The Gatehouse Blog

Skype and the art of conversation

Skype’s employee communication lead Jo Hay says the art of conversation is key …

Following the acquisition in October 2011, Skype is a division of Microsoft. The Skype Division is truly global with around 2,500 employees spanning APAC, Europe and the US, which means constant collaboration across different time-zones and cultures to make great things happen. We’re disruptive and innovative by nature and our mission to enable billions of people to share experiences every day means there’s always a lot going on. In internal communication, we need to continuously look at the big picture, understand what’s important for our people and success and create our communication and engagement plans around that.

Sharing information will always be an important part of communicating internally but you can’t and shouldn’t rely on one-way traffic as a route to understanding and engagement. You need to strike the right balance between imparting key information, facilitating discussions and providing opportunities for people to get involved. And you need to understand the profile of your organisation and people to figure that balance out. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution and the picture you’re dealing with is constantly changing. It’s always a question of science and art – using data and intuitively connecting people.

Just as Skype is about facilitating conversations – whether professional, social or personal, internal communication is also about facilitating conversations – between leadership and employees, between leaders as peers, between managers and their teams, between individuals. And conversations by their nature are a two-way thing – it’s hard to get engaged if someone talks at you instead of with you.

At Microsoft, we work with very intelligent, talented people who have opinions about most things and are not shy about sharing them. The more engaged people are, the more they want to share what they think to make things better, to drive results. We use all kinds of ways to facilitate conversations – from in-person Q&A between employees and execs, to topic-based social media threads, to group chats, to career development check- ins.

We conduct regular pulse checks with all or parts of the division to understand what’s front of mind (good and bad) and what we should be talking about to drive improvement and we feed key themes into all our employee communications. We encourage feedback at all levels and through all our communications even when that feedback is tough to hear.

Having experienced a high degree of change in recent years with three ownership transitions, we know only too well how important (and healthy) it is to keep the conversation alive. Leaders as Communicators Everyone has high expectations of leaders as communicators. It’s a key part of the job description and it’s a tough gig a lot of the time. We bring our senior leaders physically together at least once a year, which for a global division like ours is a big investment in every sense of the word.

At these meetings, we aim to strike that balance between delivering core information on vision and strategy with facilitating conversations about executing plans and how to engage the teams in delivery and making the Skype Division a great place to work. We then equip the leaders to share core information and engage their teams in the next phase. It’s pretty intense but it provides a strong backbone to our annual communication and engagement programme.

We also support our executives in their functional communication plans through regular virtual All Hands, annual events and regular blogs/updates. We also have Site Leaders in each location who act as our ‘cultural ambassadors’ and who facilitate local conversations and provide valuable feedback to us in communications and to the executive team.

Managers as Communicators

Managers as communicators is an age-old topic but one that is as relevant today as it has ever been; perhaps even more so with economic pressure, constant organisation change and competition for talent. How you feel about your manager can have a huge impact on how you do your job and make or break your decision to stay or leave. Their communication skills, as part of their broader management capability, is a key factor in employee engagement. No one is good at everything; some managers are naturally good communicators while others may be more technically gifted and haven’t invested in their communication skills.

We work closely with our HR partners in this space to understand where we have role models and how we can leverage their strengths to help others develop. Our annual survey provides valuable insights about individual manager capabilities and is a great tool for generating self-awareness and driving improvement plans. Microsoft has incredible learning and career development frameworks and invests in its people, so we’re lucky to have access to a rich array of resources to improve managers’ communication capability.

The role of IC

We will always have a responsibility for ‘corporate’ or top down communication through push channels like events, emails/ blogs or intranets. But as the pace of organisation life speeds up, change is ever present and access to real-time information increases through technology, we have an increasing responsibility to cut through the noise and facilitate high quality, high touch conversations about the things that matter to people, things that make a difference and impact success, things that attract and retain talent.

It’s a dynamic role that has you moving from strategic thinking, planning and advising to on the ground execution from one hour to the next. You have to listen hard, intuitively understand the organisation psychology and the nuances and keep adapting your approach. It’s certainly not for the fainthearted or thin skinned. And you have to be passionate about keeping the art of conversation alive. Through whatever means available and necessary.

Biography – Jo Hay

Jo Hay is a change communications professional with 20 years of experience across many industries including transport, logistics, financial services and communication technology. In her current role in the Skype Division of Microsoft, she has led change communication programmes through several changes of ownership, most latterly the acquisition of Skype by Microsoft.