Cosmic Conference 2021 - Session 3: Internal Communications in Distributed Organizations


The Future of Teams conference, which was held on July 6, 7, and 8, 2021, was our second annual edition of the Cosmic Conference. Hosted by Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, the conference had all-star guests share their insights, opinions, and perspectives about the future of teams.


Internal Communications has long been an important function in organizations, but it is often overlooked. The pandemic, however, has made keeping employees informed, motivated and connected vital for the success of remote collaboration. The only way to do that is through effective internal communications. In this session, Tala Odeh is joined by two internal communications experts who shared how to do internal communications right.


Watch the full session below or, visit our YouTube channel.




About the speakers:

  • Noor Al Khatib is the Internal Communications Senior Manager at Careem. She has been integral in building the company's internal communications function, supporting business leaders and colleagues across their markets.

  • Isaac Banks is the Director for Corporate Communications at talabat. With experience spanning across New Zealand, Qatar and the UAE, Isaac has called the MENA region home for seven years, having implemented the internal communications strategy at both Al-Futtaim and Talabat.



What is Internal Communications?

Tala kicked off the session by asking each guest to share their own definition of internal communications.


Simply put, Noor explained that internal communications is “how an organization communicates with its people and how people within that organization communicate with each other”. To further clarify, she used an analogy where she compared internal communications in an organization to a news agency inside a company or to storytellers. “We have to know everything that's going on and that way we know the best way to communicate it and who needs to know what.” She added that there are many channels through which internal communications can take place: “The most basic ones are a newsletter, an intranet, something from management like a CEO letter... You can get more creative as you build up your function and do things like podcasts and wherever your minds and resources take you.” She then echoed what Tala had shared in the introduction regarding internal communications being tied to alignment of the business culture and engagement and motivation of employees. “It touches a lot of areas in a company”, she said.


Isaac agreed with what Noor shared and would add that “Internal communications is the base of how you elevate the organization internally. It helps you create a solid foundation and a platform for all the kinds of channels and all the initiatives that Noor mentioned.” He added “it’s a platform that allows leaders to lead and inspire, for people to give and receive feedback and ultimately to give everyone in your organization a 360 degree view of what the business does.”



Where does Internal Communications sit within an organization?

Moving forward, Tala asked, “I know that it varies from company to company, but in your opinion, who should be leading internal comms in organizations? Sometimes it sits with HR and sometimes it sits with IT. I'd love to hear from your perspective where you think it sits?”

“The key aspect of communications, whether it's external or internal, is all about company reputation and brand awareness. Communication should be a function under a CEO level with dotted lines onto your other key stakeholders. Because obviously, internal communications is like a synthesis inside the organization,” replied Isaac.


Resonating with what Isaac had shared, Noor clarified that tying internal communications to HR or IT makes one short-sighted and at risk of “missing out on what else is happening in the organization.” She explained that “the majority of internal communications is working with people, but at the same time, it’s about business alignment, celebrations and so on.”


Tala agreed with what both guests had shared and added, “Internal comms is unique in the sense that it sits at the intersection of so many different functions within an organization. At the same time, it's the one skill set that has the ability to bring them all together.”



KPIs for Internal Communications

To review the efficacy of any process in organizations, certain KPIs must be identified and reviewed constantly. So, to learn more about internal communications KPIs, Tala asked Noor and Isaac to share the metrics they measure at their organizations.


Noor started, “We're a tech company so it's all about numbers and measurements. We have about eight or nine different channels that we use and for each channel, we measure how many people are looking at the channel and reacting to each content piece. Are people reading the blurb or are they clicking on the link on the internet? How many views are we getting and which sections are getting the most views?... We also measure how many people are logging into our lives, watching it afterwards and from which market. Where do we need to work on building engagement? We’re also a big fan of feedback at Careem and so, we use Peakon and NPS where employees rate us on a monthly basis. We ask them; How effective are comms? Are you informed enough to do your job effectively? They give us great feedback all the time: where to improve and where things are going well. There's a lot of metrics you can get from internal comms, even though measuring comms is not always the easiest. We break it down into sections.”

Isaac, shared that at Talabat, “Our communications function is more in its infancy than Careem’s. When I was first hired, we didn't really have too much of an internal comms function. I built that out with the help of my team. We do a lot of measurement through the reactions and through the comments in terms of sentiment, much the same as Noor. We use Peakon quite heavily and we have quarterly surveys as well as six weekly post-surveys where the key questions asked are about whether their teams feel being communicated to well enough, what can we change and so on. That's the extent of it at the moment, but we're looking to build those functions out.”



Is there a two way internal communication?

We’ve always heard that communication is a two-way street. To the curiosity of one of the live viewers, “Is there a two-way internal comms?” was a question directed to the guest-speakers.


Noor replied, “100%. In the initial phases of internal comms, you start at getting information to people. This is where you want to establish your channels, the frequency and figuring out what people are enjoying. But then, as you and your organization evolve, employees are going to want to engage, share their own stories and they're going to reach out to you. So it definitely becomes a two-way street. That's the dream when people reach out to you and say I have a story I want to share, or I want to present something at the all hands. I think that's the future.” As they shifted to remote working, Noor shared that Careem’s goal for this year was to introduce more two-way comms channels.


“It's all about the channels”, Isaac emphasized. “You can have an email newsletter which doesn't promote feedback. But channels like Slack, Microsoft teams or Workplace promote two-way communication, and that's what can be effective and make you understand what your organization really thinks about what you're putting out.”



Internal Communications during the pandemic

Remote work models were the only option for organizations during the global pandemic and government enforced lockdowns meant teams could not convene in the office. These working models come with communication challenges and so, an effective internal communications function is needed to keep employees informed, motivated, inspired and aligned to the organization and its culture. To learn more about how each of the guest speakers succeeded in this initiative, Tala asked, “Can you share an example of how you creatively used internal communications for this purpose?”


“The lockdowns around the MENA region were straight cut; one day we were in the office and the next day we were working from home. For a lot of businesses, work stopped whereas for organizations like Talabat, Careem and other tech companies, it didn't,” said Isaac. “We had to get creative around that and so, every three to four days we had our leaders releasing videos with fun tips about what they're doing during the pandemic outside and inside of work hours.” As burnout rates increased, Isaac and his team realized that they needed to act quickly. “We also included things like time management tips, how to work during the pandemic and how to switch off. We also did things like Talabat quiz nights, game nights, pet meet & greets and a bunch of other fun and engaging activities which weren't the norm before. It was a good way of keeping people engaged,” he said.


Then, Noor explained that the team at Careem did many of the activities Isaac had shared. “We did a lot of the same stuff like those videos, show us your work from home space, bring your pets, take screenshots with people's kids... Also, when the pandemic started and a few months into it, we kicked off our ask me anything panels. We even had to update a strategy and think of how to do it in a more interesting way. For example, last June, in the middle of the pandemic, we had our super app launch to the public. Normally that would have been for the external comms a big press event. We thought of how to make it exciting for colleagues internally since no one can really attend. So, we had a social media takeover, but on our slack global channel. We had live updates, GIFS of everyone doing the COVID-19 handshakes... It was an hour long, but the most engagement we ever had - even pre pandemic,” she said.



Communicating to frontline workers

“You talked about how you, as tech companies, were among the few that amidst the pandemic and the lockdowns still remain operational,” said Tala, “We know that you have a lot of frontliners and drivers and so, we imagine internal communication is different when it comes to your riders and drivers. These roles were so essential, they were delivering groceries and food to people when we couldn't leave the house. I would love to hear about what is different about your approach with those stakeholders and the channels, languages, messages, and how you balance communicating with those front liners and also with your knowledge workers.”


Isaac explained that communication with their front liners and riders is “mostly in-app. We've got apps which are not the most technologically advanced apps in terms of communication but they are in terms of helping the rider go from A to B, traffic algorithms etc… They keep the messages short, straight to the point and we use emojis sometimes, too. We also communicate with different languages like Arabic and Hindi.” Isaac clarified that employees were being communicated with by the language they prefer. “During the pandemic a lot of messages are about safety, making sure to sanitize and wear masks and gloves as well. At the same time, a lot of messages are thanks messages. We always tell our drivers that they’re doing such a great job and that we really appreciate it. We also made an effort to share random acts of appreciation throughout the pandemic. That was mostly led by our logistics team, however, we had some input into it too.”


Similarly, Noor shared that she doesn’t handle the communication for their Captains, as they call them. “That sits with the Operations team. They're closest to the frontline workers, they're in the market and know exactly what's happening and what support they need. The principles are the same: a lot of opportunities for two way communication. They need to be able to know who to reach out to for support and where to get information. There's a lot of it available on the app already and there are different channels for them to reach out to the support teams. But, obviously there was a lot of uncertainty. So the principal was the same: over communicate and make sure that they have all the information and reassurance they need,” said Noor.



Expressing Authenticity

Tala then took an audience question, “Noor, I know that you said you didn't manage the communication to your Captains, but an attendee is asking how can internal communications express how genuine organizations are in being interested about the well-being of their employees. What are some of your tips for communicating that?”


