Intranets: The Rise of the Employee

Shortly after the rise of the internet in the mid ‘90s, companies began using this technology to create early versions of intranets. Recall those early measures of success? Moving paper copies of company directories online, creating central repositories of printer drivers, and replacing hulking binders of benefits details with internal HR pages.

As the internet evolved, intranet owners were pushed to keep up with advancements found in consumer media outlets. Early on, this meant personalized content; the ability to rate, share and comment on stories; and hosting live events and video. Later, this meant a shift from regarding employees as content consumers to supporting them as content creators with the addition of blogs, wikis, and—more recently—more sophisticated team collaboration tools. As communication decentralized, it seemed as if the importance of the intranet had waned.

And then COVID-19 hit.

In an environment where the water cooler (and, for that matter, the rumor mill) have been replaced with Microsoft Teams, Slack, and other tools to foster employee communication and collaboration, the trusted, reliable source of truth might not be as alluring to employees. But communications leaders know that when things go sideways, these same employees crave the rock-solid foundation found in the company intranet. As the age of COVID-19 shifts to a hybrid return to the office, the intranet has come roaring back.

Page Up spoke with three communications leaders who have been preparing their intranets in anticipation of a moment just like the one we’re living through.

Coni Judge, Ph.D.
Senior communications advisor at Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC)

After researching the SARS epidemic of the early 2000s, Dr. Judge knew that people who had social connections, were physically healthy, worried less, and had the least amount of ongoing psychological trauma came out of the experience the most well-adjusted. “So, with COVID, our focus was to create and promote articles that focused on health and wellness. At the same time, we created a living FAQ that was regularly updated and which has been core to providing the most up-to-date information.”

Because information and guidance related to COVID-19 precautions was changing hour-to-hour, Dr. Judge’s team spent a good portion of the day reviewing FAQ entries, editing them, and requesting updates. “Things that were true even days earlier were no longer true when I reviewed the data. And because additional information was also being added continually, we realized it was impossible for our employees to read and stay up to date with all the FAQs. We knew we needed to find a solution.”

The ADNOC communications team asked the IT team to create a bot so people could type in their questions and get answers. “It took time to feed the bot enough information and encourage people to use it, so it gets smarter and smarter and smarter. I still work with the bot nearly every day, coming up with new ways to ask questions and make sure it’s giving current answers.” Dr. Judge believes that there’s no way employees could keep up with the pace of change without such a tool – and that such a tool couldn’t exist without having established the ADNOC intranet as a trusted source.

Samantha Critchell
Vice president, communications, PVH, an American clothing company with nearly 40,000 associates across 40 countries.

Even before COVID, PVH used its intranet to break news about the company. “Because PVH is heavily covered by our industry trade publications, we want to make sure our associates are never surprised when they read something externally or on a social channel. And with so many collaboration tools used in different ways by different teams to share information, employees run the risk of being very insular and residing in silos, especially being remote. We did the work to establish our intranet as a single source of truth, and now employees believe that if you want to know something definitively, the intranet is where you’re going to find it.”

The work PVH put in paid off exponentially when COVID-19 hit. “The response from the retail community is great. They are the hardest to reach, but they are also our front line: information about COVID-19 safety protocols is critical to them, and we’re able to deliver it.”

Elizabeth Owen
Vice president, business performance & workplace communication at Levi Strauss & Co.

Like many communications leaders, Owen found herself comparing Levi Strauss’s employees’ experience inside the firewall to those they found in the wild. “We started asking ourselves how to view the employee experience as it relates to tools and technology, and to try and reframe our approach. Rather than, ‘What do people need to do their jobs?’ we started asking, ‘How can we provide employees a great consumer experience?’” For Levi Strauss, this first meant planning an environment that guided employees to use email, collaboration, and social tools—each designed for a different purpose—together, regardless of the device used to access them.

When COVID-19 sent everyone to their home offices, the planning paid off. “We entered 2020 with a new intranet deployed after working with our leadership to invest more into employee-facing tools. We had a change management plan spanning a year to transition employees to the new platform and tools and to slowly turn on new functionality. Then, when we all went home in March, we had to stand up Teams and a COVID-19 site in 10 days.” Because the intranet and tools had been designed to give employees an exceptional experience, these employees had what they needed to hit the ground running in the midst of a chaotic transition from the office.

The bottom line

Intranets still have an important role to play as part of an overall internal communications plan. AI technologies and bots, collaboration tools, links to social media accounts and other developments continue to bring more functionality to engage and activate employees. News and a single source of truth will continue to be a cornerstone of keeping employees informed, especially as organizations transition to a post-COVID world.