Intranets underwent a dramatic transformation over the past couple years. Their place in organizational culture migrated from the periphery to center stage as an essential tool for organizational culture and employee connection.
With that new place at the heart of an organization, new use cases emerged along with the need for a broader range of tools. Features, functionality, and user experience vary widely between platforms. Some rely on built-in tools, while others focus on integrating with third-party solutions to meet the evolving needs of contemporary organizations.
In this section, we'll address some of the most important features and functionality modern employees expect, and how to get the most from them.
What does it mean for an intranet to have a “consumer-grade” user experience? Design and user experience matter more than ever before. For modern employees, clunky, obtuse utilitarian systems simply won't cut it.
As consumers, we’re all inundated with exquisite, top-tier user experience every time we sit down to our computer or pick up our phone. Entire teams of the world’s most talented product managers, engineers, and designers work with immense resources to build our daily-drivers like Instagram, Snap, Gmail, Android, Windows, or iOS.
When it comes time to log in to an employee intranet, we’re bringing the context of those experiences, and all those expectations along with us.
Those expectations mean intranets can’t afford to have a poor user experience. It’s no longer enough just to be functional; employees expect an intuitive, reliable and predictable, but delightful user experience because that’s what they’re accustomed to.
Piece of cake, right?
Most organizations can’t dedicate the resources it takes to build something like this in-house, and instead deploy a turn-key solution. There are numerous options available, so it can be helpful to break down these needs and expectations while evaluating options.
Users don’t have patience for poor performance—and really, they shouldn’t. If they try to accomplish a task and are met with resistance, they’ll almost invariably look for a faster or simpler route. It’s not just human nature to do this, it’s a pillar of efficient work.
But performance is a surprisingly complicated issue to address, and that’s why we’re going to break it down here.
There are numerous ways to qualify speed. It could be something easily measured, like how quickly a page loads or the amount of time it takes a search query to return results. Those factors are both central to the employee experience, but they don’t tell the whole story.
If a search fetches results quickly, but it doesn’t return what you’re actually looking for, how helpful was that extra speed?
There are other elements of speed that are equally important, and even more powerful together with raw performance. For example, if your search delivered exactly the thing you were looking for and did so quickly, that’s real, usable speed.
Speed is as much a measure of how quickly you can get things done in a system as it is how quickly the system responds. The best intranet software can do both. As you evaluate options, or look for opportunities for improving a system you already use, consider questions like:
Availability is one of the most important things for an intranet to deliver on. You can have beautiful design, a friendly interface, and all the features in the world, but those things only add value if you can access them reliably.
Uptime is a common measure of how reliable a service is. It’s usually calculated as a percentage—for example, 99.9%. This means that over a given period of time, the service was available
A service with 99.9% uptime is working and available for users 99.9% of the time.
For an intranet, uptime is crucial. As organizations increasingly lean on intranets as their cloud HQ for local, distributed, and hybrid employees, frequent outages become unacceptably disruptive.
Uptime is a crucial factor, but it doesn’t always tell the whole story. If a service is technically available but performance is severely degraded, it can be almost as disruptive as a full outage.
For example, if pages load extremely slowly, it won’t take long before users become frustrated and give up. Each time this happens, their confidence in the system will decrease. If service quality is frequently poor, expect to see a continual drop-off in usage.
That's why availability is one of the most important features of an intranet. If it's going to be your centralized hub, it needs to be rock-solid.
In the past, intranets were often designed, developed, and maintained by an in-house team. Most contemporary intranets have a handful of features that not only reduce administrative burden for IT teams, but also help maintain a more secure environment.
Single Sign-On tools provide benefits for both employees and administrators. Instead of creating, remembering, and entering user account credentials for every tool, employees only need to log into one.
Encryption is now a well-established standard across online applications to the extent that web browsers often warn you if you’re visiting a site that isn’t encrypted. Like other modern applications, most commercial and internally-built intranets also utilize some form of encryption.
It’s important to have sensitive information encrypted both at rest and in transit to reduce the chances of it being exposed.
While encryption and SSO provide a significant boost to intranet security, they’re only one part of the equation. After all, a great security system is only useful if you use it.
Watermarking is a visible way of identifying sensitive information and deterring viewers from sharing it outside its intended audience.
Viewer analytics can help identify whether or not someone reviewed a piece of information.
