Government Digital Service (GDS)
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Lessons on maintaining staff engagement

It’s now been a year since the Government Digital Service (GDS) transitioned to remote working in March 2020. We have been reflecting on the challenges GDS’s Internal Communications team has faced, what we have learnt and, most importantly, we’ve taken time to celebrate success during what has been a unique and challenging year!

We both joined GDS during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, meaning two-thirds of our current Internal Communications team has never worked from a GDS office. We had to learn about GDS’s culture, priorities and audience from our homes, while trying to keep colleagues engaged and navigate being new starters ourselves.

Once everyone at GDS began working remotely, it became a team priority to ensure staff engagement levels were retained. There was a concern that colleagues would become disconnected from departmental goals and culture as everyone was working independently from home.

Doing things differently during COVID-19

To address this, the Internal Communications team increased the frequency of all-staff meetings, now hosted virtually, to ensure senior leaders remained visible and engaged with GDS people, and everyone was kept informed about organisational updates. More frequent meetings also meant colleagues - particularly remote new starters - felt included and part of GDS.

The frequency of our ‘actions for line managers’ email was also increased from fortnightly to weekly. It was important to reinforce that a support structure existed for those who found themselves managing others in such unique circumstances.

Finally, the team focused more attention and dedicated channel space to highlighting the range of wellbeing and mental health support available at GDS, and the importance of managing a balance between work and personal life whilst remote working. During challenging times, there needed to be more openness and communication about these topics and resources.

The ‘new normal’

Once the new normal established itself, we switched our focus to thinking about a long-term strategy. Throughout December 2020, we conducted a review of GDS’s internal communication channels.

We used user research methods such as virtual workshops and surveys and looked at all available analytics, including email opens, all staff meeting attendance and internal video views. This helped us to understand how our colleagues felt, and how they wanted to be communicated with and ensured we were not relying solely on ad hoc feedback when planning new strategies.

We hosted interactive sessions in which colleagues had a safe space to provide honest feedback on what they liked or did not like about how we were communicating with them, how they thought we could improve, and what they required from the team more generally. Simultaneously, we ran an all staff survey that asked similar questions to the interactive sessions so those who could not attend could also offer their views.

The virtual workshop sessions gave us the opportunity to be creative with user research methods. Usually, we would have held sessions in an office space with sticky notes and small group discussions. Instead we used virtual collaboration boards to gather feedback that could be collated anonymously. We also used elements from hackathons to get creative ideas on how to solve key communications issues from our users.

The workshop sessions gave us richer qualitative feedback, whereas the data collected from the all staff survey was a mix of qualitative and quantitative. Feedback from both the workshops and the survey was collated and themed by channel, sentiment, and topic. From this we created a set of core, overarching insights into what employees wanted from Internal Communications, a proposed strategy for each channel to meet user needs going forward, and a set of changes to implement and test.

The review demonstrated how our work was already making an impact, and where our efforts need to be refocused. In 2020 we increased the open rates of weekly all staff emails from 53% in the summer to 76% by the end of the year. The industry standard is 43% (source: Mailchimp). Data from the review also showed us that colleagues value these weekly emails and the information they contain. Combined, this insight has given us confidence in our approach.

An example of how we refocused our efforts is with the removal of monthly senior leader videos. Viewing figures already showed low engagement levels: on average less than 10% of our audience watched them. Qualitative channel review insight supported this data, and we concluded that introducing more frequent interactive Q&A sessions with our senior leaders would be a better use of the team’s time and energy and be more engaging for staff.

Where we’re going next

In 2021 we are continuing to use the insight from the review to improve our channels using an iterative test-and-learn approach, listening and learning from our colleagues as we make changes to channels and content. GDS’s offices in Bristol and Manchester mean we will need to ensure connectivity between colleagues is maintained between offices, even after COVID-19 restrictions ease.

The pandemic has been a challenging and interesting time to start working in internal communications. The whole team is really proud of our work to make user-centred changes to GDS’s internal communications approach, and keep a focus on employee engagement during this unprecedented time.

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