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Lost in translation

For FM service providers with large dispersed workforces, staying in contact can be a problem. FM communications specialist Cathy Hayward finds out how different vendors keep in touch with their people

The FM sector employs roughly 10 per cent of the UK working population. By its very nature, the vast majority of these people work on the front line – as cleaners, security guards, catering or hospitality assistants – with many being paid little more than the minimum wage. They often work unsocial hours. English may not be their first language. Many don’t have an email address (or don’t share it with their employer). They can feel distanced from their employer, identifying more with the organisation where they carry out their work.

Many might work flexibly across several different sites, where WiFi and phone reception is patchy. Some consider themselves to be in transient roles – students supporting their studies, school leavers at the start of their career, people working in between other jobs, or new arrivals to the UK. Some may have low levels of education. And they often simply want to come to work, get paid and go home. It can be a communication and engagement nightmare.

Which is why employers in the FM sector find it such a challenge. “It’s always amazed me how we overlook the very people who create impressions,” says Debra Ward, Managing Director of venue and events organiser Camm and Hooper, and former MD of Mitie Client Services. “In the era of service, it is our frontline team, in whatever industry you are in, who can make or break an organisation.”

It’s relatively straightforward to integrate the primary FM vendor into client-side systems, says Bruce Barclay, Head of European Real Estate and Workplace at US Bank. “Over the years I have integrated a number of service providers into my client-side systems at different organisations. They typically have access to our network and our communications platform, so they understand us as a business and know what’s going on. But getting to the next level down – the frontline cleaning, security, catering and reception staff – is a challenge.”

It requires the service provider to put in place protocols to ensure that those individuals are integrated not just with their employer’s culture and values, but also with those of the client organisation where they work. “Some vendors do it really well – they are on site and have weekly meetings with the teams and make them feel part of the client’s and vendor’s brands,” says Barclay. “But it needs to be a joint effort between the client and vendor for it to work successfully.”

Barclay, who wrote the IWFM guide ‘Managing FM teams across borders’, raises another issue. “When you’re managing teams across borders, the people in professional roles will typically speak good business English but the frontline teams may have very little. That means translating work orders and communication into multiple languages. But it’s something that the vendors are going to have to get right, if they want the service delivery to be aligned to client business need and core values. The time I invest with my vendors getting them into our culture and business, they need to invest in their people.”

But there’s no silver bullet when it comes to communicating with frontline staff. It’s a challenge for any large organisation to reach those who do not have company emails, phones or who work in restricted sites, acknowledges Melanie Duffett, Brand and Communications Director at Sodexo UK and Ireland which has 34,000 employees in the UK and Ireland alone. “The two main ways we focus on communicating with these audiences is through their manager and a Sodexo intranet accessible from any device. We recognise there is still a need for traditional ways of communicating such as noticeboards and posters, and use these to support the messages from their managers or our digital channels.”

Like many other service providers, Sodexo’s intranet is a one-stop portal for payslips, training, employee perks, job openings and regional or global news, together with photos celebrating achievements at annual awards and culinary showcases. But the company has also seen a big increase in employees communicating with them through Facebook, Facebook groups, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. But Duffett is a realist. “Ultimately, we can’t, and wouldn’t want to, force people to sign up to the employee website or join a Facebook group, and we recognise that some people simply do not want to use their personal time or devices for something relating to their work.”

For Lisa Hamill, UK People Director at FM service provider Atalian Servest, the key is to treat the firm’s 25,000 employees as consumers. “People won’t necessarily read something just because they receive it. We focus so much on what we want to say that we forget to consider what we want the person at the other end to think, feel or do as a result.” She urges businesses to communicate in as many different ways as possible. This is particularly important for companies like Atalian Servest that have a diverse workforce made up of people of different ages, backgrounds, beliefs and customs. “We use loads of different mediums so we have the best chance of reaching our frontline teams in a way which suits them,” she says. “By adopting a consumer, multifaceted approach, we believe we can better engage people.”

This includes messages on email payslips, posters which are available for managers to distribute to client sites, Atalian World – the company’s learning platform which every colleague can access, social media including Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and LinkedIn, and sometimes good old-fashioned paper letters.

But there are downsides to every method, says Hamill. “Posters can end up never making it to site. People move house and can forget to let us know their new address, so letters fail to reach them. Many people aren’t on social.” The important thing is not to generalise or assume you know the best way for each person, she notes.

One South African-based FM provider, for example, uses a comic to communicate company news to frontline staff who have low levels of literacy. Meanwhile, engineering firm GSH, which has operations around the world, takes a different approach depending on geography. “In India, we use WhatsApp to communicate with the more than 5,000 staff we have there,” says CEO Mark Thomas. “Few will have access to a laptop or company email address, but they all have smartphones so it’s a quick and personal way to communicate. We also share company news on Facebook and get high levels of interaction with staff. It’s a very cost-driven economy and these free tools suit the market.”

In the US, where there are around 500 engineers, each frontline staff member will have access to an app directly connected to GSH’s computerised maintenance management system (CMMS) which will instruct them on jobs. This is complemented by LinkedIn and website updates, plus a global quarterly staff newsletter which is shared both electronically and in hard copy for site use.

Security specialist Corps Security uses a group text option when there are emergencies such as a security incident. This works well as it’s instant and people recognise the urgency, says CEO Mike Bullock. For more day-to-day communication, the company has an internal colleague portal for its 3,000 staff, which the teams use for everything from requesting annual leave to looking at their payslips and reading company news. A section called Colleague Confidential allows them to communicate with the CEO. “It works well as people regularly log on to the intranet, and following feedback from our annual colleague survey, we are looking to make the approach more personal and create a better dialogue with our staff.”

London contract caterer Vacherin relied on a weekly email newsletter to frontline teams’ personal emails, complemented by daily onsite meetings where company news could be disseminated if needed. But the open rate was low – about 60 per cent – and the feedback was that staff wanted more, says Director Zoe Watts.

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