Staples supplies employees with an award-winning intranet

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An intranet connecting thousands of employees that’s been twice recognized by Nielsen Norman Group? Yeah, we’ve got that.

It’s called The Hub and and it’s changing the way information is shared at the global office supplies company.

“Staples markets itself externally as the total provider of office solutions, so we wanted to become the total provider of capability and work tools as well as news and information for our people,” explains Tatum McIsaac, Internal Communications Manager at Staples.

Helping employees get their jobs done easier was the guiding principle behind an ambitious intranet re-launch, which took place last year.

At the time, McIsaac recalls, “We needed to take the site to the next level; to ensure that search functionality was spot on and worked well. We also needed to provide collaboration tools that could be rolled out to help staff in countries around the world get from Point A to Point B regardless of where they were sitting.”

Customized content was brought to the forefront on the home page to make sure employees got what they needed most: a list of applications, functionality, company news and local information – in a portal that would serve as an internal marketing tool for employees to recognize and represent the brand.

The road to the makeover

Back in 2006 – when Staples was first recognized by Nielsen Norman Group – it was the ability to enable associates to share information and access relevant tools in one place that drew recognition to the site. At the time, creating a collaborative hub with some level of customized content was still relatively new in the corporate world.

Fast forward to 2010, and it was time to innovate once again.

McIsaac remembers:

“From a design perspective, our intranet was well-branded at the time to align with our external brand. In 2010, we decided we needed to revamp the site since the company had changed. Our brand was evolving, and our old portal no longer aligned with what we put out to external customers. Our employees’ needs were also quickly changing – and they required more opportunities to collaborate and access information across different markets and locations.

We were also coming off a large acquisition in 2008; suddenly we jumped from being in 17 countries to 26 countries overnight. That blew up our associate demographics so we had to adjust our intranet accordingly; it was this big change in our footprint that drove the need for a new platform and new technology.”

Connecting retail to corporate

A big part of Staples’ workforce is made up of store associates, which is why McIsaac and her colleagues worked closely with the Retail Communications team to develop The Hub.

The Hub is one of our primary vehicles to talk to all store associates. It’s what do we want to engage our front line associates so they know about programs and can speak with confidence to customers,” says Andrea Quinn, U.S. Retail Communications Manager.

Employees working at Staples stores can access The Hubvia in-store devices and a secure log-in: a far cry from the previous intranet, Staples At Work.

“When an associate logs in, we want them to see something different so we’re trying to shift the culture of our content, getting down to front line associates’ conversations with customers and providing useful takeaways and selling success stories,” Quinn explains.

A personal touch

According to McIsaac, she and her team aim to humanize the home page by creating a space where people can see photos of other associates and feel a sense of connection:

“We created a top banner on the home page that spans across various views on the page. We unofficially refer to it as our ‘humanity banner’. This could be a fun fact about the company or an interesting quote from pop culture about the company to pique people’s interest and engage them. A huge push for us has been that we need to ramp up associate engagement with an engaging design to encourage people to join a conversation, or even take part in quick poll.”

With the site overhaul came the building of a different landing page for retail store associates.

Quinn explains:

“We have a different landing page for retail store associates that provides much more customization related to their personal roles inside the company. We also pull in content from our global landing page. We don’t give our store managers everything in terms of full intranet content (because of their time restraint), but our field leadership team, regional Vice President, and field support team all land on the global home page, and they have access to the Retail page as well.”

Thus far, the full amount of 90,000 Staples employees are not on the The Hub yet; McIsaac says the site is currently available to population groups in the U.S., Canada and Europe. More markets will gain Hub access over time.

 

Editorial and video content 

Many of the news stories on the The Hub center around customer success stories and sharing best practices from individual stores. McIsaac says the use of videos and podcasts are also critical storytelling tools.

“In an average week, we post about 5-10 fresh stories from around the business that represent different associate groups, touching upon all key areas where we’re driving the business,” she explains.

As a large worldwide brand, it’s no surprise that McIsaac and her colleagues pay close attention at the way they deliver external news about the company to employees.

“Before we announce something at a retail level, we go through a step-by-step process. From an internal communications perspective, we join forces with the PR team to ensure that if there is something going out externally, that we align our calendar and messaging in the same place. Even if we adjust our internal messaging a little, we make sure it doesn’t distract from or conflict with what we’re telling customers. We also add additional context to help associates understand how the news fits into Staples’ business goals and objectives,” McIsaac explains.

On the day of my interview with McIsaac and Quinn, one of Staples’ business leaders posted a blog about the opening of a new e-commerce center and what it means for the long-term success of the company.

“When it comes to news like that, we make sure we’re not just providing a press release for associates. We look to add meaning for our people,” McIsaac points out.

Twice a month, McIsaac and her team posts video features on The Hub which act as town hall-like updates. In fact, they’ve replaced Staples’ logistically challenging quarterly town hall meetings.

“Historically, senior leaders would present at town hall meetings where we’d invite associates from different field locations to attend. But as Staples grew, it became harder to reach all our audiences. So we scrapped that concept in favor of video updates on the intranet that link to blogs where associates can ask questions and engage with our senior leaders,” McIsaac explains.

Measurement

Both McIsaac and Quinn pay close attention to metrics; Quinn spends a fair portion of her time on search reporting to figure out what retail audiences are looking for on The Hub and making sure what they need is easy to find.

McIsaac pays closer attention to anecdotal measurement.

“We look at what blogs are being read, the kind of comments they’re getting, and which posts are recommended by associates (via a thumbs up rating). We also try to get a sense of where people go to look for information and the nitty gritty details like how many times people click on the site to come up with what they need,” she says.

So what are employees looking for?

From a retail perspective, Quinn says associates look for documents explaining Staples’ policies and procedures.

As for other U.S. associates, McIsaac says the latest news and updates from senior executives tend to get a lot of traffic, as well as featured videos and leadership blogs.

And of course, she points out, “The corporate headquarters’ cafeteria menu will forever be popular.” The same holds true for conference room booking forms and office supply orders.

Staying social

Connections is the associate collaboration component of the The Hub, where blogs, user profiles (much like what people find on LinkedIn), and a newly created wiki, live.

And in the next couple of months, Staples will enhance the community aspect of The Hub, enabling people to better collaborate on projects via community pages that are department-specific. There will also be new discussion boards and enhanced file-sharing.

“This is a huge step for Staples and our internal culture. To accommodate the wants and needs of different generations of associates, we knew we had to provide a portal with more social media components,” McIsaac says.

Findings on global engagement surveys showed a trend in the way staff want to receive communications.

“We found people rely heavily on managers to get information so we knew that simply providing a portal pushing out news from corporate wasn’t going to fly for a manager sitting in Massachussetts who has a team in Broomfield, Colorado. There had to be a way where they could work together better. We connected the dots based on our survey data and field research.”

McIsaac and Quinn also looked toward other companies for inspiration such as IBM, known for excellence in providing collaborative workplace environments.

“We benchmarked with a lot of other companies around intranet best practices as well as other Nielsen Norman Group winners – what they were doing and what was most helpful for employees. We took their lead in coming up with the right intranet solution for our own associates.”

And as a result, the The Hub is now among those Nielsen Norman Group winners once again.