TNT’s division into two separate entities has affected how they manage their communication.
We spoke to their communications director, Robin Boone, to find out more.
In December 2010, TNT announced plans to split into two separate companies, express and mail, in a reorganisation in which chief executive officer Peter Bakker will leave the company. How does this development affect your communications department?
Overall, it means that we have reallocated all staff working at headquarters, including the corporate communication department, to the express or the mail company. So we have looked at both of the new companies and their requirements and I have allocated the corporate communication people, who were also given an opportunity to state a preference, to either express or mail.
Recent press releases from TNT speak of “responsible reorganisation”. How would you define responsible reorganisation as it pertains to your department?
I think “responsible” is something that fits in very well to our over-all sustainability policies and behaviours. That is, we try to be as human as possible in our approach, which in this case means that we have chosen not to make people redundant instantly but rather have tried to move people from job to job. That doesn’t exclude that over a period of time we will look again at the structures to see that we don’t have too many people at the new companies, but, in principle, we have chosen for now to move people from job to job.
And can the reorganisation for the communications function serve as a model for the reorganisation process as experienced by the company as a whole?
I think it’s the other way round, to be quite honest, particularly if you look at the multiple reorganisations that took place over time at mail, where we have moved 6,000 people from job to job. So where jobs disappeared due to a decrease of mail volume, we chose to move people from job to job internally and externally, and we are quite well known for that approach. And we tried to continue doing that with another reorganisation within the company, although the unions did not agree to that and so therefore we face a number of forced redundancies. However we were able to apply this to the headquarters.
In January, TNT announced that it will sell its Belgian and Italian mail units. Will that have further impacts on you communications department’s structure?
No, other than that we have an international communication network; obviously those countries will no longer take part in that, but that was already anticipated.
TNT has split into two parts. Do both divisions have their own communication department, does one lead the other, and would you describe your role as a ‘ring master’ that coordinates and leads both divisions?
No. Pending the approval by the shareholders at the end of May, the intention is that both companies will be independent listed companies, so they no longer have either legal or organisational ties to each other. This means that they will both have a supervisory board, a board of management, and also corporate communications departments, and nobody above that in a kind of holding role.
So can you tell me at which of the two companies will you be the head of corporate communications?
I will join the mail company.
You were appointed group director of communications for TNT in April 2008. What did the communication departments look like back then? What did you change in the department’s structure, and why?
The emphasis changed very much. Internal communication used to receive less attention, let me put it like that, although some tools were in place, like CEO communications and senior management meetings, which were of a very high standard. But for me, the most important thing I changed was the integration between the different departments, so that there is far more cooperation and integration of the communication approach between press relations, brand, internal communication and online communication. I think that’s something that we have very much built in the last two or three years. For instance, if you look at media relations: if they succeed in having a large article in a leading national paper, that in itself is read by a huge number of employees so it must also be translated into the internal communication community. I think that’s a big change. I think also the feeling now is that we don’t work in silos, so we have set up project teams that deal with projects across the different disciplines within communications.
Prior to joining TNT you headed group communications at the Dutch bank ABN Amro. In which way was the communications department run there?
There we had a more centralised approach. In ABN Amro, the communication department dealt with all responsibilities at corporate headquarters, but there was a matrix structure in which the bank operated so that the different staff functions were also all organised in the different regions. The regional communication director for Asia, or for Europe, or for the Americas, or for the Netherlands, also all had a line to the corporate communication director at the headquarters, being myself. So there was a dual reporting line for the communication director in Asia to the CEO in Asia but also the communication director at headquarters.
How much does the structure of a communication department depend on the industry the company works in - does a bank’s communications department need to be run differently from an international express and mail delivery services company?
I’d say yes because of two things. One is culture in a company. I think one should definitely look at the culture of a company, how the chosen structure can be most effective. You can’t just take a structure from one company and apply it to another. Another one is the industry itself. I think that banking is a bit more strictly run and more centrally-led, and not just for communication but for all staff functions. I think if you look at TNT, it is run less strictly, the culture is different and therefore there is a more decentralised model.
What are your tips for effective structuring? Did you research other organisations before arranging your department?
Yes, certainly, and I think there are multiple ways of doing that. It’s looking at research. It’s also talking with peers, through the EACD, through other groups where you meet and greet with peers and discuss with them how effective their organisation is, get some of the culture – because that’s not always clear from research – and just discuss and see what looks best. But also look internally, because I think it’s difficult and dangerous if you as a communication function deviate from the structures of other functions. So if human resources is de-central, and finance is de-central, don’t get your hopes up of having a highly centralised communication department.
How can you ensure that the internal flow of information in your department runs smoothly and effectively?
I think that is partly structure, and partly informal. What we have tried to do at TNT – and also at the bank – is having a structure of networks and also share experiences, meet and greet, so what we try to do is connect communication people by having regular meetings but also by making them worthwhile attending, so not just chit-chat but examples of sharing best practices within the company. So if a great idea works in Australia, try and see where it also works in the rest of the group, which is a good example of how you share best practices. It is very efficient, because you don’t have the overhead cost twice, but also very beneficial for the people. It shows them the value of attending such a work group. You should also give a good, clear agenda of what you want to achieve with them, and also have your annual or biannual meeting with the communication staff, where you can share best practices, and also wear your mistakes, because you also learn a lot from your mistakes.
Could you briefly describe the size, shape and location of your department?
