a neon sign showing a handshake
PHOTO: Charles Deluvio

Dhiraj Sharma has always had the heart of an entrepreneur. However, even with three start-ups under his belt, he wasn’t always focused on building a business.

“Where I grew up in India, the culture is all about getting a proper education, so I focused on my engineering and computer science degrees,” he said. He was, however, always coming up with new ideas, which took shape once he headed to Silicon Valley. “It takes personal conviction, belief and passion, plus a lot of hard work,” he said. “But in a place like Silicon Valley, where resources are abundant, I believe anyone can build a successful enterprise.”

Sharma channelled that passion when he co-founded modern intranet provider Simpplr in 2014, where he serves as CEO. 

A 'Sense of Belonging' Improves the Work Experience

Simpplr evolved out of one customer’s immediate need for an employee communication platform. “My software development firm developed it for their own internal use, but I quickly realized it was something that every company needs, so it became a product,” said Sharma, adding that the client company remains a happy customer.

Humans are social creatures, he explained. Adults spend one-third of their lives at work. “We all have a need to be in the know, to have a voice in our workplace and to be a part of the community,” he said. “When we have a sense of belonging, our work experience is much better.” While intranets have been around since the 1990s, he added, many have failed over the long haul because there was no clear purpose to the platforms, particularly in terms of connecting and engaging the workforce.

“Early intranets were often siloed, catch-all content dumping grounds that simply put all internal knowledge resources in one place, with stale, outdated materials that make the user experience frustrating,” he said, adding that these were primarily built by developers with multiple priorities and without expertise in employee engagement. These days, that is all changing.

Simpplr is a sponsor of Simpler Media Group’s Digital Workplace Experience, which takes place online Oct. 13 through Oct. 14.

We spoke with Sharma about the biggest challenges facing increasingly distributed companies, lessons learned during the pandemic-induced push to remote work, and how employee communication platforms are evolving to meet the needs of today’s organizations.

Editor's Note: This interview was originally conducted in March, with a few follow up questions in August to reflect the changing workplace dynamics.

Intranets Have Found Their Core Purpose

CMSWire: We are now in an unprecedented situation where thousands of companies are working to get all of their employees working remotely due to the spread of the coronavirus. What are some of the most important ways they need to use technology to scale and succeed with their efforts?

Sharma: Companies are going through phases. Initially, most organizations have focused on the transition to remote work and having the connectivity and tools in place to maintain operations. That’s why so many of us are talking about bandwidth and virtual conferencing tools. As more time passes, it's important that we start to think about the effects of social isolation and how that impacts employees’ engagement, productivity, and connectedness to the company.

Dhiiraj Sharma, CEO of Simpplr: "The future of work is all about a more distributed and remote workforce. That’s the reality."

CMSWire: What are the big digital workforce technology challenges companies will face during this period?

Sharma: The biggest challenge will be social isolation. Leaders need to communicate effectively, go out of their way to keep morale high, and share timely updates so that the organization stays connected during these times. Companies will need to utilize the proper communication tools to make sure that the organization is receiving trusted, top-down communication and that there’s no rumors or misinformation being spread.

CMSWire: As businesses consider their future options — a return to the physical workplace, continuation of remote work, a hybrid between the two — what questions should they consider to help inform their decision?

Sharma: It’s not enough to follow what big companies, the CDC, or your local school district are doing. What you interpret as safe may be scary for your employees. You need to ask employees about their comfort level returning, what adjustments they’d expect in the workplace, whether their family obligations will allow them to return, whether they prefer to return, and if they have any circumstances that a return to work would put them at risk or impact their productivity.

CMSWire: At the beginning of the pandemic you cited combating 'social isolation' as the biggest business challenge for the newly all-remote workforce. What best practices did you see emerge over the last few months to accomplish this?

Sharma:

  • Organizations training managers to be sensitive to social isolation, encouraging them to check in with employees on a personal level more frequently and pointing them to resources when necessary.
  • Having more frequent all hands to keep employees in-the-know.
  • Conducting regular, anonymous pulse surveys to understand the ongoing workplace health and seeing what the organization can do to help.
  • Creating virtual social outlets, such as the company intranet, with a purposeful editorial calendar of driving social cohesion and sharing personal stories.
  • Organized cross-departmental speed dating among employees to help employees expand their networks and confide in coworkers outside of their department.

CMSWire: What can companies do to cut down on the information overload so many of their employees struggle with?

Companies should understand their communication channels and technologies and manically enforce and internally market what type of communications belong where. For example, use Slack for intra-team messaging when you need a quick answer, use email for longer form communications when you can wait a day. All formal company and cross-department communications should be put on the company intranet because they can be curated and won’t get lost in the noise of other channels, etc.

CMSWire: What are the biggest challenges facing your customers in "normal" times?

Sharma: The future of work is all about a more distributed and remote workforce. That’s the reality. Employees have already been working from multiple locations, on the go and from home. In addition, we are living in an era where millennials, who are digital natives, expect their workforce technology to be as good as their personal technology. This is impacting the intranet landscape, as employees expect good UX. The latest workplace technology enables them to modernize, but most intranets are not there yet. That will evolve and change as the multi-generational workforce demands that their companies address employee engagement and communication strategies.

CMSWire: How do you see employee communication platforms evolving over the next year or two?

Sharma: We believe what were known as intranets have now found their core purpose. No longer do companies expect their intranets to house everything or do it all. Instead, these platforms will continue to become increasingly focused on employee communication and engagement. The modern intranet will be a place that employees go to get what they need, up-level their perspective, get the most trusted news, find help and stay connected to the company culture.

There will also be a big shift when it comes to build vs. buy. More and more companies are realizing that it’s not the best use of IT’s time and skills to build an intranet in-house. More will move from a platform-build approach to a pre-built, out-of-the-box approach such as Simpplr.

CMSWire: What is your favorite way to take a break during the workday, even during this time of social distancing?

Sharma: Before we instilled our remote work policy, there is a lagoon about a 5-minute walk from our office. The weather is usually very nice where we are based in California, so I usually take a break there. It’s very calming looking at the water. To keep myself active as I adjust to work from home, I'm taking breaks on my treadmill!

Register now for the free Digital Workplace Experience event.