Engaging a diverse workforce while respecting a traditional culture

Here’s how Dubai Airport is doing it, having bought into the premise of good internal communications, employee well-being, and experience management before the pandemic.

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After a lull of nearly two years, at long last, the airline sector is going back to pre-Covid levels of activity. Dubai Airport (DA) estimates that by the end of 2022, its passenger numbers will stand at approximately 64 million. While DA, from a business standpoint, would prefer it no other way, the organization is mindful of the pressure this increasing demand is naturally putting on its workforce – just as the lockdown did during the pandemic, but in a different way. 

DA Buzz, the organization’s employee experience management platform powered by Firstup, was ready for launch just as Covid brought the world to a standstill. At the Simply Communications Experience event recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Joanna Spinks, Head of Internal Communications at DA, about the value that DA Buzz has delivered to the organization during and now, post-pandemic. 

How the IC team at DA used DA Buzz to keep its 1,800-strong, diverse workforce informed, engaged, and positive during the pandemic is extraordinary. The technology has enabled the IC team to respect the traditional culture of DA while driving an impactful employee experience. 

The lockdown in Saudi Arabia was strict, senior leaders weren’t able to be as visible as they would have liked to be, and with all the fake news flying around, especially during the early weeks of the pandemic, DA Buzz became the most trusted source of information – more than the various external sources and social media. The platform also became a safe place for employees to share information.

Subsequently, when the global economy started to open up, DA Buzz played an instrumental role in invigorating the workforce. Employees actively and willingly participated in business recovery – true evidence of a workforce having a positive and fulfilled experience as an employee.

Harnessing employees’ positive energy

The IC team at DA astutely recognized employees’ pride in being part of the organization and harnessed it effectively. User-generated content has been fundamental to the success of DA Buzz and business recovery. Joanna recounted that the team had created a corporate video showing the lights being switched on at Terminal One, signaling that the airport was open for business. Sharing the video on DA Buzz, employees were asked how they felt about the activation of the terminal. The team was flooded with employee-created comic memes, which also brought a real fun element to the communications and engagement. 

Similarly, DA’s service partners, including Virgin Mobile and Egypt Air, who were based at the airport, joined the party with their user-generated content. 

Spinneys, a big UAE supermarket brand, caused a big stir when the company re-opened its branch in Terminal One. The airport staff was super delighted. An employee took a video of the shop, and another employee, a musician, created a track, “Spinneys is back” for the film. Joanna says the post went down a treat on DA Buzz. Clearly, DA has some talented and creative employees, who Joanna says the IC team looks to draw on for IC initiatives. There are some real Tik Tok and Instagram influencers, too, at DA.

Often, senior business leaders are the last ones to engage with such initiatives. Not at DA; the CEO wasn’t too far behind. He self-recorded a video to show how he was gearing up for the airport to be fully operational. 

All this helped to create excitement for the Terminal’s reactivation. It also enabled DA to convey positivity about the organization’s future and allay any fears or concerns employees may have had during the lockdown.

It’s worth mentioning that the excitement around DA Buzz isn’t a one-off – and certainly not on the part of the CEO. Joanna cited another story – the IC team launched a survey to help determine employee engagement levels in the organization. Supporting this initiative, the HR team had a trolley going around the office with frozen yogurts as giveaways to encourage employees to respond to the survey. When the trolley reached the CEO’s office, he created an impromptu video for sharing on the platform. 

When business leaders become enthusiastic about IC and employee experience in this way, you know they see value in it! Following this initial success with DA Buzz, the CEO’s message to the IC team is that the three pillars of employee communications must be: simplified, jollified, and amplified.

The key takeaways

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Just because DA Buzz launched during the lockdown, this initiative has turned out to be an experiment of sorts at DA, even though it wasn’t planned to be so. This aside, the IC team wasn’t afraid to experiment with the platform to see what worked and what did not. The result has, of course, been a resounding success. Not only was DA Buzz embraced by the workforce during the lockdown, but it has also played a vital role in changing attitudes and behaviors towards IC – and in turn, greatly enhanced employee experience in the organization. Perhaps the initiative’s biggest achievement might be that it has energized the leadership to participate on the platform with equal fervor. 

Set rules and boundaries without curbing enthusiasm. The UAE has strict rules when it comes to content and social media. The IC team has created a process whereby employees can, without hesitation, put forward their user-generated content for review so that the team can ensure compliance with the DA’s rules of engagement. For instance, employees are allowed to share their viewpoints on social issues that are important to them – employees were allowed to mark International Women’s Day and Emirati Women’s Day positively and constructively on DA Buzz. 

Utilize the platform for cross-business function information. In addition to operational communications and amplification of internal company events, a platform such as DA Buzz is an excellent tool to inform employees about how different departments work and, indeed, the challenges they face. Recently, the IC team launched The Sidelines, a mini-video series where different teams – operation control, fire, and cybersecurity, for example – are interviewed to understand their responsibilities and how they work.

Humanize content. The human element helps break down barriers and enables people to connect in a meaningful manner. Another interesting anecdote from Joanna – recently, some employees bought a Ghutra – the Emirati headdress for men – with an England pattern for DA’s CEO. A video showing the CEO wearing the Ghutra was posted on DA Buzz, which created some mirth.

Leverage analytics to improve and evolve communications. Balancing quantity and quality is important. Firstup technology is designed to deliver insightful analytics, which DA is taking advantage of. While initially, analytics were all about DA Buzz’s adoption by department and the volume of content posted, gradually, the capability is being used to highlight the trending stories and to gain insights into what works, what doesn’t, the levels of engagement, feedback from business teams – and crucially what direction IC should take, moving forward. 

IC is helping DA strengthen its culture

DA Buzz has played a key role in changing the culture of the organization. When Covid hit, intuitively, the underlying sentiment across the workforce was “we are in this together.” Immediately, post-pandemic, the cultural attitude evolved to “we want to actively participate in helping the business recover.” Today, a few months on from the pandemic, the organization is yet again evolving culturally as it embeds new ways of working in a hybrid environment. The beauty of the DA Buzz platform is that it can support the organization through such transitory phases. It’s allowing the organization to not just course correct but also tune the communications to the changing needs of the workforce so that employee experience isn’t compromised. 

Looking ahead, it’s clear that the IC team will continue with its theme of fun and humanized content, underpinned by experimentation, greater involvement from the leadership, and strict compliance with the rules of the geography. More power to the DA workforce, I say! Already, they have demonstrated that an engaged workforce, along with a positive attitude and a sense of fun, can help an organization navigate through some challenging situations. Clearly, IC is a business function that can glue an organization together.

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Chuck Gose

Chuck Gose

I’ve always said the best part of my day is when I spend time talking and creating with internal communicators. And now that’s what I do for Firstup as the Head of Community & Industry Insights. In my nearly 25 years of communication experience, I’ve found internal communicators to be the most passionate. . . present company included.

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