The journey of the humble intranet – From ‘filing cabinet’ to digital hub for modern hybrid working

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The Intranet

Over the last two years the intranet has evolved from being a document storage facility (a.k.a filing cabinet) to a digital hub supporting employees in their working lives. The rather hurried and enforced switch to remote working in March 2020, and the subsequent flow into hybrid working, has made the transformation of the intranet even more apparent and necessary.

In this eBook, we look at:

  • What an intranet is and the different ways it can be at the heart of your employee experience and your hybrid working model
  • How businesses can ensure that, having chosen to use an intranet to support the creation of a true digital workplace, the deployment is successful
  • Understanding how ready your organisation is to go ahead and deploy your intranet or digital workplace

Organisations have been going through a continual cycle of change, often relating to internal comms, on-boarding employees, thinking about organisational culture, and the ongoing change in technology. So where do you start?


What exactly is an intranet?

There are probably two ways of thinking about intranets. There’s the traditional idea of what an intranet is, and then we have the digital workplace. Typically, there’s a bit of a journey to go on from one to the other.

Even when intranets have been used to create a hub of sorts in more forward-thinking and technologically-adept businesses, intranets can still be quite static and are seen as a tool to use rather than a ‘place to go’ or an environment to work from.


Capital ‘O’ for Office

In the world of modern work, we need more than a static hub. We need something that might be considered the ‘digital twin’ of what was the actual, real-life, in-person Office (yes, with a capital O).

Just like the Office, the digital workplace should be a place for people to go to work, to get stuff done, collaborate/chat, to consume and receive useful information. A dynamic place to be for your employees, a useful place and one that is seamlessly connected to your organisations systems and platforms.

Both those models, traditional static hub and dynamic digital workplace are absolutely valid depending on the context of your business, how you operate and the expectations of what you’ll be delivering to your employees.

Working from home there’s a bit of a social disconnect. The notion of a chat in the kitchen while making tea or just having a sidebar between meetings has gone from the online world.

And we know that what businesses, and more so their employees want now, is the ability to have that chat, to engage, to work together and more, just as if you were sitting next to each other in the office. The idea is that tools, such as Yammer and Teams, will create some social energy, some engagement in the digital workplace, and plain old ’people communicating not just working’.


The power of positive employee experience

With the ongoing challenge of hybrid work, what we previously presented to our employees isn’t up to the job anymore, and it has made us think a bit more about these technologies. Let’s take a look at three versions of employee experience.

Everything, Everywhere

Firstly, there is a group of technologies that we refer to as ‘everything, everywhere’, because that’s how the experience feels. But if you’re the employee with all these technologies, they do not necessarily support each other, or provide any level of integration between them.

Everything, everywhere is a highly flexible way of working. You could introduce a new technology tomorrow for your employee, just because there isn’t really any connection between the platforms and they stand alone.

Now this is a model that perhaps worked much better pre-pandemic because you were able to turn to the person to your left or over the desk or catch somebody in the kitchen and ask a question about what the right platform is to use.

In a remote working situation, you are more isolated and less able to quickly ask a colleague. You are left to yourself to deal with the technology your organisation is giving you


The browser-centric intranet

Next is the role that a browser-centric intranet plays; stepping into the ‘everything, everywhere’ gap and providing the navigation, support and guidance the employees are going to need to find their way around what can be a pretty comprehensive set of technologies.

There might be direct integrations with apps like Teams, and links off to other platforms to bring bits of data to employees from these other systems, but really all you’re providing is a browser-based ‘portal’ experience for employees to navigate their way around your technology.


Your Teams-centric digital workplace

Here’s the third option. What we have started to see is the move towards using Teams and the re-framing of Microsoft Teams’ user interface as a hub for teamwork.

We’re all spending a lot more time using Teams, board meetings, company calls, making our way through our calendars, perhaps; maybe more formal collaborations structured collaborations, time-bound projects. Swapping files and notes and conversations, making up knowledge as part of the pilot project or some other collaboration.

Microsoft introduced the Viva suite last year. Viva aims to bring learning and knowledge management, employee insights, and, of course, the SharePoint intranet, directly into the flow of your work. In addition, the Power Platform, brings the data from those applications into your workflow, and everything sits within the same interface.

With Viva, great content, information, knowledge, search, insights and other application services are just a click away inside the single interface. Clearly, there’re a lot of advantages to this model and this has certainly been evidenced by the increasing enquiries that we’ve had from customers thinking about how they can use their intranet to deliver a truly digital workplace employee experience.


Successfully deploying a modern intranet

At Fresh, our experience has shown that those customers who get their intranet deployment right are the ones that have the right support and guidance from the outset.

We know the common building blocks that are required to deliver not only a successful intranet platform, but a system that’s going to evolve, grow and scale in a way that’s going to be manageable and continue to drive new value inside the organisation.

