UncategorizedA Simplified Framework for Internal Communications in MS 365

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WORDS BY SCOTT MACDONALD, VICTORIA WIEDEL & STACEY PALANGIO
ILLUSTRATION BY JUN KAHNG

The challenge of delivering employee communications effectively.

Internal communicators must deliver the right message to the right people, at the right time. Doing this effectively involves distilling information, packaging it and distributing it through online tools that are best suited to the content, the audience and the action you hope to inspire. The message and purpose of your communications will vary; you may need to relay information to all employees, enable collaboration among teams, deliver tailored messaging to specific groups, or connect with employees in real-time. The technology options can be overwhelming and setting up the right mix of messaging platforms can be time-consuming and costly.

Reaching a wide range of audiences with one platform.

More and more communicators are finding the solutions they need with Microsoft 365. What follows is not an advertisement for the platform. It is our assessment based on those companies who license and use Microsoft 365 effectively for their internal communications activities. It’s a single platform that has a suite of applications designed to help you reach the right people and enable the right outcome, whether it be news, a collaborative forum, or an interactive virtual presentation. The beauty of Microsoft 365’s functionality is that it makes it easy for employees in all areas (and time zones) to collaborate. Plus, because the majority of medium-to-large-size organizations already have licensing for the platform, there are fewer barriers to overcome when it comes to finding budget or approvals. Simply put, it is positioned to be the dominant internal communications platform. Fortunately, embracing what Microsoft 365 offers can result in a better informed, more unified organization where employees feel stronger connections to their colleagues, and the strategies, goals, and priorities of the organization.

“Which of the applications should I use for which job?” is a question frequently asked and, while there is some overlap, they all deliver value in different ways. By understanding what each tool does best, and how it fits within your culture, you can motivate employees to embrace the technology, build new habits, and sustain use over a significant period of time.

The intranet: an essential channel for internal communicators.

With the advent and rapid proliferation of collaborative tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and others, there has been some debate around the intranet’s role in the overall digital workplace. Recognizing that every organization has unique needs, the intranet is still an essential element in the employee communications channel mix.

There has been an explosion of intranet-in-a-box products in recent years, the majority of which boast compelling and user-friendly features that satisfy the needs of employees and communicators alike. As with any software, these platforms have shortcomings and come with their own licensing costs, concerns about the long-term viability of the vendor, and the need to onboard employees to yet another tool.

We are seeing the SharePoint platform evolve in-line with the needs of communicators who are tasked with communicating organizational changes, policy updates etc. These individuals often find themselves as default owners of the intranet. SharePoint is now arguably the most robust platform to meet the varying needs of intranet users. Here’s why:

  • Video content, documents, applications, and other assets can be housed, easily found, and accessed in SharePoint throughout their lifecycle.
  • It easily integrates with collaboration platforms like Teams (to address the needs of focused working groups) and file-sharing services like OneDrive (to allow collaboration for one-to-one or one-to-many).
  • Modern SharePoint makes it easy to build pages and embed functionality.
  • The licensing model makes the platform accessible to all employees without significant additional investment.

SharePoint has grown to be the strongest intranet solution for many companies. Its low-cost, out-of-the-box features, easy-integration, scalability, and overall reliability have won it praise. When used effectively, the intranet can become a foundational resource for leaders and employees alike.

Choose your solution based on the type of information you need to deliver.

News and announcements

For internal communication teams, the need to communicate broadly with timely news and company announcements is continuous. Engagement is a challenge and there are often audience subsets that require more tailored information.

SharePoint provides a fully customizable page for news articles, allowing you to create visually compelling content that goes beyond the typical delivery template for online news.

  • Newsfeeds can be added to Teams, Communications and Hub sites, so they are accessible to different areas of your intranet — giving you the ability to target your content to specific audiences where and when they need it.
  • Newsfeeds can also be aggregated, allowing communication teams to take advantage of distributed content generation models. This allows specific news stories to be featured on the intranet homepage and tagging can be used to specify the news to show.
  • Additionally, newsfeeds can be personalized by automatically leveraging user data available in the Microsoft Graph to display articles from colleagues or areas of the intranet that are followed or visited most frequently.

Senior leadership communications

One of the most consistent drivers of employee engagement is the impact of senior leader communications. Hearing directly from leadership clarifies strategic intent which in turn improves employee engagement. Providing a forum for employees to feed back into the conversation boosts the employee experience and fosters an individual’s sense of belonging and contribution.

Establishing a dedicated Yammer group is one effective and easy-to-manage solution for keeping an active flow of communication between leaders and employees. This allows employees to interact with leaders by posting questions and topics for discussion — essentially creating additional content. Launching a Yammer leadership group is a great way to see the immediate value it can bring to your organization, as engagement rates on Yammer are typically high.

