Taking the heat: Communicating down under

After working in internal communications for around three years, Lizzie Forbes took a sabbatical last year and fell in love with travel, which brought her to Australia. Now acclimatised, she shares her experiences of PR life on the other side of the world.

In December 2016 I gave up my life as I knew it (and my job in internal communications) and boarded a plane to Australia, armed with a backpack, a small amount of cash, and a working holiday visa. In between sunbathing, partying, and a determination not to work in a bar, I started the job search.

I found there are dozens of communications jobs in the big Australian cities at any one time – someone was bound to hire me, right? The first recruiter I met said all I needed was someone to give me a break. I initially struggled because of my visa – every recruiter I met said employers want the right to work in Australia permanently, which I obviously didn’t have. One very expensive month later, in January, I got my break.

What struck me most at first about Australia was the pace of work. At times, I yearned for my busy job in London; chilled-out Oz definitely took some getting used to. During a hot and humid Australian summer, at times it felt like no one had the energy to do anything – and that was ok. For two solid weeks in January, the temperature didn’t drop below 32 degrees at night, and my colleagues cared more about their welfare, getting some sleep and staying well, than meeting deadlines.

I had to adapt to my working environment too; in my first role project managing a new intranet for a technology company, there were only five of us in the office. The remote workforce I was trying to engage with was based in London, the US, Thailand and France. Often I’d stay at work until 8pm so I could speak to people in the European offices. My main objective with the new intranet was to break these barriers down and make it easier for people to connect. But there was no sense of urgency, and in a world of instant replies, I was left twiddling my thumbs, and often the people I needed to speak to were asleep while I was working.

There was an intranet, but employees had lost touch with it. There were still operational updates on the homepage from 2012. We built momentum with the new site by sharing stories. People started coming to me with good news that they wanted to share. The technology meant our team retained publishing rights to the news pages, so employees were unable to post it themselves. It was a world away from my role in London, where employees were empowered to share and collaborate on the Enterprise Social Network (ESN). It felt like I was going a step backwards but I relished the opportunity to bring the company a step forward. Some companies are at the very beginning of creating an internal communications function so it was exciting to be part of this journey.

I’m now a communications officer in an insurance company. I was told in my interview that I pretty much had free reign here in terms of channels and trying out new ideas, so one of the first things I did was present to the leadership team on the benefits of increasing engagement with our ESN, Yammer. User adoption is picking up and I get to coach people on using it, which I love doing. My working environment here is great, very relaxed and informal. No dress code, flexible working etc. – all the benefits I was used to in the UK.

I live ten minutes from the beach and it takes me just 45 minutes to get to the office from my door. I get to do a lot of cool stuff and I’ve definitely become accustomed to the Australian lifestyle. But it’s not always so laid back. There are challenges. Busy leaders often think their messages must take priority, or should be communicated in their preferred way. Everyone wants a newsletter, or a video, and there’s a lot of ‘noise’.

There are other things we could do better. It can feel like there we’re working in silos – there are separate communications teams for different business areas and we don’t talk enough. There are change projects popping up all over the place, which need resource. The nature of these projects mean almost everyone is a contractor, and things change quickly, so employee turnover is high. There is an obvious hierarchical structure, but it feels like everyone is equal. There’s an induction for new employees each month, and the leadership team turn up, stay all morning, and speak to everyone individually if they can.

Australia has been a wonderful place to live, work and learn. Australians are confident, and that’s definitely rubbed off on me. Presenting used to terrify me, now I could speak in front of anyone. I’ve used new systems and tools, new language (‘under the pump’, anyone?) and built international networks. My experiences have been shaped around the need for communications in large companies, and I’ve been hired because there was a job to do. I’m very lucky to have worked for fantastic teams and have felt very valued, even with a temporary visa.

I was worried I’d put myself back a few steps, but I definitely haven’t. Being able to continue my career in Australia was a gamble but it’s paid off!

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