How Workplace and video are transforming Virgin Atlantic

Virgin intranet homepage

Steve Clarke has helped launch Workplace by Facebook, commissioned a cutting-edge new intranet and built some great video channels. And that’s just in his first year in charge of communication channels at Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays.

Steve Clarke, Virgin

Steve Clarke cut his teeth on the largest pilot of Workplace by Facebook when he was managing IC channels at RBS. In January 2017 he moved on to Virgin Atlantic where his New Year’s resolutions have ticked off an impressive to do list that would make any comms professional envious:

“Working for a brand like Virgin Atlantic was hugely appealing.  When I joined there was a desire to do something with social media and they were looking at Yammer, but only because they already had it as part of Office 365. I had to persuade them that this wasn’t the best option.”

The job covers Virgin Holidays as well as the airline amounting to some 10,000 staff, 70% of whom are out of the office, and of course work most of the time out of the country. The first thing Steve did was a channel audit and looking for ways to improve:

“We had SharePoint 2007, Yammer with only about 200 active users, and Newsweaver (now Poppulo) where we were sending out emails just once a month. I spent some time looking at what other Virgin brands were doing, like who went down the Yammer route and turned off all their other intranet channels, but I was keen on taking a different route.”

Internal adverts

“I think that the world of comms moves quicker than the people in it.  We used to send out messages on behalf of the CEO and hope that people will read it. But now we have to think  of ourselves more like an advertising and marketing function. We have to do more to get people’s attention and drive and attract people to the intranet.”

Steve inherited a huge estate of digital signage that he can control and target centrally. The screens are set up in offices in Gatwick, Heathrow, Swansea, Manchester, Atlanta and Shanghai and also in the Virgin ‘Gatehouses’ where cabin crew prepare for their flights. He exploits the video medium to get that crucial share of eyeballs.

“We talk about creating adverts using a short video on digital signage or a gif on Workplace to drive traffic to the message.”

Workplace launch signage

So much for the theory but how did he convince management to invest in Workplace, where individual licences have to be paid each month on top of any Microsoft costs?

“We did a couple of iterations of the business case.  The main selling point was the high adoption rates. If you look at those examples where Yammer has been made to work (such as Virgin Trains) it took some quite drastic measures, such as turning off the intranet. We have lots of static content that has to sit somewhere for operational reasons, so we couldn’t afford to follow that example.”

But despite the significant increase in costs compared to Yammer, the leadership were bought in. Steve and his team used examples like Starbucks, where they have a huge operational team distributed around the world. He also collaborated with US airline Delta who are now 49% owners of Virgin Atlantic in a joint venture. They are also introducing Workplace by Facebook in the US where it is now being rolled out on a soft launch with cabin crew.

In the UK Steve’s strategy was different with a big bang launch to the whole company.

“We met Facebook in May and launched in September.  We moved as quickly as we possibly could. Before I arrived, using social tools and changing the intranet had been spoken about for 2 years. So when I joined we decided to just get on with it.”

4 stage social media adoption strategy

Steve had developed a 4-part strategy to drive adoption when he was at RBS. At Virgin Atlantic and Holidays he was able to refine the process starting with the first step –

  1. Awareness

 We started off by making an internal advert. It was a bit of fun, which said absolutely nothing about the platform. It was more a teaser filmed across a number of locations. We just wanted to get a reaction – we did not care whether it was positive or negative just as long as it raised awareness of the initiative.”

The teaser went out across all channels and was played at events.  The launch involved the CEO right from the start as Craig Kreeger proved a keen advocate.

“Craig has been fantastic and supportive right from Day 1. When we presented to the leadership team he immediately saw that this was the right thing for us to do; and encouraged us to get on with it. He is a naturally good communicator, always up for fun and doing videos.”

Steve’s team are responsible for in-house video production and one of their first initiatives was to launch a bi-monthly TV show – Ruby on Air – named after one of the Virgin planes. The first edition had the CEO doing carpool karaoke with the Disney account manager dressed as Snow White. The show is presented by the staff themselves with plenty of fun and irreverence. One edition around the financial results was filmed in the Virgin salon where they illustrated the message by barbering most of the CFO’s hair off.

Workplace launch 2

  1. Trust

The second stage of adoption was all about trust – on how people should use the tool. This started at the top with some training of the leadership team. Julien Codorniou, who heads up Workplace by Facebook in Europe, took the senior team to the Facebook offices and did a full training day on how other leaders were using the platform.

“We thought it was going to be just technical training but it was so much more than that. During the launch week, our CEO Craig came up to me with the idea for a group called: Ask Craig.  He set it up himself and it’s now one of our most popular groups. We didn’t want to force the senior team into using Workplace – it worked better to have them find reasons for using it themselves.”

  1. Excitement!

The third part of the process was to build excitement around the new platform. Steve’s team set up banners in all the major offices and Gatehouses. They kept the message simple without over-promising the benefits.

“We got some backdrops printed of some of our major destinations and even the bar in Upper Class. We put giant emojis into the backdrops with the idea that staff could get their profile picture taken in front of them.”

There were the inevitable balloons and cupcakes set up around the company where champions helped staff onboard and use the platform. They launched with a live broadcast of the CEO pressing a large button relayed on video screens around the main offices to show the invite going out to all staff.