Noor replied, “Mental health, whether it's of our employees or colleagues and even our Captains, is important. For our captains for example, we set up a Careem Captain fund where colleagues could raise funds to support them as there were no rides happening during the pandemic. But even for colleagues, one of the first things we communicated was to look out for each other during this time because it is difficult. People were alone and maybe they didn’t have a support system around them.”

An important goal for Careem was to find ways, be it channels and reminders, to check in on each other. “Just because a meeting is on zoom and you lose the smalltalk that might happen in the office, start off a zoom meeting by asking someone, really how are you doing today? How's your family, is everyone okay? We're remote first, so there's a huge focus on mental and emotional wellbeing.” For instance, they asked themselves, “How do we support colleagues to avoid burnout, which was a huge thing that a lot of people dealt with. We also had a number of courses at Careem College, a learning platform for our colleagues, to be able to learn new techniques and skills. But nothing beats checking in on each other and personal connection.”



Adapting Your Tone of Voice

Grabbing a second question from the audience, Tala asked, “how do you balance the tone of voice and flow of communications between content that's more fun and content that's more corporate? Specifically for those meaningful check-ins.”


“What I've found is that when you're starting off, it's A/B testing to see how things land or don't land. You start to develop a circadian rhythm about when you should be communicating on which days and what kind of tone you should be communicating with,” said Isaac. He made sure to clarify that communication is dependent on the organization.


“If you're an extremely corporate organization that doesn't have leaders who are emotionally intelligent and empathetic, you can't turn it on and start to be like that. It really needs to be a process where people can see the leaders becoming better and better.”

According to Isaac, if you’re not authentic, it becomes difficult to get that tone and voice right.” Yet, he shared that you can still do it. “It just involves you having courageous conversations with the leaders and people in the organization and explaining that this is where we have to go and this is how we can get there. These are the steps that we need to take to get there, to make our audience feel safe, comfortable as well as to understand what's coming out on which channels and when.”

Internal communications for better value alignment

Research shows that team members who don’t share a team identity and values, perform less than those who do. Also, in session 2 of the Future of Teams Conference, Tom Marsden reinforced this idea and shared that ”If there’s no alignment of values or tolerance for each other’s values, then diverse thinking can be conflicting rather than reinforcing.” Tala asked both guest speakers, “How do you leverage internal communications to create alignment to the values of the organization and nurture a shared identity?”


Starting with Careem, Noor answered, “For Careem, values and purpose have always been ingrained in everything we do from day one and every decision anyone makes always takes it back to the values. So, for internal comms, that's what our role is anyway. It's our job to embed those messages in the storytelling we do and we need to find different ways to do it right.”


To further clarify she gave an example, “It's not communicating remember value number one. But it's here's a great thing that this team accomplished really living the value of ownership or being of service to our community. We also do shout outs at our all hands or on our other platforms where we give a shout out to someone who's really been living the values. This is also part of our performance activities as well, but we, as internal comms, do a lot through the storytelling.”

Isaac shared that activities at Talabat are very similar to those that Noor had shared. “The reason it is similar is because we're both young tech companies who have a similar audience to speak to internally. We've got the same functions and same organizational set up. It’s as much about storytelling, as it is as much about the right wordings here and there, making sure that people understand who we are, what we stand for, and why we do it.”




Internal Communications & Remote Onboarding

It can be challenging to align employees to the organizational culture and values and it’s even harder for those who joined the teams remotely to jump on board. To learn more about how to have a successful onboarding experience, Tala asked an audience question, “How can we utilize internal communications to integrate or onboard new team members who were recruited during the pandemic and have only met their team members, or experienced the organization and its values remotely?”


Isaac answered, “This was something that we faced and we had a cool way of doing it. When we were onboarding people remotely, we had Talabat riders bring their laptop and everything to their house. They got that firsthand brand experience. Also, the people OPS team recalibrated the whole onboarding sessions from being half a day or a day, to three different days where you get to meet each department and you get to get a good feel of the organization from a values point of view. We also changed onboarding dates from every week to every second week. So, you always got to go to a town hall, even virtually. Also, when they're meeting their teams virtually, they go into an all hands together... It's very much changed and it's very much virtual, but we still try to keep that essence of the brand alive there.”


Noor said, “There's a thorough onboarding program that includes different presentations and different meetings as well as interactive elements and quizzes to engage the audience. They're not having to sit through three days of just zoom meetings and going through presentations explaining what our team does. They also make sure that team leads are aware when their new colleague is onboarding. Even within teams, whenever we have a new person, we create a schedule for them of when they should meet different people or who are some key people in the company to meet.” She then shared an instance that happened with her, “We once did a coffee and conversation session in the organization and the audience was randomly matched to breakout rooms. I ended up in a breakout room with someone who was on my team and we didn't even recognize each other because he joined during the pandemic and we hadn't met face-to-face and he was in another city. It's all about creating those touch points because they're not getting that in-person experience.”