Introducing the Fresh version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This hierarchy for a Fresh intranet helps visualise the steps we recommend organisations take when deploying a solution. The obvious analogy here is building a house. If your foundations are rocky and you don’t have clearly drawn-up plans, it’s not going to last very long, nor will it be fit for purpose.

In the past, a Fresh team has experienced scenarios where a group of people are tasked with implementing a new intranet and their steps look a little like this:

  • Find a new tool that looks good.
  • Make sure it has a lot of shiny new features.
  • Switch it on.
  • Everyone loves it.
  • We’ve got our new successful intranet!

What is often not properly considered are the features your users will actually use, and the UI they will see. Not taking these into consideration will without doubt cause issues at some point – most likely when you’ve switched on your shiny new intranet, and no one uses it.


Creating a solid intranet foundation

There are two main things you have to do with your new intranet. You have to ‘manage it’ and then you have ‘use it’. And because you can’t have one without the other, we need to consider two scenarios:

  1. You already have an intranet and you have been asked to use it to support a digital workplace (no, they aren’t the same thing!)
  2. You‘ve been asked to implement an intranet or create a digital workplace from scratch (again, they aren’t the same thing – but you can’t have a digital workplace without an intranet).

In the first scenario you are most likely tied to the technology your organisation is using.

In the second you have more leeway, and you probably have an idea as to which platform you’ll use and why. In either case you’ll need a strategy and a roadmap.

For the purposes of this eBook, let’s pretend everyone’s starting from scratch (though the principles discussed could be applied to reviewing or auditing what’s missing from your current intranet). You’ve developed your strategy and have an outline of a plan

You’ve done your research and decided on the technology you are going to use for your new intranet and digital workplace.

Now you need to think about people. Firstly, who are your stakeholders? Then, once you know that, you need to ask:

  • Who owns this new portal?
  • Who is the decision-maker driving the success?
  • What does the intranet owner role entail?
  • How much time does this person or team have to invest in this endeavour?

[Sidebar: From our experience we have found that the very best implementations of an intranet have a full-time person looking after it. Without this, your intranet will not be as successful as it could. For example, if you have someone in your organisation whose job only allows them to focus on your intranet for 50% of their time, then the quality, adoption and chances of success fall by a similar percentage.]

Two more questions:

  • Who is going to provide the content?
  • And who is going to (want to) consume the content being provided?

It simply doesn’t matter how good your intranet is. Without well-organised, useful and easily accessible content, your employees will quickly drift away after the initial hurrah

Your content creators must have the skill and time to create, curate and deliver interesting engaging content. Then there’s the additional questions and of how do they do this? Where do they get the content from? How do we train others to do it? How do we help them manage this?

We then come to another subject that, at Fresh, we’re really passionate about, and it’s quite an abstract (or overlooked) concept for a lot of people. It’s called information architecture.

This is where we think about is what type of information sits where and how our users access it. There are some simple reasons why it would be great to plan this out before you even start to deploy your intranet.

Ease of use, accessibility and adoption

Having a well-thought-out and intuitive structure to your information will make your intranet that much easier to use, both for your end users and your content creators and admins. It also means your content creators will understand what it is they manage, where the different types of information sit, and how to ensure things are put in the right place.

Whether we’re creating or consuming content, we want information to be at our fingertips. We don’t have time to go looking. If end users don’t find the solution straightforward, intuitive and clearly structured, then they just won’t use it. Worse still, they may advertise that fact. That’s clearly not where you want to find yourself after launch

Keeping things ‘Fresh’

Now we know the types of content we want to provide, and how; we need to keep that content engaging, relevant and up to date. Not only do you want a structure, you want a schedule – a content calendar. Your intranet will only stay fresh, and your users engaged, if it’s the go to place for all company information, new content, news and more.

To do this your information architecture cannot be focused on a static sitemap. You have to factor in how you’ll surface your new content and how often, and consider when it becomes ‘old’ content and what you should do with it then.

Location, Location, Location

You may work for a multi-national company, or maybe just a small company with lots of different and specialist teams. Or your business may be structured regionally within the UK.

Whatever your particular scenario, you’ll need to think about the different groups of people (users) that will be accessing your intranet. Is news for one country relevant to another? Does an update for Team A really matter to Team B? A solid information architecture that factors in all of the above is an example of good governance. Set things up not to knock them down but to keep them standing.


Engaging your intranet users

Now we’re coming to the question of how to get users excited about the new tools. That’s what we call business change and adoption.

Think about your users:

  • Who are they?
  • What are the different groups?
  • What are they interested in?
  • What do they care about?

And for our intranet and content owners, how do we know that the content we produce is actually valuable? How do we know who consumes what? What parts of the intranet do they spend time in? And are they actually engaged with it – do they ‘get’ it?

Change management comes in various forms. It’s a mix of the right communication at the right time to the right audiences, as well as tailored training and support.

