Dawning of a new day at Suncor

Employee meetings incorporated humour and interaction to communicate change

Last year, Suncor Energy’s oil sands operation in Fort McMurray, Alta., began a cultural shift. To bring employees onboard, the company’s communication team developed an award-winning series of employee meetings.

In taking a fun approach to employee communications, the meetings, titled Suncor’s Oil Sands: The Next Generation Sessions, won a Gold Quill award of excellence from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in San Fransico.

“They had a strong, creative approach that looked at employee-member communication in a new way,” says Jeffrey Ory, the chair of the Gold Quill awards.

Partly due to its rapid expansion, Suncor’s oil sands operation, with 3,000 employees, was plagued with operational upsets, safety issues and high costs, according to the company’s submission to the IABC. The focus was on meeting production targets and cutting costs. Instead of being proactive, the company found itself constantly reacting to problems and had a short-term approach to planning.

The company wanted to shift towards better planning and improved safety and operational performance. The vision was to transform the operation into one of the safest and most efficient operations in the world, able to take on any challenge and double production by the end of the decade.

The company also wanted to balance economic, social and environmental responsibilities and give employees a stronger voice in the operation.

Two senior members of the communication department, along with a professional event planner, script writer and video production house, spent one year planning the series of employee meetings to showcase the oil sands management committee, cultural changes and the operation’s growth plans, which included new facilities and thousands of new employees.

The team also met regularly with members of the management committee to get their input.

Holding employee meetings with speeches, videos and question-and-answer sessions isn’t anything new, but the way Suncor took on the issue was, says Ory, who is also the vice-president of New Orleans-based public relations firm Deveney Communication.

It was the first time in the 39-year history of Suncor’s oil sands business that all employees were asked to attend off-site meetings outside of normal working hours. Trying to organize 3,000 employees working four shifts in five different locations was a huge challenge.

The communication team decided to hold six 90-minute meetings at Fort McMurray’s Kyano Theatre over a two-week period. About 500 employees attended each session.

The smaller audiences made the sessions more powerful, says Ory.

“It creates a stronger bond,” he says. “Smaller meetings made it a little more intimate and a little more personal.”

While there are many ways for an organization to communicate with employees — newsletters, e-mails and blogs, to name a few — the personal touch is always the most powerful, says Ory.

“Face-to-face meetings are always going to win out,” he says. “You might not remember the content but you’re going to remember that that person came and talked to you.”

While the meetings included the traditional speeches by executives about what the company had accomplished and plans for the future, the meetings also included humour and interactivity, unusual for the traditionally stodgy oil industry, says Ory.

“An employee meeting isn’t earth shattering but the content they used and the format they used was very different for an oil company,” he says.

The meetings included two fictional “transmissions from the future.” One video was a fake newscast from 100 years in the future and the other was a Star Trek parody featuring members of the management committee as crew members of the Star Ship Oil Sands.

Humour is a great way to grab employees’ attention and help them remember the message, says Ory.

“They engage more than if it was just their executives sitting on a podium,” he says.

Previous employee surveys showed employees at Suncor had been feeling disconnected from senior leadership, with many doubting management had their best interests in mind. By including the management committee every step of the way through the planning process and having them disseminate the message at the meetings, the company was able to make employees feel more connected to the company and appreciated by management, says Ory.

Exit surveys following the sessions found 76 per cent of employees agreed (with 50 per cent agreeing strongly) that there was an exciting and positive future for Suncor, which was fantastic, says Ory.

But even more important was the change in feelings about leadership. In previous surveys, just 32 per cent of respondents felt they received adequate recognition of their contributions and accomplishments, but that proportion jumped to 51 per cent after the sessions. Also, 62 per cent said they had confidence in the oil sands leadership team while only eight per cent did not.

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