Internal communicators are beginning to integrate mobile and apps into employee engagement programmes, changing their corporate cultures in the process. Emily Andrews reports
There’s no doubt about it, technology is changing communications. A recent study by Ofcom showed that 66% of UK residents use smartphones. Mobile devices are now the primary way that people access the internet, opening doorways for more personalised communications. There is opportunity there, what is harder to pin down is how to make the most of this new channel.
The world of internal communications has fallen somewhat behind in the optimisation of mobile devices. Nick Throp, co-founder and director of like minds, says, “I’ve seen this happen before where things that marketers are doing don’t migrate into the internal world for three to five years. Partly it’s a confidence thing and partly it’s to do with budgets for HR not being as big as they are for the marketing world.”
The internal communications industry appears to have reached a turning point. Many are beginning to show an interest in utilising mobile devices through the use of internal applications, but there’s still a degree of trepidation when navigating this relatively unexplored area.
Jeff Corbin, founder and CEO of theEMPLOYEEapp, says that corporate communicators need to own this new tool, “Our solution was developed so that an IT background wouldn’t be required. That’s not to say that IT won’t eventually get involved, but I, as an internal communications professional, know what my challenge is and I know that there’s a solution out there, and it’s up to me to walk into IT and say, ‘I found a solution that we can get done quickly and inexpensively.’”
Corbin argues that the communicator needs the confidence to push its digital strategy forward, and that may include the adoption of apps. Ultimately, integrating an app into an employee communications programme shouldn’t be an added complication, it should be a simplification, or the solution to a problem.
Simon Hathaway, president and global head of retail experience at Cheil, says, “The point is that you have to find real value for that application. What is the value of that application and what does it improve in my existing life. Instead of adding another level of requirement through technology, what does it remove or make simpler.”
In the case of ASRC Energy Services, a service provider to the oil and gas industry, an app was the answer to the problems associated with having employees stationed in remote locations.
Sheila Schooner, communications manager for ASRC Energy Services, says, “Reaching employees and keeping them engaged has always been an issue until now. Having an app was the perfect solution for us. We can reach anyone, anywhere, at any time and when it’s most convenient for our employees.”
ASRC Energy Services uses the app to share information with its employees and to educate them about the oil and gas industry and the role of the company and its employees within it. In this way, the app solves a communications issue particular to the oil and gas sector.
In a different example of the way an internal app can be used; Carphone Warehouse and Dallaglio Foundation’s Rugby for Change programme recently created an internal app that would encourage Carphone employees to be more involved in team sports, thus debunking the myth that technology encourages a sedentary lifestyle. The app had a CSR purpose, promoting the charity and encouraging fundraising with all the benefits to internal communications that that brings.
Kesah Trowell, communications specialist at Carphone Warehouse, explains the role of company culture, “Obviously Carphone Warehouse’s company culture is naturally app friendly – we do sell smartphones and tablets after all! Like any channel you need to match the method to your audience and apps are great because there are so many different ways to use them.”
Communications professionals are decidedly split on the role of company culture, with some saying it is crucial and others saying it shouldn’t matter as apps can benefit everyone. While certain companies, such as Carphone Warehouse, are more likely to use apps at the moment, there is such a broad window of opportunity available in this area that it would be foolish for more traditional businesses to rule out the option.
Schooner says, “I don’t think it’s a question of company culture. You don’t have to be the technically-savvy, cutting-edge type of business to have an app. Certainly, I think all businesses could benefit from it in some way. Just don’t be limited in your approach. Be creative. Always look for new content to add. Think beyond the obvious and ask for feedback from the users. Employees want and value different things, so it’s important to recognise that and try to cater to those needs the best you can.”
However, there are some situations where an app just wouldn’t be appropriate. Suzanne Peck, managing director for Sequel Group and president of the IoIC, stresses the importance of delivering an engagement programme targeted to meet the needs of your own employees. She says, “We work with companies where their employees work in hospitals or production lines, and are not allowed mobile phones during work hours, so we look to more traditional comms such as print magazines. In other cases apps are a brilliant solution, for example as a way of communicating with senior executives – an audience that is likely to have smartphones and be constantly travelling.”
Traditional forms of internal communications are not redundant. There is a place for email and intranet, but, as ever, it’s about finding the right tool for the right audience. It all depends on the direction that technology will continue to take in the coming years.
Corbin points out, “Assuming you agree that the PC as we know it today is going to change to a mobile device, then existing legacy systems are also going to have to change because the operating systems are different.”
He suggests that this will spell the end of traditional intranets. Email, on the other hand, is not likely to die out any time soon, but there are certainly disadvantages of emailing, such as missed information in a busy inbox, that could be solved through the instant notifications delivered by some applications.
Linda Wakeham, international director of marketing and PR at mag+, says that with apps, “It is a technological and cultural shift. It’s like when we moved from mass transit via railroads to the automobiles. Mobile apps are more personal and more easily switched out, just like a car. They are lighter and more fun, but that doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy a train ride or that, for big jobs, a train ride isn’t appropriate. You may determine that a certain piece of material does better in print. We don’t mean that print is obsolete in corporate communications, but there are huge advantages in creativity, visual appeal and the ability to interact with your employees where they live, which is on their mobile devices.”
The benefit of apps is that they are easily accessible. If the majority of a company’s staff communicate via their mobile devices outside of work then it makes sense to continue that into the workplace and to relay information to them through the device that they have on them at all times.
Mike Amato, president and CEO of Cimarron, says that companies should encourage, “Communications that mirror how we connect when we’re not at work. The current generations of employees don’t want to ‘dummy down’ technologically when they come to work.”
Amato suggests that this is a generational phenomenon, a sentiment echoed by many professionals. But this attitude could be standing in the way of digital development. Cheil is developing beacon technology that could allow employees to sign in and out of work automatically as they walk in and out of the workplace. The app needn’t even be open. This kind of technology requires little from staff members, yet it provides a simple improvement to daily routine.
Neil Cooper, head of digital and sustainability at Gather, describes traditional employee comms programmes as top down, while apps enable the two-way conversation that allows feedback to flow thus making employers feel more engaged. A well-chosen app can not only simplify internal communications, it can build stronger engagement between employees and their brand.
Rachel Miller, director of All Things IC, adds, “There is a place for old and new channels inside organisations, it’s crucial you identify what you want to achieve first, then make your channel choice. Apps aren’t a magic way to fix poor communication and eradicate issues, but with a clear strategy and a purpose, they certainly can play an important role to enhance or even replace traditional methods. Know the market, make smart choices and involve employees to ensure you make the right decision for your organisation.”
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