Sunday, 22 March 2015

'Connected' - when employees at Balfour Beatty go mobile

Balfour Beatty’s UK construction division works hard to make sure messages reach out across the company communications. With around 900 sites all across the UK - which can vary from large city centre projects to small and remote sites - the need to interact effectively with staff in the field is very high on the agenda. Yet, it is extremely challenging too.

"We can struggle to get communications out in the field; some people just don’t get time or connections to access emails regularly, some of our people may work in joint ventures so access is that bit more complicated, and some don’t have email accounts," says Head of Internal Communications Richard Howat (pictured right).

The same applies to delivering critical business information and processes. "And while we work closely with HR and IT, there can be a lag while we get to understand who’s started and who’s left the business across all of our operations and strategic business units."

For the communications team, this can mean spending valuable time just to make sure that the email data is right and up to date, and that people’s details are segmented correctly to allow them to be part of communities of practice.

Then it all changed. In January, for the first time ever the team (Laurence Ager; Gemma Castle; Sharon Lascelles and Katie Willison) started experimenting with Balfour Beatty Connected, a mobile news and safety news app provided by TheAppBuilder. Reflecting back to the last three months he has no doubt that the new channel is another very valuable tool to engage with hard-to-reach employees.

The soft launch

Connected was introduced through a 'soft launch'. "We deliberately wanted to test it with the people who had told us they had problems accessing news and company information through other channels."

Howat's team went out from the beginning of the year to those large projects. They shared their pilot app exclusively to test their thinking and gauge people's reactions. "We wanted them to think and feel that they been listened to, and that Connected could be another way to close that information gap."

Publishing news and beyond

The main aim of the app is initially to deliver news; and the news functionality also workes well to share safety updates. "We have people we work with regularly as part of our team on site – the supply chain for example – and the app is a useful way of also involving them in what we’re doing, if they choose to access it. We don’t need to know their details, or personal information – it’s an open and inclusive and very immediate platform.
“It’s early days, but establishing that kind of relationship could have dividends in extending what we do to include, for example, key processes or information they need to know and access easily to work with us."

And, all of this is managed in a controlled and engaging environment managed by the Communications team, and accessed through personal smart devices though a generic log-in.

Two-way communication

"Clearly there’s a lot of potential with social communications to build genuine dialogue. We’re starting with including the simple feedback option that TheAppBuilder provides within the app. We’ve already had people using it, and we’ve adapted because of what they’re telling us – even if it’s a just gentle nudge to update an item they want!”

The power of having apps that people are familiar with, on devices they are familiar with, offers further potential. “It’s entirely possible we could extend what we’re doing to offer teams the ability to gather feedback from people through the app, offering quicker ways to understand what people want to raise or have questions about. There’s certainly food for thought when it comes to offering a fast and compelling alternative to some traditionally paper-based processes – perhaps in sharing good practice in safety on site for example – and if down the line it offers efficiency savings and wins us time in how we process that information that’s all to the good.”

Between internal and operational communications

Howat believes that to do his job effectively it is important to have a stake in the needs and goals of the business. "As a communicator I need to be aware of what happens in the different areas the company operates. More than that, I need to understand their key drivers and have options for what I can do to help them achieve their goals."

So, two key pieces of advice he gives to other communicators is to "understand operations" and "be a trusted, but challenging business partner."

What do employees read?

Having clear metrics on how staff relate to the mobile app is a big help for the team. For example, from the Google analytics they know that typically people spend 8 minutes on content, and that videos are very popular.
"It is just so convenient for workers in the field to watch a short video and get a message straight away, perhaps to support a huddle or daily brief, without issues around formats, firewalls and filesizes. We were also quite surprised at how people appreciated having a selection of posters to download – although we then had to think about how to let them print where they had no wireless printers!"

As expected, safety information is also highly 'touched'. "It’s that balance we can give by selecting what we publish on the app: having it to hand, but not having so much choice it becomes irritating or loses immediacy. We are like the local convenience store of internal comms, not the hypermarket of the intranet."

Ultimately, this data is very helpful. "Because we are in a fairly early stage, we are a small team and this is one of many channels, we also need to be realistic on what we can deliver. And, certainly we need to understand what is really useful to peopleand what we can offer that’s unique."

Social media

Another big difference that Connected has made relates to social media. “We were active as a company on social media, but that is mainly externally as a marketing and as a recruitment/ advocacy activity."

Now with the app it is so much easier to think about integration. "The interactive and multimedia elements are just a swipe or a tap away from broadcast material, and again, the mobile platform takes care of delivering high quality media and a more immersive experience without hassle. We know we can recruit people effectively through social media such as LinkedIn; we shouldn’t expect that to end when they walk through the door!”

Distribution - the benefit of the App Store

Perhaps a year from now it will be easier to understand how to safely distribute an enterprise app. But for the moment all communicators are wrestling with the question of whether their organisation should use an enterprise app store or the Apple and Google apps stores.

Howat likes the fact that Connected can be downloaded through the app stores. "We are already used to it in our personal lives. It’s on an icon on the home screen. We are familiar with installing an app that way; and we can easily point people to where it is. If you’ve ever tried to describe verbally an intranet breadcrumb trail you’ll appreciate the benefits! In fact, people come to us and say they’ve seen it and how do they get access? And, it is just professional and easy as it should be."

He has a point. People's expectations around the quality of work communications are the same as the ones they have externally.

Even Jonny Kirk from TheAppBuilder comments "Apple and Google have invested millions in making their App Stores work so it’s a no-brainer to piggyback on that investment.”

Also, Howat appreciates that the App Store makes all the updates easier to track. This means that "as a communicator you don't need to worry about technical issues, updates, formats etc –all the process stuff. We can just focus all our attention on doing communications on a platform that looks good and works well."

Keep experimenting

To other organisations that would like to go mobile Howat suggests being brave and experimenting.

"Have a go with it. Allow yourself to test and understand how you are going to manage it. Initially, select a group of people who can see immediately the benefits. Be open on what doesn’t work, share positive outcomes and feedback that actually prove that the mobile app can be a compelling platform for the organisation. Then, ensure you quickly build on that. Typically when we show people within about five minutes they’re thinking how they could use it for themselves!"

Given the good results so far, he is now ready to make Connected more widely available. “That’s the first step; and then as we take stock, we have the ability to listen to that customer demand and plan what we can do next – or perhaps give them access and advice to do themselves.

"It’s one of the few channels I can recall showing people and getting that genuine instant lightbulb moment. Not just of recognition that it’s valuable, appreciation that we’re trying hard, but that it could have wider application.”

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Richard Howat and Jonny Kirk were on stage at SMiLE London on 11th March. Here is the video interview:
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This article originally appeared on simply-communicate