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Intranets, apps, and proof common objections no longer matter

Brightly lit suspension bridge seen through a hole in a mesh fence.

Intranets, apps, and proof common objections no longer matter

Through spring and summer, organisations have had to tackle new, and lurking, tech and tech adoption challenges. The changes enforced by lockdown proved that some of the common objections to employee technology, whether an intranet, employee app, or collaboration tool, were just not the barriers some assumed. New tools and platforms, perhaps fought for in vain by Internal Comms and HR in the past, are now the exact resolution needed to the challenges of distributed working and employee communications.

I explore these quickly-tackled challenges and quickly-forgotten objections below and I hope that it will help those who still have them. Sam has also shared some thoughts on what a post-pandemic digital workplace could and should look like, which ties in nicely.

Privacy and security

The prospect of having to use personal devices for work-related activities has been long contested by unions, HR departments, and employees themselves. Security was part of that concern, but from the research we’ve conducted for both the SharePoint intranet-in-a-box report and the employee apps report, these tools are as secure as a solid cloud service can be. These products really deliver – GDPR compliance, low bandwidth usage, and even multi-factor authentication to name a few.

Privacy was linked to security of course, as just the idea of having a work-related app, either linked to an intranet or standalone, on a personal device was a concern. The evidence about security and various compliance measures isn’t always enough to reassure people. However, we have moved into a world where ‘is there an app for that?’ has become a common cry. Apps are just more accepted now. Combined with the sudden need to hear from their colleagues, managers, and leaders, employees began to accept the reassurances. Employees now also realise that their company likely had their best interests at heart by suggesting they add an easy-to-use app to their personal device.

Digital literacy and user experience

According to Deloitte, 70% of workers “don’t sit behind a desk all day” and little is spent on them to provide digital tools, which I discussed previously in more detail. The likely low digital literacy levels across businesses with firstline workers is probably due to this lack of funding. User friendly tools are therefore vital for this group.

Many employee apps mimic the experience of consumer orientated social platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, or WhatsApp, and so should be easy to pick up by new users. Sociabble is a good example of a social-first app, Beekeeper is a great messaging tool, and of course Workplace from Facebook is an obvious choice too.

Many employee apps focus on delivering just a few features very well; the purpose and use of the app is clear and obvious. Intranets are generally more complicated, covering all manner of use-cases, but also offer more comprehensive functionality. For medium and larger organisations, it’s likely some kind of intranet was already in place pre-lockdown. So external access processes needed to be double-checked and communicated to everyone, or VPN access had to be rolled-out to more people (neither an easy task of course). Intranet products with a good mobile approach, such as Beezy or Powell, therefore provide an experience that arguably marries the best of both the desktop and mobile worlds.

“We already have O365”

We all know how prevalent Microsoft Office 365 is – barely a day goes by without an advert for MS Teams coming on TV now (but that’s another story)! For crisis comms the Microsoft Office 365 suite can work well. Such tools, most probably MS Teams, will have been adapted and expanded for additional users (seeing as it’s already in place), or available to the organisation. Microsoft claims MS Teams offers useful tools specifically for firstline workers, and we’ll assess the features as part of our employee apps report. However, just because a tool is available, doesn’t mean that it’s the correct tool for your people and your business objectives.

Regular, easy contact with employees

Connection has been a big requirement across businesses as a whole, and there are a couple of crucial elements.

First of all, there’s the need to share practical, detailed information with people. It’s fair to say that intranets can provide solid solutions for this in the form of news stories, reference pages, document libraries, and an expansive search engine. Intranets can easily provide dedicated space for short-term content, a genuinely urgent use-case in recent months. Interact has replicated this sort of approach on their public-facing site. But employee app products can also provide dedicated topic-specific space, as Speakap has demonstrated. Products like Social Chorus or Sparrow can offer a nice blend of both experiences.

The second element is the need for notifications. Alerts and notifications are a channel, or form of communication and are vital when key information needs urgently promoting. Intranets can showcase prominent alerts on the home page, or even across every page, with a permanent or dismissible on-page message. Fresh offers an attractive and detailed alerts feature, on desktop and mobile. Employee apps can go one better, with push notifications that can appear on the phone’s home screen, just like any app. theEMPLOYEEapp is one example among many that can provide broadcast text messages and push notifications.

Some employee app products (such as Blink) even allow people to take time off from tech – a  ‘do not disturb’ setting that holds notifications for when they return to work. This is generally useful for people in those countries where anything construed as work outside of shift hours can cost businesses overtime payments. And of course, most people know how to manage their phone’s notifications, so they’re in control (which may confound communicators who rely on notifications).

The last example I’ll refer to is around accessing the platform in the first place. Easy set up and access is vital, or else people can simply give up in frustration. When working out and about, or from home, seeing assistance can be difficult.

Consider the access methods that Wedge wrote about, where forcing people through a VPN assault course will mean they give up. On-premises intranets tend to get caught up in this access issue, whereas many app products have novel, modern methods sign up methods. Group.io and Staffbase are just two examples of apps that can grant access via AD / HR system, uploaded list, or QR code.

Creating a sense of community

Even when colleagues aren’t together in the same place there’s an important need to create a sense of community — between them and with the company itself. A sense of community can be instilled via company news stories and social posts from individuals that allow (and encourage) commenting. But true communities need their own spaces, outside of the content provided by internal teams, to allow genuine conversation between colleagues, and the sharing of experience and reactions.

Yammer is an obvious suggestion for this sort of content and community, and many intranet products will integrate it, providing the best of both corporate and social worlds. Intranet products such as ThoughtFarmer or Unily have developed their own social tools, such as a nice range of reactions to content, that can go beyond a Yammer feed. Likewise, employee app products, by their very nature, are social media platforms. Products such as Smarp bring company news through from external sites, allowing people to see and discuss company stories more thoroughly than hoping they’ll stumble across a post on LinkedIn.

Different working practices

In the past, moving from paper payslips to electronic has been a traumatic experience for many businesses. With workers worried about how they would get hold of their payment information or supply proof for things such as mortgage applications. During the coronavirus lockdown however, we’ve become more concerned with what we touch, and some printing companies that supply payslips closed down overnight. Paper-based forms are also now viewed as a transmission risk – whereas previously they could be the bedrock of a process that has been in place for years.

Both employee app products and intranets can support electronic versions of these processes in a secure, but user-friendly way. Blink is a good example of an agile app product, implementing payslip integrations for clients at speed where they really needed it. Omnia stands out as allowing businesses to create services and tools as needed and Workgrid draws together tasks from usually disparate systems.

What’s next for those with and without such tools

Offices will reopen, people will still work remotely, and there will still be firstline workers who aren’t sat at computers. These people will need a digital workplace that supports their working practices and, as Sam has said, “the impact on employees is what makes the digital workplace important”.

Some businesses may have hastily implemented a new platform and may now regret any cut corners or compromises, or even found the product doesn’t satisfy real-world requirements. Others, relying only on their current platforms and products, may well have seen the stark reality of their digital workplace’s limitations. I would urge you to think about what’s best for your users, rather than what’s cheap, what you find first on Google, or what you already have. Money is tight in a lot of places, I’m not ignoring that fact, but you need to make the right decision that is based on a number of factors – cost may be just one of those.

We can help you, either through our consultancy services (channel audits, strategy, or product selection to name just a few) or through our product reports. We currently have two: SharePoint intranet in-a-box products, and employee apps. They will help demystify the market, save you weeks of research time, and give you confidence to make the right decision.

Finally, I’d very much like to hear your thoughts – how have you adapted your working practices, comms, and digital workplace? Please do add your comments or connect with me online to talk it through.

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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