Why do employees dislike using our intranet?

Published Fri 02 Nov 2018

This is a question we’ve seen intranet managers grapple with for years – a modern intranet has been painstakingly built, complete with all the tools and trick that the team thinks it needs but… there’s no user engagement, or even any real adoption.

Even worse, people might actively dislike using it, thinking of their intranet as something they have to navigate to get on with their day, rather than a place that helps them get work done.

When you’re sitting at your desk, downing in stats on declining user engagement and looking at an email inbox quickly filing with complaints it can feel tempting to declare that intranets are dead, a relic of the 1990s unsuitable for the modern workplace.

This isn’t really true. Intranets can still be effective, with this year’s Digital Workplace Award winners providing hard proof that intranets can still deliver real, substantial increases in employee satisfaction and engagement.

So, what can you do to turn your intranet around? To help you work out what went wrong, and how to fix it we’ve put together 4 questions that you need to ask yourself.

Why does your intranet need to exist?

Like any other project, an intranet starts with a business case. What was yours?

You might have been replacing an old, clunky intranet that was built at the turn of the millennium. You may have been one part of a company-wide initiative to create a more collaborative, nurturing, work environment. Or perhaps you were tasked with building a hub for company policies, processes and knowledge to prevent people from spending their valuable time trying to work out which of a hundred word documents contained the Paid Time-Off policy. Maybe it was all of the above.

This first step is often where projects start to go off the rails.

If you’re replacing an older intranet it can be tempting to try and replicate the old intranet, likely focused around a static front page which barrages users with information, with new technology. Perhaps a social feature, here or there, to encourage discussion or tacked-on mobile support that theoretically lets people try and decipher your intranet on their phones.

If this new intranet is one part of a wider process of change, then it’s vital to ask whether or not if the intranet is actually part of a wider campaign or if it’s expected to be the change. Enough internets have been relaunched as “internal enterprise collaboration platforms” designed to kickstart innovation only for its user base to shrink to the intranet team.

In both cases, new software alone can’t save an aged intranet or make your company collaborative. Instead every part of your business case needs to support, and be supported by, the wider organization.

If you’re replacing an old intranet, then the business case for a new one needs to be firmly based on the problem’s users had with your old intranet. If you’re being asked to help with changing company culture, then your business case needs to be clear about what support you need from other departments.

Do you think you know what users want, or do you actually know?

When you designed and built your intranet, was it informed by user behavior, or by how you think users behave.

This is a critical question to consider. Relying on your concept of ‘what users want’, is fundamentally flawed and can be incredibly misleading.

You might see a lack of engagement with your intranet as a sign that a new one needs to be packed full of social features and content for employees to engage with. This may make sense, especially if your intranet used to be sparse and focused on app access, or overly static with little to no new content.

A year or two down the line when your best-in-class intranet is launched, you might actually discover that all employees wanted was a new way to find the apps they need to use and that all you needed was improved search and a better way to organize apps.

For this reason, effective intranet projects need to start with analyzing user behavior and identifying pain points. You need to be able find the users who get frustrated when it takes them one minutes and seven clicks to find out who they can add to their health insurance, and you need to get input from the people who have severe innovation fatigue.

However, when faced with a shrinking budget or a small team it’s easy to rely on user surveys or crowdsourced suggestions. These are useful steps to take, but self-reported data doesn’t really capture the whole picture.

As Nielsen Norman argued this year, field studies are a vital part of any intranet project. Just as you can misinterpret user behavior, users often misidentify the cause of their frustrations.

Watching how real users navigate enterprise systems is vital – after all, designing a User Experience without users isn’t really possible.

For one of the Digital Workplace of the Year winners this year, this method resulted in surprising revelations, like discovering that the cafeteria menu was something users actively struggled to find. This was easily remedied, but before the research it’s hard to imagine that the team would have identified “What’s for lunch?” as a key part of their user journey.

This is even more vital if you’re building an intranet as part of a wider process of change because it reveals the things that a survey, or digital analytics never can. It shows how people interact in the workplace, where they get information from and how they interpret that information. At its most effective, it can even show employees that they are playing a key part in change management, which can make the prospect of change more palatable.

Was your intranet built in a vacuum?

Once you’ve come up with an air-tight business case that even the CFO can’t argue with, built a detailed picture of user journeys and designed an intranet that takes everything you discovered into account, it can feel like you’re ready to build a full product.

But it’s perfectly possible to go years down the line building a shiny new intranet that takes care of every problem you found, and to have it still fail. User behaviors can change over time, business cases can be impacted by the actions of other departments and technology can fail to live up to its promise once implemented. If this happens you might be sorely tempted to blame fickle users or duplicitous vendors, but this kind of failure is entirely preventable.

It’s vital to go step-by-step. Once you have an initial design, pilot it in stages and iterate on each stage as users get to grips of it. The rigors of everyday use can reveal paint points that might not have been anticipated – you might find that your users don’t want to see information that isn’t specifically for them, or that you thought had working APIs are actually impractical to use.

This sounds like it might be expensive to do, or difficult to get company buy-in for. It might take longer than building everything at once and analyzing user feedback might be something that it’s hard to find the resources to do. But it’s important to reinforce that iteration can generate productivity gains and product improvements over its development, whereas a full system that no one likes or uses will always be a lost cost.

Does your intranet actually work for everyone?

Users being unable to access their intranet in a way that helps them work best is a key roadblock for many projects, and one that will only become more important in the future.

You might have built the best intranet your organization could ever hope to have, that everyone in the office loves. However, if it’s only accessible through a poorly optimized webpage on mobile or whilst using a clunky VPN on a laptop, there’s a chance everyone who works outside the office hates it.

It isn’t enough to make the mobile version of your intranet a slightly optimized version of the desktop one. At the same time, breaking your intranet down into apps or micro-apps that users have to install may not be received well either – users don’t want to always have to install more apps. Instead, intranets need to have a design that works consistently, with the same set of functionalities, across as many devices as possible.

This is vital, because a rising number of the employees who need to access your intranet aren’t going to be based in a traditional office. According to Gallup, 53% of employees say that work-life balance is a key factor in deciding whether to take a job, and that flexibility at work is key to that balance.

If your intranet is impossible to access whilst working from a coffee shop, waiting for a flight or during half-time at your child’s soccer game then frustration will rise and, with it, employee attrition.

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