street sign with arrow piercing a heart
PHOTO: Nick Fewings

Organizations are made of people, people with emotions and a desire to feel connection and meaning in their work. This is why employee engagement is such a big deal, and why a strategic approach to employee experience (EX) is on the radar for many senior leaders.

Yet I fear that in the shift to new and better tools — SharePoint Modern in particular — we’ve overlooked a much-needed opportunity to foster meaningful employee engagement. If all of our intranets end up looking the same, have we missed something?

How Does Your Intranet Make You Feel?

This isn’t a silly question! There is an emotional response every time the intranet homepage is opened. On old, ugly intranets, the emotions were entirely negative. “If this is how much effort the business puts into tools for us, then clearly they don’t care about us!”

At the other end of the extreme, I’ve heard users say, “when I open the intranet, it makes me smile!” responding to a warm and engaging intranet design.

For a long time, I’ve said it should be possible to tell what kind of organization the intranet belongs to. A bank intranet shouldn’t look or feel like one for a school, a hospital or a charity.

So where does SharePoint Modern fit in this scale, from employee sadness to delight?

The Modern experience is unquestionably good, with a clean and modern design without the horrible hassles of earlier SharePoint versions. There are a lot of great webparts to include to add functionality, provided by Microsoft and others.

But I would argue that words such as “bland,” “corporate” and “anodyne” also apply to the default Modern design. Every intranet ends up looking like it belongs to Microsoft, not the organization it serves, with every site a clone of what's in the SharePoint Look Book.

Related Article: What's Next for SharePoint Intranets?

Is This About Design and Branding?

Yes and no. The visual design of intranets is important, and SharePoint Modern has done most of the heavy lifting to provide a default design that’s good. Yet more work should be done to provide a visual design that makes the intranet clearly about your organization, aligned with corporate branding and the employee value proposition (EVP).

In practice, intranet design is not a black-or-white question.

No branding is too little. I’ve heard it said that “we don’t brand Word, so why would we brand the intranet?”, but I don’t buy this. We should be branding the intranet because we can, with the clear intent of fostering employee engagement.

However, it doesn’t it make sense to treat the intranet like a website, and to try to craft every single element. Over-design of this nature will certainly cause technical and maintainability issues, right from the outset.

Related Article: Is Your Intranet Lost in the Fog?

How Can Modern Intranets Foster Engagement?

Fostering meaningful staff engagement is primarily a cultural consideration, but digital tools such as SharePoint Modern intranets can play a meaningful role beyond basic design and branding.

Practical steps include:

  • Lightly branding the intranet, using SPFx-friendly CSS to tweak the intranet’s appearance.
  • More extensively branding the intranet, using third-party components or prebuilt intranet offerings.
  • Setting aside permanent space on the homepage for stories about staff, their personalities and their activities.
  • Celebrating organizational successes in an authentic way, such as new projects won or client outcomes delivered.
  • Expressing the nature of the firm on the intranet, so that if you’re an architect there’s a heap of designs shared, or a non-profit there would be details on community benefits delivered, and so on.
  • Ensuring there’s a balance of elements on the homepage, between functional and useful components, and items relating to people, culture and engagement.
  • Giving the intranet a name, which sounds corny, but is actually quite effective!
  • Having fun (!) on the intranet, and not being afraid to express some personality and playfulness, regardless of the nature of the organization.

So, as we make the big leap into a better future with SharePoint Modern, how are you going to bring along some heart and soul?