Bessie Kokalis Pescio
Bessie Kokalis Pescio

In the spring of 2020, the internal comms team at Philip Morris International (PMI) faced a triple challenge. We wanted to keep our global workforce engaged, increase their confidence in our ongoing business transformation, and equip them with content to help navigate their new remote working reality. To do this, we turned a simple idea into an impactful internal communications campaign that can be leveraged at any organization—no matter the size, industry or geography.

First, find your inspiration

An avid reader of the New York Times, I remember spending a chilly Sunday morning at the beginning of the pandemic contemplating our rapidly changing world with a cup of coffee and the paper. Like most companies, PMI had just pivoted overnight to a mostly remote work environment. It was clear that my original plan—for the global internal communications team to spend the entirety of 2020 cascading a global transformation narrative to our employees—was not going to work.

Before formulating a plan B, I looked at all the resources that continued to be available to us, pandemic or not. For starters, we have a solid foundation of internal communications programs and processes. We also have an outstanding crisis team that was doing an excellent job of managing all pandemic-related messages.

What I was still looking for was inspiration. I wanted to find a fresh, new way to communicate about other topics important to our workforce. I also wanted to meet our employees’ need to connect. And they needed real-time, practical advice on topics of importance. And then it hit me! The New York Times Daily Health Challenge, through which readers sign up for a daily dose of wellness inspiration, became our model for an entire series of online challenges throughout the company.

Next, turn challenge into opportunity

We began with a 21-day challenge that motivated employees to learn how to communicate with impact. Following this, a second challenge focused on well-being. On both e-challenges, employee engagement was remarkably high and overwhelmingly positive.

On the heels of those pilots, we mainstreamed the campaign. Since then, we’ve tackled such soft-skill topics as resilience, diversity and respect, as well as launching challenges aligned to PMI business priorities including consumer centricity, sustainability and project-based work.

Each challenge provides snackable, actionable tips over a five-, 10- or 21-day period. Along with the daily tips, we also produce an e-book with additional resources to read, listen to, watch, and/or do to learn more. On average, the challenges draw participation from up to 20 percent of our workforce, along with positive reactions and enthusiastic comments.

To create opportunities for employees to share their thoughts, we conduct the challenges on our companywide Yammer channel, allowing employees to continue the conversation long after a challenge officially ends.

Make sure you challenge from the top down

Each challenge is sponsored by a senior leader who introduces it with a videocast Q&A, then engages in informal conversation with employees on Yammer during the entire challenge. The topics are often submitted by the leaders themselves for consideration, and/or they are both knowledgeable and passionate about the particular topic they volunteer to champion. As a result, the leadership team is our communicator network—successfully promoting an empathetic and caring culture while building authentic, direct connections with employees.

Before the pandemic, we hosted town halls where our CEO and senior leaders answered live questions directly. It wasn’t a monologue or address, but an open, comfortable dialogue. Many of our leaders were also known to walk the hallways and engage in watercooler chats, or visit the coffee corner and exchange small talk with employees. Thanks to our challenges, that accessibility continued virtually and more informally. Employees not only report feeling connected and supported by their employer, but they are also able to see their leaders in a very simple, relaxed setting—at home.

Continue to challenge yourself

As organizations become acclimated to an increasingly virtual workplace, one of the biggest obstacles that leaders face will continue to be connecting with their employees in a meaningful way.

Online challenges may not be your cup of tea. The good news is, if you know your organization’s strengths, recognize your audience’s needs, have a well-established communications program and dedicated leaders, you can find your own inspiration to execute simple, low-cost and highly engaging digital initiatives that spark conversation and keep a virtual workforce connected.

Our series ultimately turned the challenge of physical distance into an opportunity to create social closeness among our employees. Engagement metrics demonstrate the challenges’ enormous impact.

We’re averaging about one new challenge every six to eight weeks now. And I don’t expect to slow down anytime soon.


Bessie Kokalis Pescio is global head of internal communications at Philip Morris International.