Social Software in the Workplace: The Bottom-line Benefits of Social Media Tactics

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If you’ve been reading the Axero blog for any length of time, you know I’m passionate about employee engagement. I believe it’s the life blood of a successful organization.

There are so many ways to engage employees and I believe companies should build that goal into every area of its operations. It’s something we think about with every new feature we add to our social intranet software, Axero.

When I was writing my book Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, I started to look at what sets America’s favorite employers apart from the rest. But today, I want to take a slightly different approach:

Where else do people engage with each other, and what can we learn from this?

In the age of social networks, it’s worth taking a look at what makes those platforms so “sticky” — and how you can incorporate some of those same principles into your own workplace environment to get (and keep) your people engaged.

In this post, I’m going to cover what I think are some of the best elements of social media platforms, and show you how we’ve used them in our latest release of Axero to help our customers fire up employee participation in corporate culture.

Connection First, Then Engagement

Every organization wants engaged employees. But engagement goes beyond solid job performance or a positive score on the annual workplace survey. Engagement is about feelings.

Good or bad, feelings drive people to care about something. Feelings give them skin in the game. So when it comes to employee engagement, you need your employees to have positive feelings about your organization — about the work they’re doing, and about the company mission.

Real engagement also requires a sense of commitment. And you can’t feel an emotional commitment unless you first feel an emotional connection.

How do you get your employees to feel connected to your company’s values, your company’s mission?

By helping them feel connected to each other.

Now, that might be easier said than done. Water-cooler chat and team building activities have their place, but they can only go so far in developing and maintaining a vibrant a workplace dynamic.

The reality is that more and more of our time at work is spent doing individual tasks, in individual spaces. While a sense of autonomy can be empowering, it’s all too easy to stop feeling like part of a larger collective and start feeling like more of a lone wolf. Maintaining strong ties requires relatively frequent and sustained contact, whatever that form may take.

So how can you foster a feeling of connection among your employees while still creating an environment that encourages autonomy and individual contributions?

It turns out that social networking platforms might have a few answers.

Taking a Page from the Social Media Playbook

The rise of social networks has changed how we view — and how we make — connections with other people.

From Facebook, to Twitter, to LinkedIn, social networking platforms may differ in theme and content, but the underlying premise is the same: You can make and maintain a personal connection with someone without always interacting with them face-to-face.

Just as social networks have helped people stay connected in meaningful ways outside of work, many companies have started to implement internal social media platforms (like Yammer) to encourage employee engagement.

But you don’t have to roll out a whole new social media platform to leverage the benefits of social networks. Your internal software can serve the same purpose, if it has the right intranet features and functionality built into it.

But, you might ask, isn’t it counter-productive to use social media as a model for engaging employees? After all, according to a study from the Pew Research Center, 34% of employees say they use social media to take a break from work.

I’m not suggesting that you roll out some mindless version of Pokémon GO to keep your team entertained. But I do think that we can take a few lessons from what the most popular social media platforms get right, and how they build in elements that satisfy some of the most primal human needs to keep people coming back.

To put this in perspective, I’m going to cover six effective engagement tactics from the social media world and use Axero’s Employee Profile feature as an example for how to put these into action in your own corporate intranet.

8 Surprising Employee Problems You Can Avoid with a Modern Intranet

Tactic #1: Personal Profiles

Question: How can you feel a connection to someone if you don’t know anything about them? Answer: You can’t.

Social media platforms understand this very well. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, they all use personal profiles as a cornerstone of their application. It allows their members to tell an audience who they are. In just a few words, they can convey something unique about themselves — what they do for work, a special interest, or their all-time favorite movie.

Trivial? Maybe. But those kinds of details are specific, and specificity creates emotion.

You can do the same thing with your corporate directory. By including more than just the usual name, title and contact information about each employee, you make them seem more like, well … people.

In the latest Axero release, we’ve added the ability to include a personal bio for each employee in their Employee Profile. So in addition to their work title, contact details and location, they can personalize their profile with as little or as much information as they want.

This is important because the more we know about a person, the greater the chance that we’ll feel a connection with them. And research has shown that a greater amount of self-disclosure correlates to higher levels of trust.

So let’s say you have the name of someone in your company who might be able to provide some insight on a problem you have. This person is outside of your immediate group, and you want to find out a bit more about them before reaching out.

Where’s the first place you look? Probably the org chart or the corporate directory.

The Axero org chart automatically centers the org chart on the person you searched for, and shows a headshot with professional title. It also allows you to jump to the individual’s profile, where you can learn a lot more about them.

The Employee Profile is fully customizable so you can include whatever fields and widgets are right for your organization. It’s an opportunity for each employee to share a warmer side with their colleagues, and it could be the first step in forming or strengthening a connection with a co-worker on a more personal level.

