You’re using your company’s intranet all wrong

In the era of Slack and Zoom, is there really any place for a company intranet? After all, your employees can chat, plan, and trade emojis well enough in Slack, and Zoom lets them get face time with colleagues — even when working from home. Do you really want to saddle them with yet another platform to manage?

I would argue yes — and that the intranet can actually replace some of your Slack chats and Zoom meetings, rather than operate in addition to them.

Before you jump ship, hear me out: with so many people working remotely these days, leaders run a real risk of burning out their employees with too many forms of communication: messaging, email, virtual conferencing, and so forth. A modern intranet can streamline those functions into one digital space, making it easier to connect and allowing you to recreate the water cooler effect that everyone’s been missing.

[Read: We asked 3 CEOs what tech trends will dominate post-COVID]

But be aware that this kind of solution might not work for everyone. In certain roles at technology companies — retail- and manufacturing-related ones, for instance — employees don’t work exclusively at a desk or in front of a computer. (In fact, some don’t have much computer access at all.)

Admittedly, an intranet might not be as useful in these roles, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have profound effects on companies needing to connect their remote desk workers.

No, the intranet isn’t all for naught

With so much uncertainty about when it will actually be safe to return to the office and how the economy will fare over the next few months, transparency is paramount. You need a means of easily sharing company news, quickly updating protocols, and creating an ongoing dialogue with your team. A well-maintained company intranet is paramount for that kind of top-down communication.

But they often get a bad rap today — and for good reason. Neglected intranets function more like the corporate junk drawer than a dynamic communication tool.

Businesses tend to use their intranets as dumping grounds for content, with no plan for organizing information or making the site user-friendly. It’s no surprise that employees don’t want to navigate a clunky web space when they can easily Slack their teammates or supervisors for information.

The beauty of a company intranet, though, is that when it’s used well, it streamlines communication and gets everyone on the same page at the same time. It also reduces the mental overhead associated with messaging multiple people on various platforms.

More importantly, the intranet is native to your company, while other messaging and collaboration services are not. It’s all well and good to share a file in a quick message, but that’s not an efficient way to exchange documents over time. Having a centralized hub where employees can find all the documents they need reduces confusion and time spent hunting down files from last week’s Slack exchange — if you can even access it.

An intranet also cuts down on the noise that floods workers every day from all of these messaging platforms. (In a given week, for instance, team members could send 200 messages on Slack alone.) It’s hard to find a signal when you’re bombarded with both trivial and essential information all day long.

I’m not arguing against Slack or email or any other platform. They all have their uses. But I think intranets are underutilized, and the COVID-19 crisis is a perfect opportunity to reconsider their role in internal communications.

So who should build the intranet?

One of the biggest challenges in rallying people to a company intranet is making it relevant and persuading them that there’s value to be found there. Contrary to what you might think, those tasks fall on the shoulders of managers — not HR or your communications shop.

When my company polled more than 400 professionals involved in overseeing their companies’ intranets, we discovered that just 4% considered themselves in-house communications leaders. Likewise, a little under half believed their company’s management even understood internal communications.

Lack of executive management is a driving factor in failed intranets. (If the leadership doesn’t use it, how can you expect employees to check it regularly?) But this is good news because it indicates a massive opportunity for improvement. When managers and executives get involved with the intranet, the strategy and quality of content increase — making it a true communications hub.

I see department heads as integral to successful company intranets because they know what’s happening, the types of information their teams want to see, and how their people think. They can strategize around which articles, posts, videos, and virtual events will engage employees in a way that a siloed communications team cannot.

The ability to tap into those soft skills and an understanding of employees’ preferences will be crucial going forward. As the pandemic continues, people are going longer and longer without connecting with their colleagues in meaningful ways. The breakroom chats, the company lunches, and impromptu happy hours — those were opportunities where people bonded and could really feel like they were part of a team.

Without those opportunities, morale will fade, meaning people will also burn out and grow disengaged. Virtual events and messages certainly can’t replace in-person contact. But in the COVID-19 era, we have to make do.

Your company’s intranet offers a unique opportunity to not only create a centralized communication space, but also to reengage people who feel marooned as they work remotely. Though department heads and other leaders should run point on an intranet revamp, you can’t do this alone. You’ll need employees to help you write and update content as well as moderate the site.

Luckily, I’ve found those tasks can reignite people’s sense of purpose and belonging to the company.

How do you get employee buy-in?

At its best, the company intranet can inform, connect, and inspire. But first, people must want to use it. Don’t expect this to happen overnight — it’ll take a while for the intranet to become top of mind.

Start by meeting employees where they are. Share reminders and links to new information that’s been posted on the intranet to get them in the habit of going there to view the latest announcements. You want people to think of this as the company newsroom, so make sure your content is relevant. Include local updates on COVID-19 cases, and share both company news as well as leadership insights on broader issues.

At the same time, you don’t want to overwhelm employees. Remember what I said about noise? The intranet shouldn’t add to it. Publish consistently, but don’t post top-down updates more than a couple of items a day. When all is said and done, your intranet should be well-governed (instead of an “everything hub”). If people feel overloaded with information, they’ll stop checking the site.

Ultimately, you want the intranet to be a resource for employees — a place where they can refresh themselves on the company’s mission and where it’s headed. When you can’t be together in person, you have to find other ways to maintain a cohesive organization. With a little bit of teamwork and practice, your intranet could be the best way to achieve that.

So you’re interested in the future of work? Then join our online event, TNW2020, to hear how successful companies are adapting to a new way of working.

Published September 11, 2020 — 08:24 UTC

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