” approach was out the window. We had to look at groups individually and assess what was best for each, as well as working closely with our partner organisations to make sure everything was joined-up.

Rapid communication is always a challenge in times like this. Anyone who’s worked in print marketing knows how long it can take to get posters printed. We turned this around at record speed so that postmasters could display the right information quickly. CRM and email played a pivotal role in getting information and updates out to customers instantly. 

A personal challenge for me was being unable to walk the floor and get a feel for the atmosphere in my teams. We had to be creative about how to gauge the mood and morale of the business, and while things like pulse surveys are crucial in this respect, they don’t always give a complete picture. So, we worked hard to make sure we were getting the feedback we needed and were listening to everyone’s concerns.

HRW: How important has leadership been in this process?

ES: Of course businesses stand or fall by their leadership in a crisis, but this situation has presented unique challenges. Leadership needed to be decisive and quick to act, but at the same time there’s never been more need for it to be flexible and compassionate too. It’s tested everyone, and we’ve learned a great deal.

Remember that it’s not only the coronavirus pandemic we’ve experienced so far this year. There’s been the killing of George Floyd in the USA and the protests that resulted from that; there’s been Pride month; there’s been Captain Sir Tom. We’ve had to react ethically and decisively at every turn while keeping everyone safe and well. All of these situations have called for strong leadership.

So it’s been both top-down and bottom-up. Leadership has had to listen as much as talk. Every single manager across the business has had to think on their feet about how best to engage their teams. And, of course, this has varied hugely by role. The postmaster of a small branch in a rural location has very different concerns from a digital product manager at head office. From an HR perspective, we had to make sure we were supportive in all of those situations while speaking with one voice. That takes a certain kind of leadership.

We’ve relied on colleagues to communicate their pain points and their good news stories. We couldn’t have offered the right support without regular, detailed and broad feedback from across the business. Leadership has very much been a case of trying to do the right thing at the right time, and we’ve relied on our entire workforce to help us do that.

HRW: What worked and what have you learned from?

ES: There’s an awful lot. Above all, it’s been empowering to know that we can weather a storm like this. We can adapt, and we can develop. Redeployment of resource was a huge lesson across the business. Where we’ve had key person dependencies, people have been upskilled in areas outside of their usual responsibilities so we can keep delivering even if people can’t work. There have been some unexpected lessons from this. So for example, our social media exploded during lockdown. If you redeploy a product manager onto social, they’re going to be the best person to answer product-related questions.

Of course, much more is being done online. We’ve moved more of our training online, which has made everything more flexible and agile. We constantly educate our people about the areas of the business that they might not know about. When it came to postmasters understanding how changes in digital, for instance, might impact them, this education was often in the form of roadshows. We’ve managed to take our roadshows online too. This has improved engagement.

It’s definitely helped streamline processes – we found that we were able to turnaround projects and product updates much quicker than before and we want to take this forward. It’s helped us prioritise and reaffirmed that above all else, our focus is being there for the people who need us – whether that’s our postmasters or our customers.

HRW: How has marketing interacted with HR to achieve these goals?

ES: HR has really run the show when it comes to employee wellbeing and engagement, and they’ve been spectacular. Of course, everything they do needs to go hand-in-glove with Comms and Marketing.What’s been so interesting is when there’s an intersection between what we’re saying to employees and what we’re saying to customers. The “We’re stronger together” wrapper is a good example of that.

Marketing and comms have supported HR in communicating the messages that need to get out there. As we’re a large business with a diverse workforce, we needed to make sure that we were getting the right messages to the right people at the right time. We’ve needed to educate everyone on the wellbeing resources available to them, our mental health first aiders have sent out regular advice, and we’ve made sure that the BAU of HR is being looked after too. 

It’s also gone the other way too. We’ve had some amazing good news stories from our postmasters – for instance about how we repurposed a school to display the deluge of birthday cards for Captain Sir Tom – and these have been shared by HR and promoted by the business more widely, whether that’s comms, digital or marketing.

This crisis has pulled people together in a way we’ve never seen before. Cross-functional collaboration has augmented massively in this crisis and that’s something we’re going to take forward into everything we do.

Emma Springham is Chief Marketing Officer at the Post Office, and one of the Post Office’s three LGBTQ+ board members. Appointed to modernise the brand, Emma has overseen the embedding of diversity and inclusion throughout the Post Office’s brand guidelines and has spoken at a plethora of events on the topic of LGBT+/female professionals and leadership. She has previously held roles at Royal Mail, RBS, Barclays and Allianz.

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