neon sign that says "Viva"

Social Networking Does Not Equal Employee Engagement

August 15, 2022 Employee Experience
Laurence Lock Lee
By Laurence Lock Lee

One of the big news stories from Microsoft this month is the release of the Teams app “Viva Engage.” Viva Engage essentially replaces the Yammer front end Community app in Teams. It also comes with some new functions around stories and storylines which are resulting in it now being dubbed the "Facebook-like app inside Teams that encourages social networking at work."

Well there already is a Facebook-like app for the enterprise: it's called Workplace from Meta. Workplace has been in the market since 2016. Largely seen as a competitor for the internal communications buyers for Yammer, Workplace essentially brings Facebook-style social networking inside the enterprise. In fact, both products shared the same code base. So is Viva Engage Microsoft’s way of killing off the Workplace competition for good?

Social Networking = Employee Engagement?

At SWOOP we have been fortunate to have ringside seats to the extended Yammer vs. Workplace debate. Our quantitative analysis of both products in use revealed strengths and weaknesses on both sides, but overall, more similarities than differences. Perhaps Viva Engage will dampen some of the areas Workplace outperformed Yammer, but in reality, I think there are bigger fish to fry here.

Equating social networking to employee engagement is arguably a bridge too far. Comprehensive research has successfully built the link between employee engagement and business value. Nearly a decade ago, Gallup standardized a measure for employee engagement prior to conducting its now annual research(pdf) that identified:

“Work units in the top quartile in employee engagement outperformed bottom-quartile units by 10% on customer ratings, 22% in profitability, and 21% in productivity. Work units in the top quartile also saw significantly lower turnover (25% in high-turnover organizations, 65% in low-turnover organizations), shrinkage (28%), and absenteeism (37%) and fewer safety incidents (48%), patient safety incidents (41%), and quality defects (41%).”

Gallup’s standardized measure for employee engagement comprise 12 basic questions, that are worth sharing here:

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Can we realistically see social networking excellence achieving all of the above? A contribution to some areas for sure. But are we setting ourselves up to fail with unrealistic expectations around increased employee engagement?

Related Article: What Happens When Executives Don't Value Employee Experience?

What Is the Value of Social Networking?

If we move beyond the language of employee engagement, we can explore the value social networking has on “work optional” topics. We have seen many examples of staff engaging around topics that have personal meaning, but that aren't directly work-related.

HR Specialist Josh Bersin, writing about Viva Engage, enthuses about the “sense of belonging” Viva Engage might create. Our 2021 Yammer benchmarking revealed several “most engaging posts” on topics as varied as “Me Too,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Climate Change” and more. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw CEOs engaging with staff at all levels online for the first time. Viva Engage storylines could potentially amplify these experiences for a broader base of leaders and others.

Researchers at Microsoft and McKinsey have both noted the deterioration of enterprise social capital in the form of our relationship networks since the onset of the pandemic. Nearly half a century ago, Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter published a landmark article on “The Strength of Weak Ties.” The often quoted examples relate to innovation opportunities through to simply finding a new job. Social capital's value to organizations is well established.

What the onset of large-scale remote working has changed is that for many, relationship building has now moved online. This is something we measure and therefore know a lot about. Beyond simple connections around common interests, enduring work relationships require an intensity of reciprocated interactions. Reciprocation comes naturally in face-to-face social environments. In digital environments, reciprocation needs to be much more intentional, e.g., should I reply to this post or simple offer a “like”? The first option promotes a conversation, the latter effectively ends it.

Our research has shown that when leaders choose to engage rather than broadcast to staff and frontline workers, the network effect of a single engagement can result in a 146% increase in network activity overall. As leaders look to take advantage of the Viva Engage storylines, it will be important to keep the broadcast vs. engage choice in mind.

Related Article: Internal Communications: Chat vs. Email vs. Discussion vs. Meetings 

Connections Are Only the Start

Having a large number of connections is like having a large store of kindling for fire. It needs a spark to energize it and full engagement to produce the result we are looking for. It is the same with social networking. Having a large number of connections is only the start of the journey to fulfillment.

We use the maturity framework below to assess progress with Yammer and Workplace:

benchmarking measures

In this framework social networking is positioned on the path to where explicit business value is achieved through addressing complex, organization-wide problems. A good example would be how large polluting firms might pivot to address climate change challenges? Or even how to achieve productive hybrid working? No doubt, organizations will need to leverage the full capability of their workforces for such challenges. Social networking will play its part, but is insufficient on its own.

As much as this article might appear to place a wet blanket over the Viva Engage announcement, I do subscribe to Simon Terry’s more positive take, that anything that might result in new levels of organizational change and discovery is a good thing.

About the Author

Laurence Lock Lee is the co-founder and chief scientist at Swoop Analytics, a firm specializing in online social networking analytics. He previously held senior positions in research, management and technology consulting at BHP Billiton, Computer Sciences Corporation and Optimice.

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