Snowflake’s Paul Van Voorhis on Demystifying Employee Communications

Editor's note: This interview is part of Building Brand Resilience, a new blog series examining the reputational issues facing high-growth tech companies and the strategies they're using to navigate the new era of corporate accountability.

One of the most important, yet frequently misunderstood, functions within companies, employee communications plays a vital role in helping to shape and protect corporate reputation. While navigating the complexities of work during the global pandemic, employee communications has even greater potential to positively influence the trajectory of any business.

Paul Van Voorhis is head of employee communications at the Data Cloud company Snowflake. He has previously held similar positions at Intuit and at PayPal.

“Senior executives value you highly as their trusted advisor,” Paul said. “But, we have an opportunity to help others better understand the varied and nuanced role of an employee communicator.” He sees the function as continuing to evolve as it becomes more of a strategic partner to the success of an organization’s business.

Paul recently shared his thoughts with us on the ongoing development of employee communications, lessons learned during the pandemic, and the importance of transparency and authenticity. What follows is an edited version of our conversation:

How have you seen the role of employee communications change over the past decade?

In the early days, it was usually static, one-way communication as companies told employees the things they wanted them to know. It could be administrative, such as benefits information, or business-related in terms of financial results and corporate strategy. And at that time, it worked. 

Eventually, employee communications evolved into something a little more two-way, starting with Town Halls, so employees had a chance to ask questions and hear from leadership in a more dynamic setting. Then came social intranets—the electronic version of Town Halls. These were great developments in that we began to see the rise of employees as an important voice.

Today, social media’s influence continues to blur the lines between work and home. I think the smart employee communicator is figuring out how to leverage the existing momentum in social media to reach employees where they are and to give them a chance to interact back, while also increasing transparency for the company with external stakeholders.

Having these conversations in the open as much as possible is good for both company leaders and for employees in many different ways. Existing and potential customers and the public at large can watch how an employee and the company interact in a public space. Done well, there’s this wonderful multiplying effect of networks, which can really scale your reach.

How is the balance shifting between the information that employees want to self-serve versus what they need to hear from employee communicators?

When I arrived at Snowflake, there was already plenty of self-serve information available to employees. Part of our role is to identify and serve up content that employees and the organization may not know that they need, but will find valuable.

The goal is to create an environment where employees want to go, where they’ll choose to engage and where they’ll find a source of truth. It’s a challenge because employees want to be in the channels they choose. My enticer of choice tends to be humor and fun while at the same time, making sure that the channel and associated content are immediately identifiable by employees as authentic, not corporate propaganda.

Authenticity is key. When we do what can be considered ‘propaganda,’ or my least favorite phrase in business, ‘employee PR,’ we call it out, but in a fun way. Employees appreciate when you’re just being authentic.

At Snowflake, we created a bi-weekly short video news show, the Two-Minute Flurry, to present key business and culture news in an entertaining and engaging way. No one was asking for this, but 33 episodes later, the Flurry has become an iconic component of our culture with incredible viewership and engagement (unicorn-level engagement at 87% or 88% per video). I’m pretty sure, if we tried to kill the Flurry now, that there’d be a revolt versus 18 months ago when there was literally no one asking for it. That’s how we add value and drive culture. 

Do you know what employee communicators never get? Fan mail! But in the case of the Flurry, we receive at least one note from an employee every episode saying how much they enjoy the video. That’s so gratifying!

"Part of our role is to identify and serve up content that employees and the organization may not know that they need, but will find valuable."

How has the pandemic impacted employee communications?

Wow, talk about having no rule book to follow. While initially a little terrifying with no real precedent to refer back to, eventually having the opportunity to reimagine literally everything became quite liberating.

It has also become clear how vital the employee communications function is. Companies who saw employee communications as a nice-to-have, have begun to see it as a business-critical function to align and connect with employees in meaningful ways beyond in-office interactions. Importantly, we in employee communications have played a critical role in providing clarity and calm for employees in this especially ambiguous time.