The future structure will be approximately 50-plus people, and that’s a rather large department for that size of company, but that also contains all marketing communication activities for mail, which means that we have all the discussions and development in advertisement, marketing materials, and so on. If you look at the general setup, it’s more traditional, where we indeed have media relations, we have an internal communication department, we have a brand department which consists of labour market communications but also the online community plus the whole brand activities, and we have a marketing communication department, which consists of business marketing communication, retail marketing communication, ecommerce marketing communication and events. I think the new location is primarily going to be the Hague, although we do have some people in the rest of the country, but I think what I’m particularly looking forward to is something which coincides with setting up the department - going to a whole new way of working, a very flexible way of working, so, for example, nobody will have their own room in the communication department in the future…
Not even the head of communication?
Certainly not the head of communication.
So you all sit in a huge room – is it like a classroom, with you sat in front of them, observing what they do?
What we’re going to do – and that will happen in the whole building by the way, not just the communication department – will be an office where you have flexible working desks, so you can work at any desk you like to. There are meeting rooms set up in a way which are more closely based on the activity you are doing at that particular moment and so you can decide where you want to sit - you can sit at a concentration booth if you want to write a particular memo or prepare a presentation, there are different cells where you can do your phone calls, there are meeting rooms, there are conference call rooms, there are more informal get-together brainstorm rooms, but all very much activity-based. You can work at home if you want to. So a very much output-driven department.
Why did you decide on that kind of style?
Because it brings a lot to employees. People are increasingly deciding where they want to work, and certainly with the current technological support you can work anywhere, you can work at home. Why would I be in the office at eight or be in a traffic jam for two hours, why can’t I just do my mail at home and be in at 10? That’s part of the whole approach, but, again, it’s also far more activity-based. Why do I need a big room for my self which is empty 80 per cent of the time? Why can’t I turn that room into a meeting room for the rest of the period?
If you talk about integrated communications, one of the things I changed here when I joined TNT was that the online team was in a separate room. My biggest frustration was when the head of that team came into my office one day and asked why he hadn’t been invited to the annual communication meeting. He was so set apart from the rest of the department that he was no longer seen as part of their community. So I said I’d bring him out of his room, and there was initially quite some disturbance about that, with people saying, “Oh we can’t work like that, it’s very difficult, we need to concentrate”. After two months he came to me and he told me that it was the best decision of his career, he was completely online with his colleagues, he understood better what the press relations team was about and what they needed, he better understand what internal communications needed and what he could offer to them, but more particularly, they better understood his job. So it was about getting to know each other, and that took away the negative elements of working in an open space.
So the benefit of this kind of style of an office prevails over the risks of lack concentration?
If you were talking about just an open space I would agree with you, but if you look at the set up (and we looked at companies with great track records in that: Nike, Microsoft, and Interpol, a company that works like that up to the CEO), you would see that we have activity-based facilities, so, again, small focal areas, meeting rooms, and ample alternatives for working on specific activities.. It helps people concentrate even better than being in a room on their own.
How do you manage interaction with TNT’s communications staff in other markets?
It’s more decentralised, we are on more of a hub basis. Particularly the internal communication and the press people speak to their colleagues across the globe every week. It’s less structured than ABN Amro. It is more based on the year plan, the policies, and that kind of thing
Do you foresee a rise in ‘telecommuting’, employees working from home, and how will this shape the communications function? Is it already practised or contemplated by your company?
I am quite sure we will see an increasingly flexible approach to work. With our new office structure everyone will have the opportunity to work from home and it is up to their relevant manager how to deal with it. I am a huge advocate for working from home as long as you can manage people on their output and their hours. It is also a question of trust and corporate culture. I personally don’t mind if people work in the afternoon or decide to do something else in the afternoon and rather work in the evening. As long as the product is done by the next morning and they are reachable, then I am fine with that.
How do you factor in flexibility into your department?
By setting an example. One of the things we changed here was a very small item. When people arrived in the office at ten or left the office at four, their colleagues used to joke that, “Oh, you have taken half a day off.” I told them to stop saying that because if you really want to stimulate flexible hours you need to set an example and avoid that people feel the need to defend the way in which they work. It is certainly a two-way-street. If people prove that they can’t handle flexible working hours the rules will of course be stricter. There are people who know of themselves that they can’t concentrate on their work at home which is why they will always be in the office. That’s fine with me. But if people say they rather do their mails from home at 8.30 in the morning and later drive to the office, that’s also fine with me because they will be more effective.
Is proximity of the department to senior management important?
I think it is more important than I sometimes would like it to be, because people still need to see that things are moving and being done. Additionally, communication departments in particular face unforeseen crises where quick and direct access to senior management is crucial. I have always been lucky to work with senior managers who were as keen as I on gadgets, modern technologies and any other mean that enables one to have discussions. Therefore the need for proximity to the senior management has lessened but it is still important.
If you take a look at the months to come what will be your greatest management challenge?
TNT has been split internally into two separate companies as of January 1, but we still have holding tasks, such as producing an annual report. Therefore people have multiple caps on. They already work for express but they also still have their responsibilities at the first company. Managing this situation is a big challenge, with staff uncertainty about whether they keep their jobs or whether they will get along with their managers.
Keeping staff motivated and engaged in their old and new functions will be one of my major challenges. Unfortunately there is so much work at the moment that there was not enough time to discuss challenges, trends and new ideas within the communications discipline, which I would have loved to discuss, for example the question whether we really need a corporate website and a corporate intranet. Why not have combined website where people can find anything? With all the new communications channels around, everything that is produced internally must be suitable for use externally. So, why differentiate the audiences and not let people decide for themselves what they would like to use! How to really integrate social media into the communication mix and how to engage people in business that is changing rapidly? My challenge is to make ample time for this in the coming months!