Leadership comes in many forms too. It’s not just about top-down comms – it’s about leading by example. The impact of leadership driving and supporting change cannot be underestimated.

It’s crucial to ensure you have leadership buy-in for your intranet, that they understand it and really get behind it – and that it stays that way to maintain momentum.


Ta-da! Your foundations are in place

We’re moving from ‘managing it’ to ‘using it’. Now, once we have got all the foundations in place, how do we get people excited about exploring and feeling ‘at home’?

Well, a nice bit of furniture goes a long way, as do gadgets and a sense of comfort. In other words, make it look nice, make it fun and interesting to use – but keep it simple. So, the place looks good. Can they find their way around? Is it easy to get from the kitchen to the living room? OK, enough with the house analogy!

Whatever you put in front of your workforce has to look the part – enough so that they don’t dismiss it out of hand. They have to be able to get to the things that matter to them without any fuss and free of friction.

If you roll your eyes every time you know you have to dig around your organisation’s digital workplace to find something, then you’re not going to want to do that very often, are you? Neither are your users.


How ready is your organisation to deploy its intranet or digital workplace?

Understanding where you are on your intranet and digital workplace journey means asking lots of questions about your organisation, your strategy and your current position.

One of the first things our clients ask at the very beginning of their journey is what will they need to make their intranet a success. For example:

  • What tech?
  • Which people?
  • What resources?
  • What else?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. There’s no one team size or profile needed to successfully deploy and maintain an intranet; there’s no single approach or methodology, nor one set of criteria.

There’s a spectrum of answers we could give to these questions. It really does depend on what you need, what you want, how much time you have, and how many people are involved or available.


Are your aspirations basic or complex?

Take the following example below – this is a basic outline for how an intranet platform might be used.

  • Basic
  • Management/Governance
  • User Feedback
  • Managing stakeholders
  • and content creators
  • Creative

It’s a fairly simple use case and it’s likely that the burden of the platform will fall on one person’s shoulders, or that the actions supporting the platform – such as content creation and curation or tech support – will be folded into people’s existing responsibilities.

At the other end of the complexity scale, you could have an all-encompassing digital workplace that might extend into the office, devices and room management or online meetings. This may require a dedicated team in place, which is likely to be in the region of three to ten people.

It will scale, depending on the size of organisation. For organisations with maybe 1,000 people, the team’s going to be at the smaller end of the scale; for 100,000 people, across multiple office locations, there’s likely to be more people needed.

You may need a virtual team as well, extending out into the organisation. This may include digital champions that are going to be able to provide the organisational context, and help you overcome the problem of distributed groups and functions across the business.

Employee engagement and change management are key

Whatever your choice, basic or complex, you are going to need people that can manage and govern this platform, and make sure the experience your employees have is engaging and exciting, with the right content accessible in the right places.

There may also be some more advanced responsibilities, such as analysing usage, acting on those insights, and scheduling content. A trend that we’ve seen become quite popular at organisations using Microsoft 365 is the role of product owner. This is somebody tasked with ensuring that all of these components of technology are coming together to create a cohesive employee experience.

The team is going to need a great leader, driving from the top down. The most successful customer implementations we’ve seen, where usage is high and the platform is rich with content, have a very strong employee-orientated intranet manager


Starting your digital workplace conversation

Now we’re going to look at how we turn this into something useful to help you on your journey to a successful and effective intranet or digital workplace

A series of conversations or workshops with your key stakeholders is a great place to start. Our hierarchy of intranet needs gives you a good visual representation of the building blocks that an organisation like yours is going to need to consider in these conversations.

At the beginning of an engagement with a client, we tend to facilitate discussions on some of these topics.

We have found that a really useful way to do this, is to go through this hierarchy of needs as an exercise. This might be in a single workshop or over a period of time.

What we’re aiming to deliver with this exercise is an assessment of where your organisation is currently at and where you need to get to:

  • What do you want to launch with?
  • What does Day 1 look like in your new platform?
  • What does the future look like?

In these discussions, with you and your stakeholders around the table, we’ll ask you to consider these topics and set a score, between one and five, for your level of readiness in each.

A good example of this could be the Microsoft 365 platform. A score of one here could mean that Microsoft 365 licenses are available to most or some employees. A score of five could indicate that Microsoft 365 is a fundamental part of the organisational strategy, and that the services are being actively used by all employees.

This process helps organisations understand where they are today, what they want to launch with and what the scenario is going to look like tomorrow. It’s then much simpler to see the work that your organisation is going to do over a period of time to get to where you need to be, and to come back to these descriptions over time to track your progress.

Let the Fresh team help you begin your intranet journey

In this eBook we have aimed to cover some important fundamentals and considerations for your intranet/digital workspace journey – even if you have already started it – and how we can help you with actionable recommendations.

If you’d like us to help you kick-start your digital workplace strategy, you can sign up to a personal workshop to identify your organisation’s current state and plan the path you’ll take to deploy a successful intranet.