At the start of May, amid the chaos of coronavirus, staff at NatWest were offered a new way to access healthcare advice. The company rolled out a virtual GP service, enabling employees to get essential diagnosis without having to visit a surgery.
The service is part of a new hub that also includes a toolkit to deal with the emotional stress of lockdown, advice on managing teams during COVID-19 and even a Zoom-powered storytelling service for children. And it’s all hosted on the NatWest intranet portal.
This is just one example of how companies are rebuilding their employee experience around the intranet. A whole stack of multinationals, from Lenovo to Thomson Reuters, have created resource centres for all their COVID-related advice. Some are also issuing instructions to staff: Delta Airlines, in a much-criticsed move, used its intranet to tell sick flight attendants not to post on social media.
The intranet was always intended to be the fulcrum of the digital workplace. As far back as 1996, Intranet Genie was promising to provide a single source of information for every employee. But for too long it’s been little more than a bulletin board, home to corporate bragging and not much else. While nine out of ten companies of more than 200 employees have an intranet, usage rates have always been low.
Finally, however, the intranet is doing what it was supposed to do all along. Sam Marshall, a digital workplace consultant and commentator, says: “Early intranets took the company print magazine and digitised it; like a lot of early websites took newspapers and just did the same thing digitally.
“Now they recognise it can be much more transactional and interactive. Today it’s still about news, a reference point for all the nuggets of information. But it’s also the place to go for employee services.
“Most employees will have their day-to-day tools, like computer-aided design if you’re an engineer for example, but for anything else – claiming expenses, booking travel, booking meeting rooms – where do you go? Today’s intranet is your starting point.”
What does the modern intranet look like?
The modern intranet is best understood as a confederation of satellites, providing a gateway to apps such as Yammer and Slack as well as chatbots, which have been proven to boost adoption rate. Some commentators suggest Microsoft Teams, which now boasts 75 million users, is an alternative to the intranet, but that’s not the case. As one provider says: “The intranet is part of what we’re doing.”
Sharepoint, also published by Microsoft, has provided a universal platform for intranet development, much like WordPress for websites. Companies such as Attollo, Jostle and Unily can now build out-of-the-box intranet packages at breakneck speed; the average creation time has fallen from 6.2 years in 2011 to 1.2 years in 2018.
Take-up remains patchy. Digital workplace consultancy Prescient says only 13 per cent of employees are using their intranet on a daily basis. However, there is a growing body of evidence to show the benefits a well-designed intranet can provide.
Just take US insurer Liberty Mutual, which says its award-winning “intelligent employee experience platform” has speeded up the information-seeking process by 70 per cent and delivered millions in savings. Or Sodexo, which claims its intranet-based sales incentives have delivered a 100 per cent increase in leads. Or IBM, which says it has achieved e-learning benefits worth $284 million.
Building a new employee engagement platform
Now the intranet’s champions believe it can provide the perfect employee engagement platform for the post-COVID-19 world. They believe it can create a new, democratic ecosystem and help the distributed workforce avoid isolation, which is cited by remote workers as their single biggest challenge.
Matt Roszell, a consultant who has worked with Yahoo, Workday and others, says: “Companies are grappling with how to recreate the office and its culture in a virtual environment. They need a place for people to connect, communicate, vent and share. Just like they would normally do.
“The modern intranet helps to fill this gap. It can serve as a virtual water cooler, enabling employees to feel more connected by allowing them to take part in a company’s culture and dialogue, and providing two-way, transparent communications features like social networking and news.”
What’s more, today’s intranet is optimised for mobile. This breakthrough has only been made in the last five years, but it allows today’s companies to reach their entire workforce in a way that suits them.
Intranets must be easy to use and easy to change
A shining example of this point is provided by Flight Centre Travel Group, which has rebuilt its intranet for a roster of 2,000 people. The new site, named PILOT, was built by Unily and was named among the world’s 10 best intranets in the Nielsen Norman design awards last year.
According to internal communications lead Tessa Buckman, the site is intended to be accessed from all locations; although the majority of interaction takes place on desktop computers, a mobile-friendly design means area leaders can also connect while on the road. The new intranet is also linked to Facebook’s Workplace platform, which sends notifications via push alerts.
Buckman says the key goals are simplicity and personalisation. “[Our colleagues’] expectations should match any other external website that they use”, she tells us. Rather than hard-coding the new platform, the design team have created a lattice of widgets, which can be continuously moved around; this gives Buckman and her team the freedom to continuously redesign the pages, based on their analysis of colleagues’ content consumption. Anything that colleagues can find on Google, such as baggage allowance information, is explicitly omitted.
Two years on from deployment, Buckman says “the results are night and day.” The intranet has gone from an organisational painpoint, barely used by anybody, to a central pillar of Flight Centre’s organisation. What’s more, projects like Flight Centre’s are lighting a path forward, laying the groundwork for an intranet which understands the way people want to consume information.
Bringing the promise of better communication
Of course, for every Flight Centre, there are countless companies yet to catch up.
Marshall says many employees still feel overwhelmed with communications telling them how wonderful everything is, and that intranet search functions are often vague and inefficient. However, the direction of travel is certainly promising.
Even after COVID-19, remote working will endure; according to research from Gartner, 74 per cent of chief financial officers plan to move some employees out of the office permanently. The corporate world needs a fresh nucleus, which allows people to build communities and exchange information in a modern, collegiate environment. The intranet’s time may finally have come.
How technology can improve mental health working from home
Although the new remote-working age offers numerous benefits, it can also pose significant mental health risks. Buffer’s latest State of Remote Work report, based on 3,500 interviewees, shows loneliness, burnout and demotivation are all everyday problems for asynchronous workers.
The intranet, and its constituent technologies, can play a key role in preserving employee wellbeing. Toby Ward, chair of the Digital Workplace & Intranet Global Forum, says: “For some who struggle with mental health, the intranet may in fact be a beacon of connection with other employees, and therefore a means of overcoming any feeling of isolation or struggle.”
However, if technology is going to provide this wellbeing function, it must be accompanied by an enlightened policy at corporate level. Many companies are already making strides, but none is more progressive than online bank Monzo, which already has a high proportion of remote workers and has developed a holistic strategy to ensure connected wellbeing.
Video conferencing is a key part of this strategy – all calendar invites have video-conference links attached – as is a dedicated mental health channel on the Monzo Slack group, where people can discuss their feelings and receive peer support. The company says this is not a replacement for professional help, more a safe space where people can speak freely.
From the Slack group, Monzo staff can reach out to mental health first-aiders on Google Hangouts and access digital wellbeing aides such as Headspace and Thrive.
Live windows are available for staff to drop in for a chat, backed up by online quizzes, board games and bingo. There is even a lunchtime “dog hour”, when team members bring their pets to a hangout for an added feel-good factor.
Monzo says the policies are already bearing fruit and it has been able to maintain business as usual during the current turbulence. In fact, in some ways it has brought a big company even closer together.