A mix of talent, luck and patience has taken Sara Pollard on a digital workplace voyage from working on SharePoint in 2005 — at that time, the height of collaboration technology — to today’s wealth of tool options.

Pollard is currently senior manager for digital strategy and brand engagement at Walmart. Her responsibilities include helping to run WalmartOne, the retailer’s extranet, which serves its 1.5 million U.S. employees outside of work hours.

Back in 2005, when Pollard finished her first year in graduate school, a chance opportunity from a fellow student to work as a communications specialist at Crescent Real Estate got her started on the digital path she’s still on today. “Staff were spread across the country from Seattle to Miami,” she said. “Digital communications was really the only connecting fiber.” Pollard went on to manage internal and sales communications for marketing technology and services company Acxiom for more than four years before securing her dream job at Walmart. “When I moved to Northwest Arkansas, I knew the job I wanted, and I waited for it to open up,” she said.

Access Information Any Time, Anywhere from Any Device

Over the years, Pollard has seen shifts in user expectations, in screen size requirements, in interest in social media, and in the role of a pure internal corporate communications function.

Today’s users expect a constant connection and immediate access to online information regardless of the device they’re using. “That’s very true of Walmart associates,” she said. “They want to be able to access what they think is there at any time, anywhere, from anyplace.”

Over a recent two-week period, there were 2,531 different devices accessing Walmart’s extranet. “That’s everything from the smallest smart phone to a display on the biggest TV,” Pollard said. “Some of our associates are accessing our extranet through gaming consoles.”

Employees also expect more than an information portal. They want a two-way social platform where they can provide feedback. Employers have realized that a pure internal communications function no longer exists. “Everything we message is external and everything is written with the expectation that it becomes external,” she said.

Pollard will be speaking at CMSWire and Digital Workplace Group’s Digital Workplace Experience taking place June 18 to 20 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. She will give the closing keynote presentation at the conference titled “Clocked Out but Checked In — Walmart’s Always-On Connection with Employees” on June 20.

We spoke with Pollard to get her take on the new shifts in digital tools and for insight into Walmart’s use of an employee extranet as well as extranet best practices.

‘What Got Us Here, Won’t Get Us There’

CMSWire: What, in your opinion, are the next shifts in the evolution of the digital workplace and the future of work and how might they benefit Walmart?

Pollard: While all of this falls outside of what we are doing on WalmartOne, Walmart on whole is walking down a path of all sorts of new technology because we want to make engaging with individual customers easier for our associates. We want to use technology to automate the intense and repetitive tasks and use associates’ skills to help customers in new and individualized ways.

We’re offering training via virtual reality to be able to put our associates into real situations and prepare them for real customers. We’re using robots to do tasks like scanning aisles and gathering data in our stores to know where to restock, while our associates can now spend time acting on the data to make the biggest difference for our customers.

CMSWire: What led Walmart to build an employee extranet? How did Walmart go about creating the extranet re the technologies used and employee input?

Pollard: We had a need for a true communications platform, which was not just an information platform. Our extranet is voluntary and available any time, anywhere and from any device. We had to create a platform that was communicative and collaborative, but which was also in line with wage and hour laws.

Over the past six years, we’ve gone through many platform changes and that isn’t stopping. We’re always watching trends to see what’s new, better and going to be more helpful for associates. We engage with our associates along the way regarding the look and feel, navigation and content. And we ensure they have the ability to connect with each other.

WalmartOne is currently using Epi for our CMS. We were previously on Ektron before their merger with Episerver.

CMSWire: What one or two key lessons learned from WalmartOne so far would you share with other organizations?

Pollard: As the site matured, technology has improved. ‘What got us here, won’t get us there’ is the Walmart philosophy.

You have to change to evolve with the current reality of being an employer in retail and to stay relevant to the workforce who has such high expectations. One big lesson is to remain flexible and to ensure you’re using the best tool for the job in any given moment.

You also have to give users a great reason to come back — we have built our extranet with two great reasons to interrupt their lives by visiting our site.

We connect users to view their real-time schedule. In the past an associate would have to call the store to ask questions about their schedule. That’s one reason about half of our employees come back to the extranet more than once a day. Our other reason is a digital pay stub which enables associates to see their pay stub four days before they get paid.

CMSWire: What have been some of the benefits of having an “always-on” connection with employees — both for Walmart and for individual employees?

Pollard: We are where our people are. If they want to find out about anything newsworthy, we make sure to have the information on our site. Our extranet is a source of information regardless if someone is at work or not. We fill that gap.

Learning Opportunities

In a survey we did about a year ago, WalmartOne was as trusted an information source as their store manager. Associates may not always have a direct connection to their store manager, for instance, if they’re an overnight employee and don’t always see the manager but WalmartOne is always available.

CMSWire: What advice do you have for other organizations keen to establish an employee extranet and then achieve high levels of employee extranet activity?

Pollard: Try to make sure the information on your extranet is engaging because we compete with life and everything else that’s going on around us! What I’ve found is that people are more engaged when we have a high ‘What’s in it for me’ value in terms of what’s going on at work.

Then, a tertiary interest for all employees is what is happening in the reputation space — so how is Walmart a good corporate citizen, a force for good in the community? Most of our stories on our extranet include how that item is beneficial for our employees and for the community.

Because our extranet is voluntary and not work-related, the information we provide about WalmartOne in the formal process of onboarding is limited. We rely on brand ambassadors and word of mouth instead. That means our extranet has to provide a really good experience so people will tell each other about it.

CMSWire: What’s next for the extranet in terms of new functionalities and capabilities?

Pollard: We’re on a path to merge our intranet and extranet using Adobe Experience Manager. Our intranet, which is called The Wire, is built on Salesforce’s platform.

That intranet/extranet merger is being driven in part by user expectations. It’s really hard to explain to employees who are digital natives that you can’t have access to a set of information because you’re not at work.

We want to be able to create a personalized experience for all employees, one that knows who and where you are, which content you’ve viewed before, and what information you may find of interest. Right now, the number-one search term on our extranet is ‘The Wire,’ our intranet’s name. We’re going to merge The Wire and WalmartOne on a combined platform and reap the benefits of shared components and publishing.

CMSWire: What interests and hobbies do you pursue outside of work? Do those interests sync up with your work role and so prove beneficial to your work life?

Pollard: I love to travel and run and I have an embarrassing guilty pleasure of following pop culture.

My husband also works at Walmart. When we travel, I always want to pop into a Walmart to get first-hand user experience. He supports our distribution centers so store associates don’t use his software. For the past couple of trips, he’s done something else while I’ve gone into Walmart to talk to employees about their experience and how it can be better.

I enjoy running and, oddly, it’s been beneficial in my career. A group of ladies from work go running and it’s become a mini-mentoring session and a chance to talk about what’s happening in other departments in Walmart.

I’ve always been a heavy internet user — I used to like taking those BuzzFeed personality quizzes. Now, I look at those quizzes and I think ‘I see what you did with that experience.’ Now, if I’m watching YouTube channels, I’m thinking about how our video experience works. So, my internet browsing is not just to see what’s interesting out there, it’s also part of my digital workplace research.

Learn more about the Digital Workplace Experience here.