Why CIOs Should Care About Employee Communications

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Please welcome Susan Gerock, CIO at WashREIT, who you may not expect on a podcast about culture and comms. But I guarantee that expectation will change.

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails is a new podcast where internal communications is served straight up. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, strategic advisor at SocialChorus. Over cocktails, I’ll introduce you to the latest ideas in corporate culture and real-world examples of how to engage employees with the best workplace communications programs.

Today, I’m excited to present Susan Gerock, CIO at Washington REIT, as our expert guest.

Susan has more than 22 years of management and information technology experience in commercial real estate, manufacturing, and retail. Prior to joining Washington REIT, she held various roles at Corporate Office Properties Trust; her most recent position was senior vice president and Chief Information Officer.

We feature communications leaders every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Don’t miss an episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)

“As we think about how technology enables people to do their jobs, to me, it’s meeting people where they are. That’s so much of what makes for good communication. It lets people work where they want to work, it lets people consume information in the way they want to consume it, in the time they want to consume it. It gives them that flexibility to blend that life experience with the work experience. And that’s what we try to do with technology at WashREIT, is to deliver on that employee experience at the same time while giving them the freedom to communicate in anyway and from anywhere.”

– Susan Gerock, CIO at Washington REIT


Chuck Gose: Culture, comms and cocktails is internal comms served straight up. So settle in, drink in the knowledge, some shaken, some stirred, and maybe even some with a twist, and enjoy the top shelf guest I have lined up for you. I’m your host Chuck Gose, strategic advisor at SocialChorus, and we’re going with a guest who you may not typically expect to have on a podcast talking about culture and comms and perhaps even cocktails. But after I chat I guarantee that expectation will change. I’d like to welcome Susan Gerock, CIO at Washington REIT.

Susan Gerock: Chuck, thanks so much for having me on the podcast. I can’t wait to talk to your listeners about what the IT perspective is on internal communication.

Chuck Gose: Well, and that’s why I’m excited to have you on here, because one, I think you’re great, but also because of the important role you play and that of CIO that often isn’t associated with communication and communication platforms. So my first question for you (and this is taking it back a couple of steps): as CIO at Washington REIT, why is employee communication important to you? And what do you think makes for great communication?

Susan Gerock: Chuck, I’d have to say that technology enables so much of our communication today, and I go back to a presentation that one of your founders, Greg Shove, made at an event I attended in New York City in September. And one of the slides that he had in his presentation really resonated with me. And it’s talking about how really we have multiple roles, we have to enable employees to collaborate, to enable them to work with each other. We have to engage employees, we have to encourage them to stay committed, and we have to communicate with them and help them stay on the same page. And IT has a significant role in doing all of that. I actually keep this on my desk, and I look at it, and I think about it every day in the way that we approach technology in our company. How are we helping our people collaborate, engage and communicate? And we have such a significant role in that, and it’s funny because recently, I hadn’t read it at the time, but SocialChorus also published a blog post. It was from back in November of 2018, “Why CIOs Will Be Responsible for Company Culture in 2019.”

And I laughed and I sent it to probably about 100 people and said, “See, see, this is what I’ve been telling you all along.” We have a real responsibility for this, and it’s a passion of mine, is to meet people where they are. And that’s one of the things that I talked about as we were thinking about internal communications, as we think about new applications for the company, as we think about how technology enables people to do their jobs. And to me, it’s meeting people where they are. That’s so much of what makes for good communication. It lets people work where they want to work, it lets people consume information in the way they want to consume it, in the time they want to consume it. It gives them that flexibility to blend that life experience with the work experience. And that’s what we try to do with technology at WashREIT, is to deliver on that employee experience at the same time while giving them the freedom to communicate in anyway and from anywhere.

Chuck Gose: And see, little did you know that here you were a CIO of 2019, but probably dealing with 2018, 2017. This has been something that’s been important to you for a while. And for those that may not be familiar with Washington REIT, why don’t you just culturally describe what that business is and what you guys do?

Susan Gerock: All right. Washington REIT owns and operates real estate assets in the Washington DC market. We have a portfolio of 48 properties, which includes more than 6.1 million square feet of commercial space, which is office and retail, and more than 4,200 multi family apartment units. We are a real estate investment trust, and our shares trade on the New York Stock Exchange.