Access controls can help reduce accidental leaks by making sure sensitive information is only accessible by authorized users who have logged in through a secure means like SSO.
Security and privacy are both crucial features for an intranet to have, if it's going to house any sensitive information or communications—and it almost certainly will.
Because intranets are being used for an increasing scope of mission-critical business processes in a wider and wider range of organizations, fit and flexibility have become key success factors.
Think of it like clothes: an intranet can be bespoke (built from the ground up to fit one organization), bought off the rack and tailored, or bought and used as-is.
Whether they were built in-house or with the help of an agency, legacy intranets often followed the bespoke model. They were one-off constructions designed for a specific organization’s needs.
For many of today’s organizations, intranets are necessary, but not feasible to build from scratch in-house. For that reason, the tailored model is a common choice, and administrators need flexibility in how the system is deployed, used, and maintained.
Whether it’s a physical location or a digital workplace, personalization and customization contribute significantly to a sense of ownership and identity.
Even with a turn-key solution, your organization’s digital workplace should represent and reflect its brand and culture. Logos, brand colors, imagery, and language are all strong signals that can help users identify with and relate to their organization.
Rich user profiles are more important than ever before because impromptu opportunities to get to know coworkers are harder to come by in distributed and hybrid teams.
Profiles should be customizable enough to give users the ability to express themselves and learn a bit about their colleagues as well.
Something as simple as a background photo in a colleague’s profile can speak volumes, and even spark a great conversation.
With a vast library of content available at any given time, it might be difficult to think back to a time when people had to wait for a show to air, or for the newspaper (which only came from a select few outlets, and depended on your physical location) to hit their front door.
Consuming content is a customized experience now. News, entertainment, and even education are all served up on-demand. This expectation carried across to the digital workplace as well.
Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams make it easy to build a stream of information and communication that is as narrowly focused or as broad as you like. Intranets benefit from a similar flexibility in how they deliver content to users.
Everyone likes to consume information differently. One person’s annoyance can be another person’s perfect-place-and-time notification. It’s important for intranets to give users the flexibility to customize their experience.
What’s important to you? Everyone has their own idea of what’s important and what’s peripheral. There should be enough customizability in an intranet for a user’s feed of information to feel helpful, relevant, and timely. If it isn’t, don’t be surprised if they tune out.
In 2020 and beyond, it’s not enough for an intranet to have a set of its own functionalities. It’s just as important for it to work well with other tools and applications.
Teams in different areas across an organization often utilize different systems of record. Instead of pushing them to use a different system, it can be much easier to bring those tools together through integrations.
Human Resource Information Systems (HRIS) and Human Resource Management Systems (HRMS) can help intranet administrators make user management simple and efficient. Instead of manually creating new accounts for employees as they join and deprovisioning their accounts when they leave, HRIS/HRMS integrations automate the process.
Most organizations collaborate through a suite of tools like Google Workspace or Microsoft Office 365. Bringing those tools into a centralized space like an intranet can make it easier to share information and resources with the right audience while making search capabilities more powerful.
Tools like Confluence help organize and document work, but teams across an organization often use different systems of record. Integrating them with the intranet experience makes it easy to share crucial information in one place.
It may be one of the oldest tools in the modern business toolkit, but email is still one of the most commonly used, and arguably best ways to reach people quickly with important information. Bringing email capabilities into an intranet extends its reach in a familiar format that other channels can’t.
From important announcements to meeting invites, email is still very much a part of the digital workplace, and as such, an intranet should be tightly integrated with it.
As many organizations found after switching to distributed or hybrid work, email is a crucial tool, but it’s a poor replacement for the type of quick, impromptu communication and collaboration that happens every day in person.
Realtime employee communication tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams are useful ways to reach employees instantly, and in the context of their work.
Integrating an intranet with Slack or Microsoft Teams makes it easy to deliver content to the right people at the right time, and make sure important messages aren’t missed.
One of the oldest sustaining values of an intranet is its ability to organize information, resources, and people. Let’s take a moment to break down some examples of each.
A powerful search function is priceless when you already know what you’re looking for, but what about when you don’t? That’s where organization and information architecture come in.
Well-organized information isn’t just easy to search—it finds you.
You might have a project kickoff coming up with some new colleagues. With good information organization, you probably already know about some unique strengths each colleague has, some historical data on similar projects, and what resources you have available. That can make the difference between a rocky start and a smoothly running project.