Miscommunication & Over-communication

“In a recent survey we did at Cosmic Centaurs, we had over 300 respondents where 42% reported that the amount of communication they have with their team increased and became overwhelming during the global pandemic, and 35% experienced a decrease in communication and considered it insufficient,”said Tala. “I'd like to know how you respond to that statistic? And can you tell us what you do to balance the volume, the frequency and the channels so as not to over or under communicate with your employees?”


“Interestingly, a Microsoft study showed that Microsoft Teams’ messages and meetings went up, and emails went sky high too. When we switched from office to home, people felt the need to be online all the time because people could work flexibly. For instance, you get a message at 8:00 PM at night, and you would think I have to respond to that. That might've been where over communication came in. It’s all about finding the balance and understanding and sending out the right messages.”


“These are our key working hours. You can work outside of these hours, but we need to make sure that people's time and people's work-life balance are being respected, he continued. “To avoid under communication, we changed our town halls to weekly town halls which gave a place for everyone to come in and have that hour per week of learning about their colleagues achievements just to start to feel connected again. Feelings of loneliness, and self-isolation during the pandemic were high, especially in the markets that we operate in, like Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain where there are a lot of expats and a lot of people living by themselves. So, it's really good to have those check-ins and those communication points.”


Sharing their own experience, Noor said, “In the beginning, we thought let's over-communicate. So we increased our all hands to weekly. Our CEO letter was weekly and then any other time that would be way too excessive. At the time people really welcomed it and our all hands had more attendance than usual. People really appreciated just having that extra time for questions and information.”


But, as mentioned earlier, at Careem, they measure a lot of metrics and so, “When the attendance is starting to drop again, or it's plateaued, or, there's fewer reads on whatever announcements we're putting out, we dial it back again.” She gave an example, ”When our AMAs were getting really popular, we made sure we're promoting those more. We also introduced a casual session but for business conversation where one of our team members would be sitting with a business leader and sharing information through a casual setup. Those gained a lot of popularity as well and so we started to dial that up. You have to have structure and have your channels monitored well enough to know when to dial something up and when to dial it down,” she explained.



The Future of Internal Communications

“In most companies, internal communications isn't campaign driven. It might not be planned like an external or marketing communications campaign. But we'd love to hear what you guys think about that. Do you think it should be treated as an internal marketing function? How important is it and how much should investment in internal comms be from a time and effort perspective?”


Noor shared that she is a strong advocate of investing in internal communications. “I think smaller companies starting out can get away with not really focusing on it in the beginning, but I think soon enough they'll realize that there's gaps and that's when they want to definitely establish their channels beforehand. We're quite structured with the way we handle internal comms from our channels and to our metrics, but we also have an editorial calendar just like you would for external communication. We sit down with our leaders at the beginning of strategy planning, and we find out what's happening in the business so we will be aware of what's happening and we're not caught off guard. Once you start planning ahead it gives you a lot more opportunity to get creative and engage your people. You can still be flexible but it's good to at least have a solid foundation.

Sharing his thoughts about the future of internal communications in hybrid settings, Isaac said, “The more time you have to prepare the more creative and flexible you can be with your content. I also say content, at the moment, is the king and it's going to continue to be that way. More videos, more infographics, more fun… We're not going to go back to working 100% from the office anytime soon for many companies. The internal communications channel engagement rates need to be solid and you need to figure out what works and what doesn't. So it's about agility, working with the strategy leaders and creating that narrative for your quarter, or for your half or entire year. If your people understand what's happening in the business and if they're engaged with the business, then not just your internal communications, but your whole organization is going to flourish.”

🔥Rapid fire questions

At the end of every session, a series of rapid fire questions was asked to all our conference speakers:


Q: What's the skill that every leader needs to have today that maybe wasn't as important before?

A: Noor: Empathy & Compassion. They needed it before, but definitely a lot more now.

Isaac: Emotional Intelligence

Q: What is the one book that every leader needs to read?

A: Noor: 5 Behavioral Biases That Trip Up Remote Managers published by

Harvard Business Review

Isaac: Perform under pressure

Q: What is your perfect song to work on?

A: Noor: Cello instrumental music

Isaac: Drake songs

Q: What is the perfect team size?

A: Noor: Not a one size fits all

Isaac: Not a one size fits all


Q: The future of teams is?

A: Noor: Flexible

Isaac: Hybrid, flexible and family-focused