Chuck Gose: And one of the things, one of the reasons you’re here with us today, is in 2018 you and the communications and marketing team there launched a brand new internal comms platform called Insight. And in your earlier answer you talked about how it was important that all levels of the organization, including CIO, to have a responsibility for communications. But what was it about this new platform that made it so palatable and exciting for Washington REIT to launch, to reach your employees?

Susan Gerock: The most exciting thing for us … And you wouldn’t imagine this necessarily since all of our properties are in the Washington DC area, but our employees are on the go. If you imagine your experience in an office building or an apartment building, or a retail center, a lot of the people that work for us are remote to our headquarters office. And a lot of the people even in our headquarters office are constantly on the go, meeting with people outside the office, visiting these sites, visiting our development and construction sites. And we need a good way to reach them. At the beginning of 2018, our head of HR asked the vice president group to address different issues that had come from an employee survey. And one of those things was related to internal communication. People wanted better methods of knowing what was going on in the company. I volunteered to be part of that group. I also had a fellow VP, Anthony Chang, who’s one of our asset managers be my partner in that, and then our senior director of marketing and corporate communications, Deanna Schmidt, also joined us.

We thought about a lot of different opportunities to reach these on-the-go people, who are at different sites. You come up with all the traditional ways of reaching people, and none of them really clicked. And we started talking, is there technology out there that can meet our need? And this was actually one of our company’s strategic goals for the year, was to be able to address this particular issue, along with other things that came up from that employee survey. And it was really exciting to find a technology like SocialChorus that we could use to meet this need to once again, reach people where they are.

Chuck Gose: And so obviously having those employees that were remote and on the go and addressing that need, is a great thing that Insight has been able to do. Did the feedback on the survey give you any other insights into what people wanted out of communications? Or what kind of questions were you asking employees with that survey?

Susan Gerock: So many of them felt like they didn’t have a good handle on what was happening, even at other sites in the company. That was a great example. Or what are some of the things that headquarters is doing that we may be interested in? And we wanted to find a way to meet that need. A lot of our folks don’t even necessarily sit down at their computer on a regular basis, so they weren’t getting the posts that we were putting on our intranet. They weren’t necessarily seeing the important things that were coming through email, just because email is quite often overused. And we said, “Today, almost everybody uses social media in some way. Why not connect with them in a way that they’re used to receiving communication, and giving them that choice of the kinds of information they want to receive?”

Chuck Gose: And thinking about some of that information and content they wanna receive, I’m curious, as you being also an employee and a user of Insight and whether it be on the web or mobile, what’s the content you see inside Insight that has caught your eye? That maybe might be a new type of content that the company hasn’t sent out before, communicated in a new way?

Susan Gerock: One of the things that I absolutely love about Insight and what we’re doing with it, is previously we do have town hall meetings and people participate either in person or over a GoToMeeting connection. And we would, during those town hall meetings, we might highlight the special projects that the company was working on, or something really unique that someone had done. But that was happening really on a quarterly basis. Or we might publish something on our intranet, but once again, if you’re not sitting down at a computer, you’re not necessarily seeing that. And what has been some of the best information that we’ve seen on Insight, has been that view into what are we doing on a day-to-day basis. People love it when one of our development project managers is on site and is showing how a space is coming together. Or we get to celebrate each other.

One of our directors recently got a very significant regional award, and being able to publish in real time from that particular event, people loved that. And people were so thrilled not only for him, but to be able to celebrate that with him, whereas that’s something that they may not have even known in the past. Or they would’ve had to wait until the quarterly update to hear that. So it’s very real-time. People are getting to experience what’s going on throughout our portfolio.

Chuck Gose: And then, do you see employees … Let me rephrase this question a little bit, I’m thinking this through as I’m asking it. Has Insight unlocked new parts of Washington REIT’s culture? Things that people didn’t see before? You talked about the behind the scenes or progress on projects and things like that. But have you seen it unlock parts of the culture and personality of the organization that maybe didn’t show through before in communication?

Susan Gerock: Absolutely, and I’m going to brag on IT a little bit, but as we were getting started, as one of the project sponsors and as an earlier doctor, I started seeding the IT channel with information, so that when we launched there would already be information there. And one of the first things we did, is each week I took a member of our team in IT, and we did a five questions with the individual. And we had a picture. And some of the things we asked, and everybody got the same questions, but we’d say, “Apple or Android?” And they’d have to pick. We’d say, “What’s your favorite WashREIT property and why?” And we wrapped up with what you wish someone would ask you? And the answers were great, and people love getting to know something about the individuals in IT. And it caused a lot more, what I call, in person engagement as well as people read that and got to know a little bit of the person behind the individual who’s helping them. And as a launching point, our property management team loved that idea. They have been doing that on a regular basis as well, and they’re introducing people in the field, they’re introducing our engineers, they’re asking questions.