Tactic #2: Activity Streams

We find connections with other people not just through what they tell us about themselves, but also through what they do. When we identify with the actions of other people, we feel an alignment with them.

That’s why activity streams can be so useful. As human beings, we’re innately curious about other people. Activity streams are a way of telling us what someone is up to.

That’s the premise behind the Facebook feed, for example. You get a steady stream of updates about what your friends are thinking, saying or doing. It’s not exactly a conversation, but with every update, you get a little more information about their interests, their mindset and what they care about.

LinkedIn works the same way. You can see who in your network has changed jobs, who has new connections, and what kind of articles they’re reading. All of that information tells us something about them, and helps us determine whether we have more (or less) in common than we realized.

The Axero Employee Profile leverages this principle. Every employee profile incorporates an activity stream that shows all of that employee’s contributions on the intranet — articles they’ve published, public discussions they’re part of, or events they’ve created or are attending. Think of it as a multi-dimensional view of their life in the organization.

Browsing an employee’s activity stream can give you an idea of what parts of company life they’re interested or active in. And seeing what another employee is doing and contributing can motivate others to follow their lead.

Think of it as a twist on the principle of social proof in the workplace.

When you see that a colleague has commented on an intranet article, or has posted a question to HR (and got an answer), you immediately see that other people are participating in your company’s online culture. It’s like adding money to a half-full tip jar instead of an empty one: other people are doing it, so it must be okay.

The cool thing about broadcasting what someone is doing in an activity stream — whether on Facebook or your company intranet — is that it can nudge other people to get active too.

Tactic #3: Communities of Interest

To be effective and energetic, engagement requires community. The sense that there’s someone on the other end, that our efforts aren’t going into a vacuum, is critical to maintaining the emotional momentum. The other important thing about community? It fulfills our fundamental need to belong.

Belonging is elementary to our sense of well-being. In fact, Abraham Maslow placed love and belonging just above our need for physical safety in his Hierarchy of Needs.


(Source: By FireflySixtySeven – Own work using Inkscape, based on Maslow’s paper, A Theory of Human Motivation., CC BY-SA 4.0)

Research by Stanford psychologist Gregory Walton has shown that social belonging is a strong psychological lever that can affect motivation and persistence. When applied correctly, it can actually reduce inequality in achievement and health outcomes.

It makes sense, right? When we feel that we belong, we feel we’re not alone. A desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves is part of what drives us to seek out others with whom we have something in common.

Social networks use this fact to their advantage. Facebook’s Group feature is set up with precisely this in mind: People converge around a shared interest (like cooking or small business ownership), create a private Facebook group and boom! A community is born.

LinkedIn does this with its own Groups feature too. Like-minded professionals on the platform join one or more groups with a focus on some aspect of their profession or industry. LinkedIn members can also see what groups their connections belong to, which can be a powerful incentive to joining those groups themselves.

You can do the same thing with your company intranet. Sure, your employees are already part of the larger organizational community, but providing an online space for co-workers to gather (virtually) around narrower areas of interest can also strengthen engagement with your corporate community.

Which brings us back to the Axero Employee Profile. Just as a LinkedIn user can see which groups a connection belongs to, so too can your employees see which Spaces their co-workers are in. It’s another way of identifying common interests, and fostering a closer sense of connection outside of direct day-to-day interaction.

Tactic #4: Informal Networks

It may seem odd to talk about informal networks inside of a networking platform like an intranet, but bear with me. As much as we want to belong to a larger community not all relationships are created equal (and I mean that in the nicest possible way!).

Although Facebook bills itself as one big social network where anyone can connect, it allows its users to segment their connections into different categories. You can put your friends in lists, tagging them as Close Friends, Family, Acquaintances, and so on. You can also set your privacy settings so that only certain people can see your updates.

Similarly, although LinkedIn is itself one big professional networking site, not every LinkedIn member can see everything about another LinkedIn member, by virtue of belonging to the platform. They have to connect first.

Every company has informal networks. With the rise of cross-functional teams, people with different interests and areas of expertise are coming into contact with one another and forging strong work relationships that last beyond any one project.

This is an opportunity too many companies are letting go to waste. These ad hoc peer groups may well unlock talent and spur collaboration in real-life interaction, but they remain largely unknown to anyone outside the group. What if you could make those “invisible” organic networks more visible to other people in the company?

Axero’s Relationships feature lets employees create more explicit connections with other people in the organization, regardless of their corporate position. Unfortunately, hierarchy can be a source of friction or even a barrier to employee engagement, and one of the best things about these lateral connections is that they take corporate hierarchy right out of the equation.

Seeing that someone is connected to another employee outside of the organizational reporting structure can change the way someone views the company culture — for the better. And these connections-by-choice between employees can foster a greater sense of camaraderie and engagement.