"Companies who saw employee communications as a nice-to-have, have begun to see it as a business-critical function to align and connect with employees in meaningful ways beyond in-office interactions."

Which specific lessons learned from the pandemic so far would you call out?

The speed at which everything changes has just been crazy so companies need to stay flexible. I’d call out four key learnings:

  1. Define key principles up front. At Snowflake, we quickly decided our North Star would be employee safety as our number-one priority. While that might sound like a no-brainer, it was really helpful as we faced what became hundreds of individual variables in localities around the world. We would fall back on our key principle, communicate a decision and point to a consistent rationale.
  2. Get comfortable communicating the unknown. With ever-evolving pandemic guidelines, moving dates and new variants, we are often communicating changes or encouraging employees to ‘stay tuned’ as situations develop. Even if we don’t have the answer, we must be the trusted, consistent source of ongoing information for employees.
  3. Actions speak louder than words. More than ever before, employee communications have been inextricably linked with employee experience. I think the most successful programs recognized that there are myriad variables to an employee’s work-at-home needs, so flexibility has been key. This is also where a strong employee-to-leadership feedback mechanism pays strong dividends. 
  4. Continually innovate and adapt. The arc of video conferencing usage and satisfaction followed the experience of the pandemic. It was unique and new in the early days to use Zoom-type video to replace in-person gatherings. From All Hands to Happy Hours to baby showers, everything went virtual. Then people began adding experiential elements to video meetings by sending interactive, often real-world, items in advance to use during the call. But ‘Zoom fatigue’ became a real issue. After sitting on video calls all day, no one really felt like hopping on a 5 p.m. Happy Hour anymore. Suddenly, phone calls became the new old thing. At Snowflake, employees created ‘Walk and Talk’ to feel less isolated. Enabled through Slack, they’d get to know someone else at the company by setting up a time to chat on the phone when they’d each go for a walk outside, while staying socially distanced and safe. Bonus points for getting to know someone on a different continent!
"Even if we don’t have the answer, we must be the trusted, consistent source of ongoing information for employees."

What shifts have you seen in the types of information employees expect companies to share with them?

Transparency is key now more than ever. And not simply being transparent, but also being authentic. There are so many different ways that you can be called out for not being transparent. There’s very little upside to trying to obfuscate anything from your employees. At the same time, when you're communicating, you want to make sure you're making employees aware of the most impactful things so you don't overwhelm them with less than impactful minutiae.

Employee communications and PR are very different, somewhat like the difference between a marriage and dating. To me, PR is more like dating, in that you’re focused on the impressions you leave with someone who is getting to know you. You have time to prepare before the meeting, you can pick the venue, the time and what you discuss, even whether you respond at all. “We have no comment on that” is always an option.

Employee communications is more like a marriage—we’re in it for the long haul, and consistency and trust through it all are paramount. Employees see leadership at their best and at their not-so-best. They want to know and trust that leaders are open and authentic even when times are tough or when the message isn’t popular. You can’t try to spin the message. Have you ever tried to spin your spouse or say “I have no comment on that” to them? Good luck with that. It’s a relationship built on trust and respect, and requires a long-term investment.

"Employee communications and PR are very different, somewhat like the difference between a marriage and dating."

When should an organization always directly communicate with employees?

Employees should never be surprised by anything. They should always be the first ones to hear any information that will end up externally. In my career, some of my nightmare moments as a communicator have come from employees lamenting that they didn’t hear key news internally first.  

If something ‘bad’ is coming, like less-than-favorable media coverage, we should get out there and prepare employees. In the worst-case scenario, we need to be a superfast follower after something comes out by responding with content that’s substantive.

Like I said in the employee-communications-as-a-marriage analogy, you’ve got to be transparent and authentic. Use every opportunity as an opportunity to build trust. This is also a great time to lean on the trust you’ve already built. And, hey, sometimes there’s great news you can’t wait to share. Scream that from the rooftops. All day. 

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