Jargon is a common barrier to understanding, but for better or worse, every organization develops its own language. A glossary can help translate and disambiguate your organization’s unique lexicon for new and seasoned employees alike.
Customizable links can help bring important information front-and-center. Just like communications and other resources, it’s crucial to have a way to organize links.
For example, a marketing team might need links to design assets to ensure the new campaign they’re working on stays on-brand. An engineering team might need links to code styling references to make sure everyone’s code is easily read and used by others on the team.
A new employee group might need access to onboarding documentation and other tools to help them ramp and grow.
In smaller companies, it’s much easier to keep communication, people, and resources organized. As companies grow, the effort it takes to maintain that organization increases, until you reach a point where tooling is necessary.
An employee directory is one of the simplest, but most important ways of organizing people data in a way everyone can use. If you need to find or contact a colleague, the employee directory is the perfect place to start.
Many intranets have some form of employee directory, but as employee data becomes rich, engaging employee profiles just a click away in modern intranets, a directory can provide a more complete picture.
The org chart expands on the employee directory and adds additional structure. The org chart can help viewers to understand which areas of the business an employee works, and also what their reporting relationships are, all at a glance.
Groups are a flexible way to gather individuals with a common interest or goal. For example, “Marketing” or “Engineering” are common groups, with subgroups like “Product Marketing” or “Mobile Engineering” helping to focus in on a more specific area.
In addition to groups associated with someone’s functional role, it’s helpful to have a system flexible enough to include interest groups. For example, there may be a number of employees on the team who are interested in cooking and wish to share content related to that without cluttering up the experience for other colleagues.
Company events—whether online or in person—become challenging to organize and administer at a certain size. Intranets with event management tools can make it significantly easier to do this.
Tools like RSVPs and forms can help ensure the organizer knows how many people to expect, and in the case of forms, if they have any specific requirements or preferences.
Communication that isn’t relevant to the recipient is just chatter. The key to organizing communication effectively is to strike a good balance between curation and openness.
Employee roles and responsibilities aren’t often set in stone, and the audiences for your communications shouldn’t be either. Dynamic audiences make it easy to ensure messages reach their intended recipients, even if that audience changes over time.
Most of the time, it’s best to give individuals choice over the topics, volume, and delivery methods of intranet content. However, there are times when an urgent or crucial piece of information needs to be seen.
In these cases, it’s helpful to have a broadcast feature that overrides individual preferences and delivers the critical message across multiple channels.
Just like in the case of broadcasting messages, it can be advantageous in some cases to have the capability to request receipt and acknowledgement of an important message. Some intranets have this feature built-in, relieving much of the burden otherwise associated with checking in and confirming these things manually.
Being able to send messages as an alias can help deliver a message without tying it to an individual sender. For example, it’s often helpful to be able for your organization’s HR team to send a message as the team, rather than directly from an individual on that team.
In a time when remote work is more prevalent than ever, it’s become crucial to have means of building personal connections and community in the workplace. Even employees who work in the same building could go their entire career without connecting.
Some intranets offer unique avenues for building connections and community.
The more information employees can add to their profiles, the easier it is to build connections, even if separated by great distance. Employee profiles are a great opportunity to showcase the things that make each member of an organization unique, but also to find commonalities and reasons to connect.
While two employees may work on opposite ends of the organization, they could also have a great deal in common outside of their roles, like a previous employer, a favorite pastime, or artistic pursuit.
Name pronunciation can be a challenging thing to get right. Audio introductions provide employees an opportunity to hear their colleagues' names spoken in their own voice.
Some intranets provide functionality to create custom groups. Custom groups aren’t just good for keeping people and information organized, they can also provide colleagues with a means of connecting through shared experience.
Interest groups can bring people together through things like cooking, pets, sports, their alma mater, or nearly any other pursuit.
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can provide a safe, supportive space and open forum for employees with a shared identity to connect.
Although we’re ending this list with fun, it’s certainly not the least important intranet feature. A delightful tool is more likely to get used, and intranets are at their best when they’re bustling with activity.
Small added bonuses like Haystack’s name game can help employees get to know one another and put names to faces, even if they never formally cross paths.
Seeing all your colleagues on a world map is another fun way to contextualize team distribution.