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How to do employee research on a shoestring

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How to do employee research on a shoestring

Understanding your employees’ current experiences and identifying their needs are vital parts of creating a digital workplace strategy, particularly when it comes to the intranet. Plus, new elements on your intranet, like intranet navigation, a new home page design etc. benefit greatly from employee testing.  

As much as running an all-company survey, hosting a variety of focus groups, or holding interviews with key stakeholders are valuable methods, it’s just not always possible to do those forms of testing. 

However, there are low-cost and low-stress alternative ways to conduct research and even test new things on users: 

Digital communities 

A lot of organisations already have digital communities in place in the form of Viva Engage (formerly Yammer) communities, Teams, Slack, discussion forums, and page comments. These open opportunities for you to explore, depending on how far you want to exploit them or your organisation’s patience for such activities. 

  1. You could set up dedicated research communities (for optional participation), where you pose questions, share work in progress screenshots, and ask people to share their thoughts. You’re reliant on people choosing to take part and the collation of feedback is a manual process, but it could be a highly valuable approach if run well. Beware other departments setting up similar communities though, otherwise employees will get fatigued from dozens of requests from comparable groups. 
  1. You may not need to set up a community from scratch – make use of any that are already associated with the intranet or broader digital workplace. There might be an ‘early adopters’ team for those who receive new tools early in a roll-out, or you may run a ‘publisher community’ for those who are responsible for intranet content. Make use of these to run tests, gather feedback etc. but beware these people have an additional layer of expertise or knowledge that makes them different from average users. 
  1. Alternatively, you can use digital communities in a less structured way to informally gather feedback or test (see below). Asking people questions like “out of interest, did you try searching for that and what search term did you use” in discussion groups, or replying to a comment saying “I’ve just tweaked the line about sick leave, does it make more sense now” will publicly show you’re listening to feedback, plus give you routes to try things. It’ll also show ‘the faces’ behind the intranet, making it feel a friendlier place. 

Physical communities 

Similar to digital communities are physical communities, which might be canteens (although beware encroaching people’s break times), company events, or other places where employees gather. Here are some ideas for you to consider:  

  • Set up a table and make it look informal / inviting – offering incentives to come over and chat could help, like donuts or a competition to win a small prize.  
  • Bring a laptop or tablet so that you can show people what you want their feedback about, or so they can show you something in relation to their comments. 
  • Print out large format versions of two pages you’re testing (e.g. home page approaches A and B) – ask people to vote by dropping tokens into a bowl. 
  • Ask if they’d like to be involved in any follow-up activity and capture their details. 
  • Time how quickly people can navigate to certain content and turn it into a competition, but use the results to test your navigation. 

Attend existing meetings 

You can learn a lot and come up with development ideas just by being an observant guest in meetings. Those where a good representation of your employees are brought together are best, particularly where there’s an element of strategic discussion and / or cascading of information from managers – ‘area meetings’ is a great example. Understanding what’s important to large parts of the business will help you consider tactical improvements, such as sections / pages to develop, navigation tweaks, or who to speak with to write news stories. 

For example, an Area Manager raises the agenda point that annual employee appraisal season is approaching. The meeting attendees complain it’s hard to find the process information, they can’t remember passwords to access the LMS, and they forget they have to make time for the appraisals during their busy schedules in the first place. As a result, you could run a campaign on the intranet with links to relevant systems and to reference content that’s usually buried. You could encourage people to share stories of colleagues going above and beyond throughout the year (or even introduce a ‘recognition’ feature on the intranet), so managers have a place to refer to. 

If you can get a short slot in these meetings then that’s even better, although still try to attend the whole session (for the above reasons) not just your slot. Use it as an opportunity to ask attendees what they do / don’t use, what they like, what they struggle with etc. Try to keep your questions focussed so that people have something to trigger a topic of conversation, but hopefully the topic will expand so you get feedback beyond your topics. Make sure you make it clear all feedback is useful and brace yourself for negative comments – remember that they are invaluable and will help you make real improvements. Lastly, you could ask for volunteers for follow up conversations or to build a group of informal testers.   

Assess employee behaviours 

Employee activities and habits are a good source of data, and these are most easily collated via analytics tools. Most platforms offer some form of analytics, which are usually extendable where needed with Google, PowerBI and other plug-in solutions like Clarity for heatmapping if you’re using SharePoint. Analytics fall into different categories that allow you to develop your intranet accordingly.  

First, you can assess the overall performance of your intranet by using KPIs. The best way to develop KPIs is to ask yourself “what big questions do we need to answer?” Start with your strategic goals and then re-frame them as questions that you’re aiming to answer through available analytics. Alongside platform analytics you could refer to data from IT or HR helpdesks too, not only to see if the volume of contacts has reduced but to see what topics employees are having to ask about. If you’re not achieving your goals you should ask yourself “why”, then tackle platform developments to address the shortfalls. 

Content analytics can give you a good starting point for assessing the success of your news. There are a lot of factors to consider when reviewing news analytics, such as the newsworthiness of the news itself or how well other channels are performing, but the results may help you reorganise your home page or address writing styles. You could even conduct A/B tests with similar audiences to see whether your proposed changes subsequently work well. Adding quick polls or a feedback box onto pages will allow you to gather simple qualitative feedback alongside your numbers, without it feeling onerous for employees. 

Lastly, search analytics is often missing but is highly valuable, particularly when used in conjunction with page hit rates to see what people are regularly finding. Search data gives you clear indications of what people are struggling to find and what matters to them.  You can then make tangible changes that will have a positive impact on the employee experience, as a few examples: 

  • Expanding the number of keywords, tags etc. on pages to make them easier to find (e.g. adding ‘vacation’, ‘leave’, ‘time off’ etc. to a page about planned absence) 
  • Forcing policy or help pages to the top of search results so they’re easier to find (often called promoted results, best bets, or ‘bookmarks’ in SharePoint) 
  • Assessing the age of results and implementing automatic archiving of content to reduce the number of items returned 
  • Introducing governance standards so publication or review dates look more recent 
  • Introducing ‘quick links’ on the home page to important pages  
  • Adjusting the navigation to make vital pages easier to find. 

Show That You’re Listening

Finally, whichever approach you follow and whatever changes you make should be because of the research you’ve conducted. You should share with your colleagues why a change has been made, so that you can show you’ve listened to them. Minor changes may only warrant a quick update to those who participated, while larger changes should be celebrated and shared. Showing that you’re listening is vitally important, but it’ll also encourage more people to feedback in future and give you more opportunities to make beneficial improvements. 

Can ClearBox help? We’ll take you through our expert intranet review service to give you pointers on intranet areas you could improve to meet the employee needs we know every digital workplace has. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a new intranet software, ClearBox can help you select the best fit for your organisation through our Express Strategy Service.

Suzie Robinson

I've always worked with intranets, and have practical experience with all aspects of intranet management, including research, implementation, governance, and strategy. My roots are in internal communication and I focus on employee experience and engagement.

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