Keeping in Touch

US West uses e-mail, videoconferencing and Web sites to keep communication open among its employees

P> Steven Boyd leaps off a platform and plummets several hundred feet before a bungee cord affixed to his torso breaks his free-fall. The 3,500 employees of the $1 billion US West Marketing Services Co. watched their president and CEO take the plunge via a live satellite hookup that linked company sites in Phoenix, Albuquerque, N.M., Salt Lake City and other western cities.

The jump was designed to show US West personnel in the video town hall meeting that Boyd, just promoted from CFO to CEO, was more than a mere "bean counter," said Robin Baca, a US West vice president.

Just five years ago, the Englewood, Colo.-based division of telco giant US West relied on an in-house magazine to communicate with employees scattered across several facilities. Most of the time the magazine arrived late after everyone knew the news and wound up being used, literally, as a doorstop, said Baca during a recent conference.

But today, US West has re-engineered its employee communications program, using the latest in interactive public relations technologies and tools, from videoconferencing, to e-mail, to in-house World Wide Web pages. As a result, employees of the publicly traded telco receive news and information about the company at the same time as Wall Street analysts and major media reporters.

"As a public company that must deal with the [Securities and Exchange Commission], we have news releases that have to hit instantly on Wall Street," said Baca. "But employees always said: 'How come I have to read news in the paper first?' So we've linked them electronically, and they can receive all the news releases, as well."

According to James Champy, author of "Re-Engineering Management," the communications tools of the digital revolution are crucial to re-engineering. "They enable information about the [return on investment] of capital and relative values of products and services to fly around the globe at the speed of light," Champy said. Customers were the first to embrace the tools; now managers must, if they intend to keep up with customer demand.

The re-engineering has led to better morale at US West as well, officials said, for most employees have upward of $80,000 invested in US West stock as part of their retirement plans. That helps the company instill corporate culture and communicate all information from the corporate suites to the rank-and-file workers at the speed of light in cyberspace.

What's more, as the regional Bell operating companies begin to compete in a newly deregulated market, the company must be more fleet-footed. Infotech definitely helps.

US West's studies show that employees prefer to receive crucial corporate information directly from managers. The company tries to oblige them. But person-to-person communication isn't always possible.

The company's employee communications are, therefore, delivered directly to the desktop via electronic mail. This works very effectively, especially for those who work in outlying offices, where employees often feel detached from corporate headquarters, Baca said. US West still publishes the in-house magazine, but those who don't receive it can call an 800 number to have it sent instantly.

US West also has a frequent e-mail update, called Straight-from-Steve, that gives the scoop on executive actions. It is written by corporate communications personnel, based on meetings with CEO Boyd.

Moreover, for urgent news, a prerecorded voice-mail message is left for all employees from Boyd, himself. US West also offers a news-by-phone feature for employees. Similar to a 900 number, the service lets employees hear stock options or industry news.

US West also is heavily involved in deploying Internet technologies. The company has an internal Web page, which logged 42,000 hits recently, Baca said. US WestLink offers a table of contents, search features, news groups and even hot links to the Web pages of leading industry trade journals, such as Information Week.

Electronic communications also are used to disseminate information about new job openings. In the past, these listings were distributed in memo form. News of a new position was often stale by the time it reached prospects. Today, that news is posted on the US West Web site for easy, instant access.

But the most dramatic and expensive application of electronic communications tools is US West's use of cable TV and satellites. The company is trying out an internal cable TV channel in South Denver. Called US West InfoChannel, the service delivers financial and industry news to TV screens in public areas throughout the company, such as locations near elevators.

The company has also held video town hall meetings, similar to those employed by President Clinton and Ross Perot during the 1992 presidential elections. "Employees are allowed to call in their questions," said Baca. "This increases participation ranges to about 60 percent. This is a way to get people together a few times a year to communicate. And it is done in a talk show format."

The video town hall featured eight satellite downlinks and nine uplinks. "It was the biggest event in the history of corporate TV," said Baca. The cost was about $300,000, which was cheap compared to flying 3,500 employees to Hawaii for the meeting.

"We're trying to use video as a substitute for face-to-face communications," said Baca. "The manager's job is to make the communication relevant." US West's public relations operations might rival those of some major network news headquarters. There are some 200 US West public relations people nationwide, including those who work on media relations, executive support, corporate communications and video.

And the electronic communications tools humanize everything. PR employees receive upward of 15 e-mail messages daily about the communications programs. Employees can send e-mail and receive written responses to their ideas or concerns in two business days, Baca said. "Every two years, we do a communications audit," said Baca. "These new programs were in response to the concerns expressed in 1994. At that time, 77 percent of employees said they thought corporate publications were effective. We think they now consider the electronic versions publications, as well."

What's next? US West plans to enhance the Web page content, and increase executive involvement in communications. The culture of the information age demands it. But even Baca pointed out some surprising snags in the program. "Not all of our executives know how to turn on a computer, much less surf the Web," she said.

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