Leadership Lessons: Bridging expectations and creating value

Originally published on Unily.

Creating a new intranet for the first time can be challenging when your employees have low expectations of its potential. Yet it can open up many new ways to engage your staff that until now may have been impossible to consider. Just how do you go about bridging those expectations, ending up with something new and at the same time valuable?

We couldn’t pass up an opportunity to hear from a new Unily customer who has just done that. Having just launched their first intranet in December 2017, I spoke to James Searle, Internal Communications Manager at Southampton Football club. Being a top-flight English Premier League football club, they have a very fast paced, results driven culture where the important thing is winning football matches!

With 400 staff spread across three locations, Searle told me he has a lot of different needs to deal with. His audiences are split across three sites: a 32,000 capacity St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton; the team’s training ground nearby; and an adjoining site at the University of Bath that hosts the club’s youth Academy. They also do a lot of outreach work in the local community with 60 staff working in the club’s Foundation, liaising with local schools and organisations.

Employees at the forefront

A lot of the team are out and about and on the move: between training grounds, ferrying players and youth teams or prospects around, along with other staff including a team of grounds people, security staff and scouts. A real mixture of disciplines in addition to their commercial and support staff who work at St Mary’s Stadium.

Searle began by telling me he faces two major challenges working with so many different kinds of staff. First, some rarely have time at a desk-based computer, and rarely get the chance to be fully informed with the club’s busy schedule and going’s on. Second, some staff have never experienced an intranet before and therefore take longer to grasp its benefits.

“We predominately bought the tool for a ‘comms’ channel and as a one-stop-shop for everything about the club.”

Because of these challenges, Searle took a very vanilla approach to the intranet’s initial launch back in December. “We predominately bought the tool for a ‘comms’ channel and as a one-stop-shop for everything about the club.” By launching Unily at “40 to 50% capacity…” gave him space to slowly introduce it to staff without overwhelming them with too many new features that might never get used.

Now, five months in, he told me it felt like the right time to ask, “‘Right, you’ve had time to use it, you know a bit about how it works… now let’s start to add some colour to it.'” He always knew he had to establish “some real tangible benefits that they can look at and go ‘Oh yeah, OK I can actually see why this is worthwhile now.'”

How will it benefit us?

No matter if you are another football club, financial institution, to a high street retailer, this is the hardest but most important question you will ever be faced with: why and how will it benefit me in doing my work? Failing to answer that question could mean losing their sympathy for your intranet.

“It’s about where I can streamline processes and find pain points in their current working day.”

Thankfully, Searle was up for the challenge. His retort was simple and correct: “I’m looking at those guys where I can win on productivity… And give them a bit of time back.” He knew only providing them with a communications tool would not be good enough. Rather, as he explained, he had to go further in finding the intranet’s ‘sweet spot’, of how it will positively improve staff at the club’s work. “It’s about where I can streamline processes and find pain points in their current working day.”

The club’s two graphic designers were spending too much time dealing with emails regarding design work requests. This was reducing the time they could spend actually designing. By introducing simple Unily form where all design requests must now be submitted they bought back at least two hours a week that was previously spent in dialogue with internal stakeholders.

But what about those staff who may fail to understand the whole point of the intranet? Searle was sanguine in his response, clearly aware of the challenges ahead of him. He answered me with a refreshingly creative approach, that also illustrates his determination to ensure no group of staff, no matter who they are, would be excluded from the club’s many activities.

Over a few minutes, he outlined the idea: “We think we may take a slight step back. And go back to a small print run. It will be branded exactly the same as the intranet. It will be Team Talk Live, it will be a short monthly piece that will go out.”

A nice response, and demonstrating his commitment to use work with all his communication tools to overcome what could otherwise be a tricky problem. With a printed newsletter, a minibus driver can fold it up and take it with them on their rounds. Having teasers to each story in full on the intranet, he has found a simple way of slowly persuading this historically hard to reach group to want to explore it more. And never to miss out on an opportunity, he said he’s also contemplating using QR codes too, to help everyone easily download the Unily mobile app too.

Integrating existing tools

But what about the many teams who have for a long while used their own tools too, such as WhatsApp to talk to one another? As he told me, “A lot of our coaches, a lot of our teams will all have a department WhatsApp group.” Given the embedded use of WhatsApp at the club, I wondered what his strategy is: try the risky tactic of replacing it, or perhaps work alongside it now everyone is using it?

Again, Searle was characteristically pragmatic in his approach telling me that “…we need to start to find those other factors that drag you in”, and while you’re there, catch your eye about opportunities or announcement that you may have missed. “So you almost wipe your feet on the way through, you spot some of the news, and then you can’t say you didn’t know something was happening.”

Adding an example, using the intranet to do a common task like booking a room becomes an up-sell opportunity. “On your way to that, you’ll see a piece of news that you could win tickets to a game. Or that your pension is going to change in the next couple of months.”

The journey

Drawing our conversation to a close, I asked Searle given all these challenges, what was his overall design philosophy? His answer was simple. Get as much time in front of the club’s staff as possible. That way, as he told me, he gets to do the ‘show and tells’, explain what it does in person, while using the opportunity to collect up new ideas too.

“A lot of people have said that’s been very beneficial.” Its only when he’s show it to the club’s many teams and departments, has the penny started to drop. For example, from showing it to the club’s leadership team have begun to realise how it can help improve “their visibility.”

Along the way in that journey, he said he’ll be in a position to start building out more features. He told me, “Once I’ve spoken to every department, I should then be in a good position to gather their feedback together.” Beyond its initial communications focus, he wants to work “out how the extra 40, 50 percent of capabilities is built around” the club’s staff needs.

What’s so refreshing about Searle is that while he is at the start of his journey, he is prepared to engage as many staff in the club as possible about the intranet’s potential. He ended with an analogy of planting a tree. Telling me they’ve “just planted it and for now the roots are nice and compact. Going forward, those roots will start to sprawl out. And start to reach different parts of the club.”

With so much energy and creativity that Searle has already put in so far, we can be rest assured that their new Unily intranet will bear the fruit’s of his labours very soon.