(And yes, Axero’s Employee Profile lets you see who an employee is connected to — and send a connection request if you’re not already connected.)

Tactic #5: Gamification

Let’s face it. Getting people to do something that they don’t really have to do isn’t easy. You need to use carrots, not sticks. And one of the best ways to entice people to do something voluntarily is to make a game out of it.

Gamification is the application of game design elements and principles to activities that are not games. It’s the key driver behind customer loyalty programs (Frequent Flyer points, anyone?) and it can make or break the successful adoption of any new software, app, or process.

Because employee engagement is, by definition, a voluntary activity, gamification has a huge role to play in making it happen.

This is your brain on games

Gamification acts on our reward centers: we get a hit of dopamine, the so-called “feel-good” hormone, every time we experience pleasure (for example, when we get rewarded for something).

We react in much the same way when we get “virtual” rewards — even if it’s just a digital badge, it’s recognition of the effort we’ve put into something. That in turn creates positive associations with the thing we’ve done, and makes us want to keep doing it.

Social media networks have built this principle into their platforms. All those “likes” you get for a Facebook post or a tweet on Twitter? Dopamine rush. And that bump in the progress meter that LinkedIn gives you every time you add information to your profile? Ditto.

You can apply the same principle to get your people more actively engaged on your company intranet. Whether it’s points, badges or leader boards, you can assign a value to every contribution each employee makes, and that ranking follows the employee around on the intranet, wherever their avatar “shows up”.

In Axero, for example, the Employee Profile can include a ranking that relates to their participation on the intranet.

By conferring an informal status on your employees in a light-hearted way, you can encourage your employees to “up their intranet game.” After all, a little friendly competition never hurts!

Tactic #6: Instant Messaging

Many companies still rely on email as the backbone of their communications. Although email certainly has its place, there’s almost always a lag in communication. Email is becoming the new “snail mail.”

Enter instant messaging. Even though the premise behind most social media platforms is “connectedness” — that you’re connecting with people just by virtue of logging on to the service — many still include an internal messaging app.

Facebook has Messenger, Twitter has Direct Messages, and LinkedIn has InMail. And these days, LiveChat boxes are popping up on every other webpage on the internet. Many SaaS applications actually embed a messaging function right in the software itself, to allow their users to connect instantly with customer support teams.

And it’s no wonder. In an age of instant gratification, instant messaging has made communication so much more immediate. And a feeling of immediacy reinforces a feeling of … (wait for it) … connection.

Your intranet should be no different. While some companies use a dedicated app (like Microsoft Teams or Slack) for internal messaging, there’s an overhead cost to having communication channels distributed across multiple applications. With messaging embedded in your intranet software, you give employees another reason to stay there when reaching out to co-workers.

In Axero, for example, a Chat widget in the bottom right corner follows users around no matter what page they’re on. Users can also initiate a chat directly with someone from their Employee Profile, by clicking on the Message button. No need to launch any other apps, and you retain a private history of all your conversations in Communifire.

Internal Social Media Empowers Employees to Find Solutions, Too

When an employee doesn’t know how to find certain information or complete a certain task, they start looking for help. Sometimes that equates to hours per day searching for answers.

Intranet social media features give your employees a meaningful shortcut to solving their daily challenges, and can save them massive amounts of frustration and lost productivity.

When employees are connected through internal social media, they can use their networks to find answers quickly. In Axero, employees can:

  • Look at employee profiles to get an at-a-glance view of what their colleagues’ skillsets are — and ask for help from the right person, right away using direct messaging.
  • Search for people within certain departments or holding certain areas of expertise in the robust Employee Directory. (Admins can add any profile field they want to the search navigation pane on the left.)
  • Search the vast knowledgebase of the intranet for articles and conversations related to the challenge they’re facing.

With internal social media, employees are empowered to find answers — and they engage in their work (and their workplace) in more powerful ways.

Why Re-invent the Wheel?

Though social media apps often get a bad rap for being time-wasters, there’s no question that they’re highly effective at user engagement and retention. They build on elements that trigger powerful human behaviors and needs — people like them for a reason.

And people don’t stop being human when they come to work. The design elements that engage them in their free time are likely to engage them in the workplace too.

Many of the features we’ve incorporated into the latest Axero release embed the most effective elements of the most popular social media apps. They work for a reason — so who are we to argue they don’t belong in the workplace? The ultimate goal is robust employee engagement, no matter how you get there.

If you can weave some of these elements into the tools that your employees use every day (like the company intranet), you’ll see higher levels of engagement. Maintaining a sense of connection between co-workers is critical to keeping them engaged, and committed to your organization’s mission.

8 surprising employee problems you can avoid with a modern intranet

Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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