Thought leadership: Phil Southall on overcoming challenges to communicate internally during the pandemic

Phil Southall

In the latest instalment of Fortitude’s guest insights into how organisations have adapted communications during COVID-19 we spoke to Phil Southall, Managing Director of Oxford Bus Company, Thames Travel, Carousel Buses and City Sightseeing Oxford about internal communications.

As one of the biggest employers in Oxfordshire the group of companies have managed a shift in how to manages internal communications during the pandemic to provide important information to colleagues. We discussed the challenges faced, how they have been overcome and insights gained.

Communications challenge


Bus operators have been crucial in supporting key workers’ travel needs by maintaining relevant networks and timetables to ensure people including NHS staff, carers, teachers, and those in the food supply chain have been able to get to and from work. 

The bus operators have a large mobile workforce who deliver public facing services people rely on. Overnight the need to provide important internal updates to colleagues was vital in a fast-moving and ever-changing situation. 

The vast majority of my colleagues are drivers meaning they largely work alone on a variety of shifts and don’t come to a central point every day,” said Mr Southall. They also don’t have an e-mail address to send things to, so this presented us with communication challenges.”

Daily updates


The group overcame the challenge by delivering daily communications updates to colleagues. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, timely communication has been extremely important to ensure one version of the truth’,’ said Mr Southall. Very early on in the crisis we decided that a daily meeting with all directors, our operations manager, HR Manager and a Trade Union colleague would be essential. It enabled us to identify current issues of concern and what we could do about them along with key developments from government in a fast-changing situation. 

Following this meeting a Daily Update’ was produced that was viewed by colleagues as our version of the government daily press conference. This went down very well indeed with colleagues. This daily meeting continued up until November when the meetings were reduced to twice a week. They are still a very important part of our communication piece.”

Enhanced colleague forum 


In addition to the Daily Update’ Mr Southall said creating an effective method for colleagues to ask questions and receive prompt answers was also important. 

We created a closed’ colleague Facebook Forum,” he explained. This allowed any colleague who has access to Facebook to ask a question or highlight an issue to the management team. This was then picked up in the Daily Meeting and any response put in the daily update. This has also been a very valuable new method of communication. 

A third thing we did was encourage colleagues to supply us with personal e-mail addresses. Whilst primarily this was to expediate the issuing of furlough agreements, it also allowed us to circulate key company communications through this channel.”

Alongside internal communications on-going customer communications have been delivered via its normal channels of websites and social media that are more established.

Authoritative source


Mr Southall said internal communications has become more important during the pandemic, due to the need for timely, accurate information. 

Communications has become more important,” said Mr Southall. Colleagues need to be kept informed of the key information that they need to know in a fast-moving world and the Company needs to become the authoritative source of information where the rumour mill’ exists. 

The Daily Update has fulfilled this role through the pandemic to the point where colleagues were waiting for it to be issued daily. More generally, we have learnt that short and sharp communications (no more than two sides of A4) more often (every two weeks) are better than more lengthy ones issued less often (for example, monthly).” 

Effective communications


The enhanced internal communications tactics deployed have been highly effective and Mr Southall said some will be continued beyond the pandemic. 

We will certainly try and keep the twice weekly updates going as long as we can with key information that colleagues need to know,” he said. The Facebook colleague forum will also continue. What insights we have gained is just how well colleagues respond to timely and well-informed communications and how most colleagues want to do the right thing in response to this communication.”

One team


Amid the multiple difficulties of COVID-19 in many organisations it has also driven the advancements of positive changes operationally. At Oxford Bus Company, Thames Travel, Carousel Buses and City Sightseeing Oxford the delivery of enhanced internal communications has improved team-spirit.

The pandemic has accelerated’ what we needed to do as a business,” said Mr Southall. Colleagues may have been less receptive to these methods if it hadn’t been for the pandemic and the management team may not have as put as much effort into producing them. It just goes to show that if business can deliver the right communications at the right time, how much happier colleagues can be that improves team spirit’ for all and generally give a one team’ feel.”

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