5 ways Yammer has succeeded at Virgin Trains

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Yammer, the conversation tool that comes bundled with Microsoft’s O365, has a mixed reputation. In the last month alone we saw pharmaceuticals giant GSK junk it in favour of Workplace by Facebook and Nestlé have given the blue thumbs up to Zuckerberg’s enterprise comms channel.

Yammer has also suffered from confusion among users since Microsoft started pushing Teams as an alternativeway to communicate and collaborate. So we decided to talk to an organisation where Yammer has remained popular for over three years. What are they doing that is making the difference? Joe Tyler is Internal Comms Manager at Virgin Trains where the Yammer usage is off the scale. He has 5 pieces of advice.

  1. Do put your eggs in one basket

“When we launched in June 2015 we went all out for the new channel. It was a bit of a risk but I believe that other companies do it too tentatively offering the channel alongside a range of other tools. But we wanted our people to use one channel for everything; for ideas sharing, conversations, news, documents.  So in a way we nudged people towards it by making Yammer essential, and by turning everything else off – even the intranet, which frankly was not visited much anyway.”

This was seen by many as heresy – indeed Virgin was the only large organisation at the time who basically used Yammer as the intranet.  They are now coming full circle and a new intranet is in the offing (see later) but at the time this radical move paid off.

“We wanted a single place where our people could read the news on the platform or on the train. Before that it had all been done with print and bits of paper. We killed the magazine, which always took ages to prepare and get signed off. In fact the last monthly magazine was all about the launch of Yammer, with how-to guides, endorsements from the senior team and assurances it would be good for the company.”

  1. You only launch once – so launch well

Another feature of the Virgin Trains example was the impact of the launch. If you are not one of the 20,000 who have watched the launch video then check it out the alpaca on YouTube as a shining example of how to land the key benefits of a social channel for an organisation.

The alpaca became a real hit. But Joe Tyler has a particular challenge for engaging with his colleagues; the franchise to run their railway is time-limited.

“Virgin Trains can be a difficult working environment as colleagues cannot be sure what is around the corner. The company is currently operating its rail franchise through a series of short-term extensions granted by the Department for Transport.”

In December 2018 Virgin Trains was granted another year to run the West Coast Mainline, months after the government renationalised another line in which the rail operator had a stake. The west coast route, connecting London with Birmingham, Chester, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, will now remain under Virgin Trains’ operation until March 2020 at least.

“We want people to be happy to work for us.  We have been running the West Coast Main Line very successfully for 22 years and we want colleagues to know that Virgin companies look after their people. Some might be indifferent about what franchise they work for; but others are here because they want to work for Virgin. Without our culture they might not have nearly as good a working environment, and their comms channel is an important part of that mix.”

The popularity of the channel is reinforced with animated posters and online media delivered with all the wit and visual flair that you would expect from a Virgin company.

  1. Leverage your groups – and celebrities.

One of the most popular channels on Yammer is the Celebrity Spotting Group.

“We serve some big cities and in First Class we get our fair share of celebrities from the worlds of TV and sport. From David Beckham to Prince William we feature them onboard; it drives a lot of traffic to the channel and to Yammer. We publish guidance on the group to ensure that staff are asking nicely and get the passenger’s permission before posting.”

Groups are an area where Joe Tyler puts in a lot of work:

“The biggest problem is posting in the All-Company Group, which is where we publish our top down announcements.  Casual users will go on there and post under the impression that all will see it, but it is much more likely to get lost among the noise. See this video designed to encourage better group governance among staff.

“If, for instance, someone wants to reunite a passenger with their lost luggage I point out it is much more effective to post in the group set up by the crew working on that particular line. Yammer now has a tool that allows admins to move posts to another Group. So whenever I see a post in the general feed that starts: ‘Apologies for posting here… but’ I can move it to a more appropriate space and advise the poster accordingly.”

This level of Community Management is quite a commitment and Joe admits a full time CM has been one of the reasons for their success.

“I have Yammer on in the background all day. It’s the first thing I focus on each morning, directing people to groups. After returning to my desk from this interview I fully expect there will be 20-100 new posts.

“Someone might ask a question in a group and the owner will usually get back quickly.  But sometimes if there has been no response for 48 hours I’ll tag people in. You got to make sure everyone on the platform is listened to.”

  1. Convert them when they are fresh

Another reason for high numbers on the platform is down to Joe’s relentless focus on new joiners:

“Their first day is when new colleagues are most impressionable. Give them what they need on their first day and you’ll hook them. We have 2,000 company-owned phones in the business, and hundreds more that that people share on their shift. Any company issued device is pre-loaded with company apps and using single sign on through O365 they can get tailored notifications.”

Joe goes to the induction programmes at the Virgin Trains Crewe Talent Academy each month and does a session on comms channels.  There was some resistance from the company councils for the first year, because it was a new thing and “social media reputation in the real world is mixed; anyone with a negative attitude will be hard to convince. People worry we are using the channel to spy on their usage.  We went to council meetings and showed the benefits and reassured them that we didn’t want to force people to use Yammer.”

  1. Use the channel for high concern messages

Joe ensures that colleagues really care about the news published on Yammer:

“If our MD posts something, people want to know.  What’s more important than a pay deal, for instance? We publish the company’s point of view about matters that are really important to their lives. Read rates for our headline news can be up to the 80% mark.”

As well as FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), it is also to do with the company’s house style and writing in the Virgin way.  The news is bite-sized – one tap on a smartphone and staff have read it. They also leaven the news agenda with fun stuff – like offering free stays in London using a company apartment that has come available.

The result of these 5 principles has resulted in an astonishing 15m actions in 3.5 years and consistent weekly activity rates of 55-60% among the company’s 3,500 staff (3,000 of who are based away from any office).

The intranet is dead. Long live the intranet

With the developments in O365 and SharePoint, Joe and his team are toying with the idea of returning to the idea of a shared intranet.

“When we launched, we took out our corporate intranet at the same time since it was hardly used. But now we have come full circle.  There are so many successful digital apps being used in the business that there could be a need for something to bring them together.  It will be an intranet of sorts, a portal platform to surface the hard to find stuff. With O365 you can create an email account, be on Yammer, have access to Box for file sharing plus all the operational apps – all with single sign on. It can be set up in a few minutes. That kind of customer service, which we associate with consumer tech, should be accessible by our own people; that is what we want people to experience.

Office based colleagues will still use email; we are fine with that. But office to frontline where people are giving advice has become mostly Yammer; operational colleagues do not have an email culture. We launched without a competitor which is why it was successful. People are ingrained in using Yammer as their first port of call. It’s part of the furniture.”


Joe Tyler will be one of the presenters at smilelab on 20th Feb, alongside Steve Clarke of Virgin Atlantic.