The pandemic changed the way businesses think about how people work. Most saw that their employees can be productive when working remotely, and now realize they must embrace a flexible, hybrid approach if they want to keep their workforce happy. But that's not all.

Business leaders saw — often firsthand — the side effects of this more distributed way of working. While productivity thrived, the social ties and the sense of connectedness — of community and culture — suffered. And that is leading to a weakening of ties between employees and their employer, to the extent that it's driving "the great resignation."

Because people feel less connected to their company, they're more open to the idea of switching employers should a more appealing opportunity arise. Microsoft's latest Work Trend Index showed that 53% of employees are more likely to prioritize their health and well-being over work than before the pandemic, and 47% are more likely to put family and personal life over work now.

The Threat of the Great Resignation

We see signs of this in our research at CCS Insight too. Our recent Employee Workplace Technology Survey, 2022 showed that 26% of employees are considering leaving their current company within the next 12 months. And this rises to 34% for employees under age 40 and — perhaps more importantly — 50% of employees who have been at their company for less than two years.

This means that half of those hired since the start of the pandemic — whose entire experience at the company so far has been dominated by remote work — are at risk of leaving. For businesses that's a major concern: hiring new staff is an expensive and difficult business, never mind the disruption that the constant churn and under-resourced teams have on productivity and morale.

And this is driving a renewed focus on employee experience and employee engagement, with businesses looking to understand the elements that are important to people in their job. Previously a concern only for HR leaders, this is increasingly a board-level worry, leading to new funding to support employee experience initiatives. According to our research, 39% of businesses are planning an investment in employee experience solutions in the next 12 months, with the same percentage identifying employee engagement and connectedness as a key challenge in the shift to hybrid work.

This is a particular problem for organizations with large frontline workforces alongside a hybrid desk-based workforce. Frontline industries such as retail and healthcare experienced high levels of employee churn even before the pandemic, and the past two years have exacerbated the divisions between frontline and desk-based employees, with the former unable to take advantage of remote working. It's becoming even more critical to bridge this divide and reinforce a unified culture and sense of community.

Related Article: PwC Bets $2.4B on Employee Experience, LumApps Makes Good on Hey Axel Buy

Blum's Employee Experience Journey

One company embracing this challenge head-on is Austrian manufacturing firm Blum. The company has over 9,000 employees, around three-quarters of whom are based in Austria, with the rest in subsidiaries around the world. When the pandemic hit, the shift to remote working was relatively straightforward for Blum's office-based employees, because the company had already deployed Microsoft Teams as part of a broader investment in Microsoft 365. But when Blum had to shut down its production for a few weeks to resolve supply chain problems caused by the pandemic, the company found itself lacking a way to communicate effectively with its 3,000-strong production plant workforce.

Blum moved quickly, creating a stand-alone mobile app to connect these frontline employees, most of whom didn't even have a company email address. However, it soon became apparent that having different communication tools for desk workers and frontline staff was not a viable long-term solution. Not only did it duplicate effort for Blum's communications team, but it created a barrier between these two vital groups of workers. At a time of uncertainty and anxiety, it was more important than ever to reinforce the personal connections between employees and the sense of community and engagement across the business.

Related Article: How to Get Employee Communications Buzzing

A Unified Solution for Every Employee

Blum's communications team realized the company needed to expand its focus and strategy for the solution — not just enabling outbound communications and supporting work operations, but also supporting the needs of employees as human beings. The team wanted a single, unified solution for all Blum employees that brought everything — and everyone — together in one place, wherever they worked, encouraging interaction, engagement and community.

As a Microsoft 365 customer, Blum reached out to Microsoft to share its vision and requirements, eventually joining the early adopter program for Microsoft Viva, the company's employee experience solution. Using Viva Connections, Blum created an employee application to be delivered through both the Teams desktop client and, importantly for frontline workers, the Teams mobile app.

Learning Opportunities

After a 10-month proof-of-concept and test phase, the app — branded as CONNEX at Blum — rolled out to the company's 6,000 employees in Austria in October 2021. As well as company news and updates, CONNEX includes a set of digital services, for example a digital payslip, an online company ID that staff can use to get local discounts, a snack ordering service, an internal job board and a community marketplace.

Related Article: Lack of Social Interaction Tops Remote Work Challenges

Leveling Up the Frontline Workforce

Because they don't have a work laptop or phone, most of Blum's frontline employees access the app using their personal smartphone, meaning that almost everyone can now be reached. The new solution has hugely expanded the digital services available to frontline workers at Blum, opening up new avenues to support this section of the workforce. Because the solution uses the Microsoft Teams app and Microsoft Azure Active Directory, frontline employees now have access to a companywide people directory, with the ability to call and message any Blum colleague. While it's still early days, reception to the app has been very positive, with 90% of frontline workers having downloaded it.

For the project team at Blum, the roll-out of CONNEX and Viva Connections is just the beginning of its employee experience journey. The next steps are to expand the deployment to a further 3,000-plus employees outside Austria, and the company is looking at other elements of the Microsoft Viva portfolio to explore how they might add value.

The primary focus right now is the investment in ensuring the long-term success of the platform at Blum, by establishing a permanent, cross-company working group with responsibility for managing, maintaining and developing it, facilitating its adoption throughout the business, and driving Blum's employee experience strategy forward.

Related Article: Employee Apps Emerge to Engage Frontline Workers

A Necessity in the Hybrid Work Era

Every business's employee experience journey will of course be slightly different. But the pandemic has shown how fragile corporate culture can be, and how reliant many organizations have become on the status quo of office-based working to develop and maintain their culture.

In the hybrid work future that many businesses are now preparing for, we need to rethink culture and community building, and how we ensure employees are connected, supported and fully engaged, whatever their role and wherever they are working.

Technology can play a pivotal, infrastructural role in the process, a platform for connecting, communicating, learning and sharing — not just for getting work tasks done, but for the softer, relationship side of the employee experience. Technology is of course only part of the solution. Businesses need to invest in the program to ensure it has ongoing support, resourcing and leadership commitment. But in the distributed, hybrid work world many of us now face, technology is a vital enabler for every business's employee experience strategy.

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