Video is another effective channel for leadership communications. The merits of putting a great communicator in front of a camera are clear, as an immediate sense of connection and sincerity can be felt by the audience. Microsoft Stream provides an excellent platform for secure distribution of internal video, allowing leader channels to be set up. The advantage of Stream is that videos can be embedded into a SharePoint intranet page and made available as a tab in Teams. It also enables video streaming to mobile through the Stream app, allowing for broad distribution within the organization. Caption and transcription features vastly improve accessibility through content searches.

Virtual live events

Creating a real-time live connection with your employees is the most reliable way to deliver in-the-moment messaging and is an effective way to convey complicated information, fostering a sense of unity by bringing people together in a shared forum.

Microsoft 365 offers functionality that delivers these benefits virtually as well. Microsoft Live Events connects you with audiences live within the platform and can be hosted in either Stream, Yammer, or Teams. However, each of these applications suits very different purposes. For example:

  • Live events in Microsoft Stream are perhaps the most simplistic in nature and essentially provide a player interface for live video content. Live captions, transcriptions and content searches allow you to access live content long after the event date.
  • Yammer provides a live video window, like Stream, but also enables simultaneous rich social interaction. It is very well suited to discussion and scenarios where the viewers’ full attention to the video content is not as important as their participation in the conversation.
  • Meetings in Teams allow for a more focused video presentation, while responses to questions from attendees are made available in real-time. This is most useful to explain complicated topics and it allows the audience to interact with the discussion. For this to be managed effectively, a co-presenter is needed to moderate Q&A’s.

In all three cases, the live video stream that appears within the audience interface can be taken from any server address. This opens up the opportunity to achieve high production value, including the switching of video content from live sources to pre-produced video and animated content. Recent advances in both speed and reliability of the underlying Microsoft Live Events platform make it possible to reach large audiences with much less technical risk than in previous years.

Engaging your mobile audience.

For years there has been an increasing need to reach employee audiences and connect them with each other via mobile, a trend that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees need to remain connected for news, announcements, resources and to one another, whether they are on a desktop computer in a corporate office setting, a laptop on their sofa at home, or a mobile device in the back of a car. Many employees work from settings outside of the traditional office environment, spending their days highly mobile as they move about a factory floor, drive across significant geographical distances, or travel from meeting to meeting in an urban environment. These employee groups interact with corporate content in very different ways, presenting a unique challenge for internal communications teams.

From a platform perspective, mobile is by far the most effective channel for reaching these audiences. And while engagement from a communications perspective is never easy, the opportunity to reach these employees where they are, and when they are available, is most effectively done using the device that sits in their pocket. There are the typical challenges around mobile device management, security, and the cost of data, however, the payoff is more than significant.

Microsoft has made important advances in engaging mobile audiences on their platforms.

  • SharePoint online is both secure and responsive in its design, making the intranet available to any employee with any mobile device.
  • Enhancements to the mobile Yammer app offer much more content flexibility and delivers a user-friendly experience that works to drive adoption.
  • Yammer can also be used to foster communities of value within the organization, working well for social connection, if that is part of your strategic intent.

Collaborative software is gaining ground over traditional email communications and both Yammer and SharePoint newsfeeds can now be embedded within the Teams environments where employees increasingly focus their attention. This allows for a more robust user experience with respect to content and collaboration.

But it is important not to create community for community’s sake. Look for opportunities to connect employees where there is a clear value-add, such as thought leadership and subject matter expert communities, collaborative communities, or sharing customer feedback among your team.

Communicating complicated, in-depth messaging

A key factor differentiating internal communications from consumer marketing is the need to deliver complex messaging to employees in different roles across the organization. Transformation and change communications will drive an emotional response, so the messaging from leadership must be crafted with sensitivity.

To ensure complex messaging is both understood and internalized, it must be presented in such a way that the audience has a chance to become involved with the content (i.e. ask questions and articulate concerns). Additionally, leadership needs to play an active role in effectively managing the message and sustaining it over time.

Yammer provides an excellent platform for presenting complex subject matter for discussion. However, there needs to be an active monitor of the community, not only to ensure the conversation remains on track but also to help encourage users to contribute to the discussion.

  • A Yammer discussion can be embedded within a SharePoint page on the intranet allowing for video content, additional resources for download, and other content designed to set context and expectations for the discussion.
  • Yammer can also be presented as a discussion on its own within the Yammer application, by pinning a video to the top of a Yammer thread to set-up and position the conversation to follow.
  • Simple techniques, like ending a post with a question mark or using @mentions can help bring certain people, particularly subject-matter experts, into the conversation. Surveys can also be used throughout a conversation to gauge comprehension or consensus.

By nature, Yammer is an open platform, and the conversation is unmoderated, although controls exist for deletion when required.

One platform with a powerful set of solutions to reach any audience

Microsoft 365 provides an impressive array of solutions that address the wide-ranging needs of communicators with the support of their IT partners. The flexibility and variety of this platform provides a foundation of access, channels, and tactics to not only reach, but engage and inspire employee audiences.