A new category of digital workplace tool is emerging: the employee app. These platforms take a mobile-first approach to communicating with deskless employees and contractors, and provide essential tools such as shift management, e-Learning and updates on procedures.

Employee Apps Take an Innovative Approach

My team have spent the last six months researching the employee app sector in depth to create a buyer’s guide. We wanted to understand the dedicated employee app options and see how they stack up against well-known products such as Microsoft Teams and Workplace from Facebook.

Compared to SharePoint-based intranets, I’ve been particularly struck by how much easier many of these tools are to configure and use. Many of the vendors don’t come from a traditional intranet or Microsoft background, and they have deigned interfaces that show a flair for innovation and simplicity that is much closer to that of apps developed for consumers. Also of note is how enthused customers of these platforms are compared to most business software products.

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Frontline Worker Opportunities

A quiet revolution has been happening in our digital workplaces over the last few years: employees who were never digitally connected in the past have been brought online through a combination of BYOD policies; widespread issuing of iPads in retail, hospitality and sales; and the use of standard handsets rather than dedicated hardware for routine tasks such as bar-code scanning. All of this creates a fantastic opportunity for businesses to engage workers in a way that previously had been thwarted by basic technology blockers.

The problem is that only a few organizations have capitalized on this so far: many still rely on paper bulletin boards and team-leader cascades that require people to gather in groups. With COVID-19 making face-to-face briefings and group-gatherings undesirable, however, many companies are looking at other ways to keep staff informed and productive.

A benefit that often gets overlooked is that frontline workers have many insights to share. For example, hospitality staff receive first-hand feedback from customers. In retail they detect trends early-on, such as a product line that will be a big hit. Engineers see how new equipment performs in the field and may also learn how customers adapt equipment to new uses, giving ideas for product innovation. All of this can be invaluable to a company — but only if they open up the right channels for feedback. In addition, you can cut costs by digitizing routine processes, including absence reporting, pay checks, shift management, safety reporting and more.

Related Article: Frontline Workers Still Point the Way Forward in the Digital Workplace

Challenges in Engaging Frontline Workers

Engaging frontline workers involves more than just giving them access to a mobile-friendly intranet (more on that point below).

One of the first barriers is simply enrolling users: what do you do when you can’t send people a link because they don’t have a work email account? Employee app vendors use a whole host of methods to address this. Most popular is a QR barcode that they can scan, but it’s also possible to issue single-use codes that can be sent by mail or SMS. Some delegate access management to shift leaders, making it easy for them to do password resets for their team too.

A second major challenge is that frontline workers have very limited screen time. Phones may be banned from the factory floor, while driving or in front of customers. This makes it extra important for the app to deliver simple, effective information. Many of the apps we saw strip back the interface, using simple sections such as “To know” and “To do.” The apps also make it easy to check essential messages such as changes to safety procedures have been seen. Many have an ‘acknowledge’ button so that there’s an audit trail. Conversely, a ‘do not disturb’ feature is important too, particularly so that hourly workers are not asked to attend to work matters when off-shift.

The best apps greatly simplify the interface for frontline workers (credit: Groupe.io).
The best apps greatly simplify the interface for frontline workers.Groupe.io

Employee Apps Make Life Easier for Admins Too

It’s nerdy, I know, but one of the most refreshing things about this sector is the admin panel! The UX tends to be clean, coherent and easy to learn. Many times when configuring an app I’ve caught myself thinking “why does SharePoint make this so hard?” For example, setting up audiences and targeting to groups, even dynamic groups that may be “people who joined in the last 30 days,” is often just a few clicks.

Analytics too, go far beyond most of the SharePoint intranet-in-a-box products I’ve looked at over the years. The best show a real understanding of the needs of an Internal Comms pro, working across channels to include email newsletters and Microsoft Teams too, more like HubSpot or Hootsuite for marketers.

Learning Opportunities

Analytics for employee apps often take a campaign-based approach, well suited to the needs of internal communicators (credit: Beekeeper.io)
Analytics for employee apps often take a campaign-based approach, well suited to the needs of internal communicators (credit: Beekeeper.io)

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Why Have an App and an Intranet?

If you already have an intranet that is mobile-friendly, you may wonder if you need both. If it comes with a dedicated mobile app and you can create a stripped-back experience for a frontline audience, then quite possibly not. In many cases though (including SharePoint), mobile intranets tend to be designed with desk-workers in mind. They are overcomplicated, assume people have email addresses, and don’t make it easy to do simple tasks such as comment in a community and directly share a photo taken on a phone.

Another perspective is to say that employee apps are intranets, just ones that prioritize frontline workers. Most of the products we looked at worked well on a desktop browser too for office staff.

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Microsoft Teams vs. Employee Apps

Microsoft, naturally, has designs on this space too. It's been marketing Microsoft Teams as a frontline worker app for some time, and Yammer is often used with frontline workforces. I did a detailed assessment of Teams against the same scenarios we used for all the other employee apps. On the one hand I was impressed with how much fine control an organization has (did you know you can even set levels of ‘giphy’ permitted?).

However, there are two big shortcomings. Firstly, there’s no good way to publish news and alerts in Teams that gives them priority (or even makes them look that attractive). Secondly, if you don’t already have licenses for all your hourly workers, Teams is going to be expensive, possibly by a factor of four or more compared to the competition. Even if Teams is well used by desk workers, when you also consider how much easier it is to enroll users, get them engaged and for non-technical admins to publish content, there is much to be gained by taking a different route for the frontline.

The Future for Employee Apps

Prospects for the employee app sector look bright, but some common shortcomings remain. For me, it’s important that employees can scan reference information (the kind of thing that goes into an employee handbook) for a quick, authoritative answer. Too many employee apps still rely on a library of PDF files to do this, leading to a poor user experience.

Secondly, anyone responsible for content strategy will be concerned that an employee app will create an island of information that isn’t searchable across the digital workplace. Some vendors do have good search engines and search federation, but not all. Others handle this in part by cross-publishing, for example offering a SharePoint web part that will surface news from the app into an intranet too.

What’s clear is this is an agile and quickly evolving sector. There’s good reason to believe vendors will move quickly to address these gaps. Even now, they are well worth investigating for any organization wanting to build stronger relationships with their frontline workforce and improve productivity.