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Employee Communications Management Platforms May Be Coming, But They're Not What We Need

April 19, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Sharon O'Dea
By Sharon O'Dea

The employee communications market is heating up. In recent months Appspace acquired digital workplace platform Beezy, then employee app Staffbase bagged $115 million investment and became a unicorn in the process.

This has led some analysts to suggest the employee experience market is consolidating to offer a more unified ‘employee communication management’ category, enabling content to be published once and displayed across multiple channels. Bringing intranet, staff app, display, email into a single workflow offers the prospect of increased efficiency for communications pros.

"The time has come for tech firms to think differently," argued Jeff Corbin in a recent Reworked post. "It's time to focus on the people using the tools, the people who are responsible for getting information to, communicating with and engaging with their employees."

Corbin could be right about the market. As the budget holders, comms and HR may well see the appeal of tools that make their own jobs easier.

But as someone who's worked in the digital workplace field for over 15 years, I firmly believe this is the wrong direction to take.

Sometimes a Little Friction in Communications Is a Good Thing  

While communication efficiencies are welcome, our focus as communications professionals has to be on improving communication outputs and outcomes for the organizations we work for.

I spend much of my time working with organizations to understand why their digital communications are ineffective. Too often, I find the root cause is a failure to prioritize the needs of users: to understand how they work, what motivates them and to make communications work for how people work.

Employee communications platforms are frequently marketed on the basis of improved ease of publication, rather than on improved delivery and impact of the communications themselves.

Platforms are selected by checking off a list of functionality required by communicators, rather than the experience it provides for employees — and ultimately affects the former's ability to deliver real communications outcomes. 

There’s an efficiency argument against this. While a tool may save communicators a little time here and there, if you fail to enforce robust content and design standards you’re forcing thousands of employees to waste a few minutes each day trying to find and understand content in the flood of constant updates.

For example, UK charity Barnardo’s found employees and volunteers were pressed for time and experienced too many barriers trying to access communications. So it took the radical approach of putting its intranet on the web, removing all friction so that people working in any location on any device could get the information they need, fast.

Critically, it also introduced tight content governance and standards, reducing the number of pages from thousands to just 250. Each page on the site had a clear purpose, and was written and designed to make it as easy to read and understand as possible.

The logic is that introducing more friction for communications producers pays dividends by removing it for the much larger number of content consumers. Friction is not necessarily a bad thing if it’s used to drive up quality and experience.

We have to value employees’ time. We shouldn’t value the time of a communicator more highly than the people actually out there delivering services, talking to customers or leading our organizations. Do the hard work for audiences, so they don’t have to.

HR tech frequently falls into this trap: self-service systems that reduce the burden on HR teams which have the effect of forcing a much larger number of employees to spend more time searching for answers.

Related Article: HR's Role in Renewing Digital Transformation

The Toll of Fractured Employee Experiences 

With HR, IT and Comms each buying platforms to meet their own needs, employees are presented with a messy patchwork of design, UX and overlapping functionality. This kind of fractured digital employee experience decreases productivity and engagement. Each maddening form, frustratingly slow system, out of date page or hard-to-locate tool chips away at employees’ patience.

In hybrid and remote-first environments the impact is especially acute, because employees are more reliant on digital tools for support, work management and collaboration. Digital is the employee experience. It’s the primary — sometimes only — way through which people experience their employer brand.

The user experience you provide says something about who you are. Leadership messaging about how much you value your employees is immediately undermined if the experience of accessing and reading that message says the opposite.

It’s essential we break our own silos and instead consider the end-to-end employee experience.

Related Article: The Problem With Employee Experience Today

Putting Comms in the Flow of Work

As communicators, we’re asking for people’s time and attention. It’s a value exchange that demands something in return. We can earn that attention by removing pain points, and by making our channels work for the context people work in. That means having a deep understanding of when, where and why people are accessing your channels — from the time they have available to the device they’re accessing on — and adapting channels and content appropriately.

The truth is that internal communications is rarely compelling stuff. If we want people to read it and — critically — to act on it, we need to make it as easy to access, read and understand as possible.

People don’t actively visit the intranet to read the latest work news. The aim of the game is to catch their attention while they’re opening their browser to do something they actually care about, such that they click through and read.  

As communicators, we can better achieve our aims by streamlining and elevating the employee experience, providing a unified layer through which myriad other applications can be accessed and used.

Recognizing that comms gets its greatest cut-through when it’s right in the flow of work, Microsoft last year launched Viva, with the aim of doing exactly that. It brings communications, content and applications right into where work is being done — in Teams.

For communications to get real traction we need to fish where the fish are. That means understanding how people get work done and delivering communications as an integral part of that, rather than as an add-on. And critically, understanding that without better content and governance, even the best tool will only get you so far.

Related Article: Let's Not Go Back to 'Normal'

Effective Communications > Efficient Communications 

We communicate in order to drive change and build engagement. So while the promise of efficiency may be tempting, it’s a mistake to prioritize it over effectiveness.

Consolidation in the market could help — if we focus on end users rather than ourselves. If we focus on delivering a high quality, coherent, user-centric employee experience, helping employees themselves to be more effective, we’ll make communications work harder for people, and in turn make our communications more effective. 

About the Author

Sharon O’Dea is an experienced digital strategist advising complex organizations on communication, collaboration and digital workplace technologies. Organizations Sharon has collaborated with include Credit Suisse, Allen & Overy, Standard Chartered Bank, Shell, Barnardo’s, the Houses of Parliament, UK Research and Innovation and the Department for International Trade.

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