“Although we have two companies, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays, we did not want to have a divide between the companies when it came to the platform, so our IT department combined the two sources of staff data from different active directories so there would be only one instance of Workplace, but tailored to the two companies.  9,000 invites went out that day and now 7,700 are on the platform – representing 73% since launch. We have also on-boarded key suppliers onto the platform.

“One of my favourite things was a competition called the Workplace Bonanza Super Showcase Prize Giveaway. We created a video and just wanted people to go on there to like it and win prizes.  Presenters from our TV show came on in sparkly jackets.  It was just a 5 minute long video but it went down so well. It got over 4,000 likes and so much positive feedback.  It helped that prizes included a pair of £900 headphones, some mixing decks and a Grey Goose starter kit.”

Virgin workplace launch

They do push news from the intranet onto Workplace, as the platform allows staff to interact more and build on the messages.

“For example our CTO went back to the floor with his engineers.  He posted on Workplace throughout the day; we created a gif of him dressed up as an engineer to generate excitement and interest around the story.

“With our Commercial Director we are running a feature called 15 questions in 15 minutes, where Jodie Gray from the comms team asks him quick fire questions. They have built up a rapport that works really well and the slot is proving very popular.

“The Director of Retail at Virgin Holidays gathers his entire leadership team and broadcasts live Wednesday on the sofa, where staff questions are read out and they all take turns answering them.   He follows it up with Friday on the floor when they run around the floor asking people what the next week’s questions will be.”

4. Integrating with O365

The fourth part of the adoption process Steve calls Dependency – making Workplace by Facebook central to the day to day operations of the organisation. This means building integrations that extend a communications platform into a portal for operational tools.

Content migration from the old SharePoint intranet into O365 has already started.  They are also busy developing integrations between teams, OneNote and OneDrive. As well as taking the friction out of processes it will also save money by replacing Box accounts and other licences.

Virgin intranet homepage

“WM Reply have built a fantastic intranet, by far the best I have worked on with a news function, easy tagging, and ‘mylinks’ that are presented as tiles on the homepage that the user can customise. Our intranet is the place for static content with a long lifespan and facts . It is also the gateway for all the tools that we use. Our aim is to have single sign on (SSO) so you can click on a button and get straight to any of the applications you need to do your job using multi-factor integration.”

The new intranet is topic and task-based so it will be easy for users to find the information most useful to them. Communication sites (built in SharePoint) will be used to run one-off campaigns like the Employee Survey results, where Steve and his team want to keep a subject alive for a number of weeks.

Chatbots take off

The new channel mix is designed to give the best of both worlds: high adoption levels from Workplace by Facebook combined with the enterprise capabilities of O365. But part of the integration will be managed through Chatbots – the clever pieces of code that work with any platform, creating a human-friendly interface – particularly for mobile users.

The first to be developed is Load Checker. This is a moblie app that tells Virgin staff how many seats have been sold in each class of a particular flight.  As well as being of great use to the crew and pilots, other staff are keen to see how popular a particular flight is so they can apply for discounted staff travel where seats are available. The chatbot was built using in-house contractors.

“Raza Ali, our project manager, took 20 people and asked them to fill in a spreadsheet on how they would ask for the loads on flights. He asked them how they would interrogate the app and noted their different ways of using airline lingo. It takes about 4 weeks to build the bot and then 4-6 weeks to train it to give the optimum answers.

“We have a working group where we sit down monthly to get requests from the business. We decide whether it is something to do on Workplace or maybe a chatbot could do the job better.”

So what is the role of IC in this new world where the lines between communication and operations are becoming  more blurred?

“I think it is all related. Our role has been to drive engagement and I believe a truly engaged employee is one who can access things easily.  If we as communicators can contribute to improving that then engagement is all about making stuff work more smoothly. Things like swapping rosters, knowing the loads on flights – these are all things our staff need to do their job better.”

Segment your audience

It has been a rollercoaster ride for Steve in his first year at Virgin. What was his greatest learning from those 12 months?

“I think I have learnt how diverse our audience are at Virgin. We have very highly engaged, energetic, fresh to the role employees who are quite young.  But we also have people who have been in the job for some years and who know the business really well.

“The engineering network and pilots have seen a lot of change – particularly with Richard Branson taking less of a role.  Over the years we have become perhaps a little less fun and more focussed on turning a profit, and we need to take our people with us on that journey.  I now see that perhaps we did not target our Workplace audiences enough for the launch.  We had 8-10 default groups when we launched, subjects that we thought would be of interest to everyone. But engineering and pilots told us that they were receiving too much. People can have quite a few days off, and there were too many email notifications when they returned on shift.  We had to reduce the groups and target more effectively. We had to move quickly when we launched but we could have spent more time doing it right.”

Business results

One early result has been a palpable reduction in email across both companies.  Virgin Holidays were sending all-staff emails 3-4 times a week; now it is one or less.  Also blogs are proving more popular – particularly now they are more likely to be on video and much more personal.

“To get the best results my advice is to really pay attention to your audience. We have to attract people’s attention and we only have a few seconds to do that. This means that the old skills still apply: clever headlines, compelling photography. Think about those promos to build a buzz about an issue or story and drive people to it. Don’t ever think just putting the message out there on one channel will do the job.”

Author: Marc Wright of simply communicate

Steve Clarke will be speaking at smileexpo 2018 – Get your tickets here or visit the event website: