Hannah Lawrence from Zendesk: To Create a Culture of Trust, You Need to Get Buy-In from Leadership

Zendesk's Senior Internal Communications Manager on the changing role of internal communications.

Dasa Kasparova

Organizations around the world are beginning to challenge the status quo of their internal communications. They are shifting from top-down broadcasts toward more open cultures where questions are encouraged and feedback is acted upon.

One of the companies leading the charge is Zendesk – a customer service software company helping organizations build better customer experiences.

Curious to learn more about this shift, we turned to Hannah Lawrence, Zendesk’s Senior Internal Communications Manager. We asked her a couple of high-level questions about what challenges the internal communications professionals need to overcome to build a culture of trust.

She shared some brilliant insights and thoughts with us. Let’s dive right in.

Thanks for speaking with us, Hannah! Let’s start on a high-level note. How has the role of internal communications changed over the years?

I think the role has been growing in breadth and becoming more strategic.

Historically, internal communications has been more of a tactical function: crafting announcements, pushing information out to employees through various channels, and maintaining the company intranet or internal knowledge base.

While these are still important components of the role, internal communications is shifting to become a strategic function in its own right.

We’re driving more of our own initiatives and programs to rally employees around the company’s mission and vision, increase employee engagement, and ensure that the company’s values are reflected in its internal culture.

In its research, Google confirmed that trust is critical for building high-performing teams. What role does internal communications play in building trust in a team or company?

Internal communications is vital to organizational trust because it’s the function that drives top-down transparency, ensures consistency and clarity of messaging, and creates opportunities for two-way dialogue between leadership and employees.

“Transparency helps build trust, but a culture of trust is needed for leaders to be comfortable with transparency.”

To some extent, there is a bit of a chicken and egg issue at play: transparency helps build trust, but a culture of trust is needed for leaders to be comfortable with transparency. So buy-in from leadership is crucial for internal communications to be effective at building trust.

HBR published an article where it reported that “the old corporate communication is giving way to a model that we call organizational conversation.” How important is this shift for Zendesk?

This shift underpins the way I approach internal communications at Zendesk, in terms of how I think about both content and process.

A shared understanding of the company’s goals and progress toward those goals can help drive the meaningful organizational conversation, so I push for proactive top-down transparency as much as possible.

But this only takes us part of the way.

The other big part is making sure leaders are accessible and responsive to employees, in order to create the environment needed to foster organizational conversation. This is especially important as a company grows.

Zendesk’s team during all-hands

How successful do you find other companies in this regard?

My observation is that younger tech companies are leading the charge on making the shift to the organizational conversation more so than companies in other industries.

A few drivers are likely at play: when these tech companies scale, they tend to look at how they can maintain their “startup” culture, they tend to be more open to new tools that can help facilitate organizational conversation, and they usually have a tech-savvy employee population that is always plugged into one device or another.

What are the main challenges in driving this shift from your point of view as an internal communications professional?

I think the main challenges are often cultural.

If the company’s leadership doesn’t value – or worse, fears – transparency or if employees are resistant to new tools, then it’s difficult for internal communications to shift from top-down broadcaster to conversation starter and facilitator.

In these cases, the internal communications professional’s challenge is to bring about the cultural changes that will allow for more freedom of conversation. To reiterate, the place to start is with the leadership team!

Following up on this line of thought, what are the main tactics to drive more conversations in a company?

Once leadership is bought into open organizational conversation, there are a few tactics that internal communicators can employ:

  • Bring the company together regularly for all-hands meetings. All-hands are great opportunities for internal communications to steer the conversation so that it supports broader company objectives.
  • Always build in time for Q&A. This goes for all-hands meetings, department meetings, team meetings – whatever it is, employees need to have an opportunity to be heard and to get their questions answered.
  • Implement a company-wide collaboration tool. We’ve been using Slack for about 18 months now and it’s facilitated communication between employees in all the departments, office locations, and at all levels of the company.
  • Start a program for ongoing, open Q&A with leaders. We call ours “Ask Me Anything.” Employees can submit questions about any Zendesk-related topic as they arise, and I’ll get them an answer from the relevant leader. The questions and answers from each week are compiled and shared with the company on Slack.
  • Solicit feedback and suggestions from employees. This could be in the form of surveys to see if employees are getting the information they want and need, or an ongoing program through which employees can submit their suggestions for tackling a particular challenge.
  • Practice empathy. This is actually one of our core values at Zendesk and one of the main reasons we have such a great culture of openness. Empathetic leaders and colleagues allow employees to feel comfortable sharing their views and asking questions.

Having an open conversation means that tough questions might come in sometimes. How do you cope with them?

We don’t shy away from tough questions. Difficult questions are an opportunity to provide valuable context around decisions we’ve made as a company.

By providing answers, we’re not only able to clear up misunderstandings, we also show that our leadership values transparency and has confidence in the company’s direction.

“Difficult questions are an opportunity to provide valuable context around company decisions.”

Additionally, those tough questions can give the internal communications team insight into sentiments and emotions that may be running beneath the surface of the employee population. They give us a view into areas that require further education.

What role do all-hands meetings play in Zendesk’s internal communications?

Our monthly all-hands meetings serve to inform and motivate our employees.

We share updates on how we’re progressing in relation to our company goals, celebrate our successes, evaluate what we could be doing better, and perhaps most important, provide an opportunity for employees to get their questions answered during the Q&A segment at the end.

All-hands are also a great way for us to showcase our culture in action. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and like to have fun while we work at Zendesk.

During the holidays, I once tricked a member of our executive team into wearing a full reindeer costume to present at our December all-hands by telling him that every presenter would be in a silly costume. It was just him.

Finally, in what ways does Slido help you drive conversations with your employees?

Slido is my secret weapon. It’s a great tool for us because it helps us keep the feeling of accessibility and transparency alive, even as we’ve grown to a global, 2,000+ employee company.

I use Slido both for live Q&A with our leaders at all-hands meetings and also to power our Ask Me Anything program. We’ve seen increased employee participation in all-hands Q&A since implementing Slido and with the ability to vote on the questions, employees choose which topics they’re most interested in hearing more about.

Ask Me Anything is set up as a year-long event in Slido, which enables employees across the company to submit questions any time. It’s such a simple but effective way to help us be more transparent and increase engagement in organizational conversation.

Slido’s live polling feature is also great for assessing if employees understand important content.

How does that usually work?

After each all-hands presentation, I launch a live poll asking employees to rate their understanding of the content and why it’s important to Zendesk.

This allows me to see if the information was presented at the right level (not too technical) and to get a sense of whether or not employees have enough context around the subject to understand its importance to our mission and strategy.

If any topics are rated poorly, then it’s a clear indication that we need to rethink how that content was presented and do some more education so that employees are able to participate in the conversation.

Thanks so much for talking to us, Hannah.

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