And really, you have a much more personal connection with people when you’re able to see a little bit about the way they think, about the things that they value. And I think that has really encouraged people to get to know each other better. I love when the weekly property management feature post, because I love reading about someone that maybe I haven’t had a chance to get to know yet.

Chuck Gose: And that reminds me, back in a previous life I did employee bios very much like that. And a couple that stood out was one of the questions we asked, and we’d sprinkle them and shake them up a little bit, was … And like Star Wars or Star Trek?

Susan Gerock: Yeah.

Chuck Gose: And one gentleman answered with an image of him in a Jedi costume. Which was very clear, raised in on that debate. And then another one I remember, the lady who was the CFO, we asked one of the things like, what was the best concert you ever attended? And it was something like 1979, Rolling Stones, Meadowlands, enough said.

Susan Gerock: I love it.

Chuck Gose: Maybe put her in a different mindset of probably people saw her as CFO now, but she wasn’t CFO her whole life. 1979 she was at a Rolling Stones show in the Meadowlands, and you’re right.

Susan Gerock: Perfect.

Chuck Gose: Things like that can shed light on personality, get people to know each other a little bit better. They’re not just that person in that role, but you do get to see them more as that complete person, which is such a great engagement opportunity. What’s some of the other really good, strong performing content you’ve seen inside Insight?

Susan Gerock: We have a community service day, every year, and one of the things that we did … It was November first of 2018, and we built a playground in Washington, D.C. And we’ve been doing fundraising for this all year, and on that day, we had a special channel just for that community service project. And everyone in the company was encouraged to post pictures from the day. Starting from the very beginning, we arrive onsite to constructing the playground. There was a mural painted and all day long, people were submitting content, post to that particular channel. So that not only could anybody who wasn’t able to be there, see what was happening, but we had a way of really sharing everybody’s unique view of that day. And it was truly an incredibly successful channel. I cannot remember the exact number of posts, but it was quite high, it had great engagement, and we definitely want to do that again for future events that we participate in. Because I think it’s such a great way of really showing the community that we have in our organization.

Chuck Gose: That’s a great example of how to use a very focused channel during a specific created time to capture that. Right, what are our employees proud of in the work that they’ve done? And obviously a playground, all kinds of great, positive emotions around that from employees to grab onto. But we know that some content companies have to share, isn’t playgrounds, it’s not the most exciting stuff. But it also doesn’t mean it can’t be creative, and I heard a story very recently about a campaign that your IT group ran about phishing campaigns. P-H fishing. I think it’s so clever how you guys took a—what typically I would say companies are treating very boring, very technical—but made it fun. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that?

Susan Gerock: All companies are dealing with how to best communicate with employees about cybersecurity. And we have a very robust program at Washington REIT as far as employee education. We do lots of communication, we sponsor training, we participate in national cybersecurity awareness month. But after a while, a lot of times the message becomes rote, and people start to tune it out, or they think, “I already know that.” And recently in our weekly cyber meeting, I challenged our head of security with developing a phishing campaign, and I said, “It needs to be engaging, it needs to be interesting, it needs to be outside the norm of what we’re doing. And that’s all I told him, is this is what I want you to do. And so he went away, and he came back in the first week. He gave me a poem. And it was a rhyming poem, and I said, “I love it.” And he said, “Well, that’s gonna be the theme. We’re going to do a different type of poem every week. We decided we’d do a five-week campaign.”

So that first week was your traditional rhyming poem, and apologies to the poets in the audience. But I have to say, it probably wasn’t perfect … but it was engaging, and it caught people’s eye. And people said, “Wow, did you really write this?” And he said, “I absolutely wrote this.” The next week he did an acrostic poem, using the first letter of each … Of phishing, so the first line was a P and the second line was an H. The next week was limericks, which were hilarious and incorporated all of our executive team in a different limerick. The next week were haikus, we did have a … Once again for your poets, we did have a bit of a debate as to what constitutes a haiku. There’s a lot of schools of thought on that. And then our wrap up was a play on The Night Before Christmas. And it was honestly, I think he’s absolute finest effort. It was hilarious and people read it and it speaks to them. And it helps them think about phishing and think about the message we’re trying to get across, in a very different way.

It was an incredibly successful campaign that not only got our message across, but it also showed people a bit of our personality as well.

Chuck Gose: I truly thought … And again, I’ve worked in internal comms and how to deal with not so fun topics like cyber security and phishing and all of that, and I read through them and was so impressed. You’re right, it may not be the greatest poetic writing of our time, however, it’s amazing at helping people understand, to make that content more approachable. To make it adjustable, to make it a little bit fun, to not make it scary. That’s the other part about it. The Night Before Christmas poem, it’s an amazing read. It’s such a great job of doing that, but also kudos to you and the team for encouraging thinking beyond just, “We have to get this message out.” But coming up with creative ways to get people asking questions and making it not so scary all the time. I just thought it was absolutely wonderful.

Susan Gerock: Thank you. I thought he did a fantastic job.

Chuck Gose: Now having launched in 2018, I’m curious, either positively or negatively, what caught you off guard? So you rolled Insight out to all your employees, what were some of the lessons learned, or some of the takeaways that maybe you guys have either revised a program, made changes or looking to do more of in 2019?

Susan Gerock: Our launch was so well thought out. I thought Deanna did a great job in preparing for the launch. So one of the first things I will say is, today we hear all the time about social media influencers. And she really took a spin on that and developed influencers from within Washington REIT. On the day that we launched was at our town hall meeting in July of last year, we were all wearing (those of us that were considered the influencers) lanyards that on one side said, “Insight’s early adopters.” And on the other side said, “Ask me about Insight.” So it was easy for employees to see who do I talk to, who do I make sure that I’m using this correctly, who can help me make sure that I have this on my mobile devices. And I was able to go to people at the lunch after our meeting, and I was a bit of a terrorist and saying, “Have you loaded Insight yet?” And, “Have you subscribed to the IP channel, because it is gonna be the best channel.”

But she really empowered us to be influencers, and we’ve really continued in that role. And for several months afterward, we met on a monthly basis to talk about how it’s going, and are there things that we would change. She was also very thoughtful in the way we rolled out channels. We didn’t roll out every single channel all at once. And so it always, over the first several months, gave people something to look forward to. Like, “Here comes the accounting channel. Here comes the community service channel. Here comes the development channel.” And so people had a lot to look forward to, with new content coming from new areas of the business. And I think that was really big. One of the other things that after we had been doing this for a while, is Deanna met with each group that were channel owners, and talked to us about our performance, about either what we were doing well, things that we could improve.

I thought that was incredibly helpful. And one of the other things we’ve done that I think is somewhat unique to our company, is we have empowered a number of people to be publishers of content. It’s not off blowing through just a couple of people in communication. We believe that everybody can be a communicator, and I think that is a really positive lesson learned. And that we’re empowering our employees to own this product, and not look at it as, “That’s internal communications product.” Or, “That’s IT’s product.” It’s everybody’s product.

Chuck Gose: Well I think that message is sent when you’ve got your CIO in a T-shirt, saying “Ask me about Insight.” And they’re encouraging and maybe even more than strongly encouraging. So that does show ownership, so great work there and Susan, I wanna thank you for obviously talking about Insight. It’s great having someone at your level of an organization, but also your focus as CIO on Culture, Comms, & Cocktails. So we’ve spent some time already talking about the culture and comms there at Washington REIT, now we get to talk about also another fun part of the podcast, which is cocktails. So I’m curious Susan, what is your favorite cocktail or where is your favorite place to get a cocktail?

Susan Gerock: I have to laugh, because as I was thinking about this, I have also been challenged because I’m doing a dry January. And I thought, “Oh wow, here I am thinking about drinking, and I can’t.” But normally I have to tell you, my go-to is normally a nice rich glass of red wine. But if I’m going to get a cocktail, a Moscow Mule is my absolute favorite. And we are all about supporting our tenants here at Washington REIT, and my favorite place to go for that, is Barley Mac, which is at 1600 Wilson, in the Rosslyn area of Arlington, Virginia. Fantastic tenant, fantastic bar and restaurant. Just really one of the best Moscow Mules I’ve ever had.

Chuck Gose: Well that’s a resounding endorsement there for delicious Moscow Mule. Again, thank you Susan for being on Culture, Comms, & Cocktails. Appreciate your time and energy and your passion around internal communication. And then hopefully I will see you in New York City next April, for FutureComms2019.

Susan Gerock: Absolutely, I’m looking forward to it.

Chuck Gose: All right; thank you, Susan.

Susan Gerock: Thank you.

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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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