Intranets in the worst of times

Sooner or later, something bad is going to happen in your organisation, and your digital workplace will be the place your colleagues go for information and support. You need to be ready.

Ten years ago this January, I left home extra early on the first day back from the Christmas break.

Something awful had happened to a colleague, and I needed to write something sensitive and current to put on the front page of the intranet.

As I was on the verge of publishing something I hated, the CEO walked in with a few words he said he’d “put together”. Far from being put together, it was outstanding, heartfelt, and compassionate. Within minutes, I had something ready to go live to the staff who were arriving and starting to log on.

That page was viewed by almost everyone in the company, and helped spur an international fund-raising effort. I had complete control of content on the home page, and we were able to set the right tone in a non-obtrusive but fitting way. To this day, I don’t know what I’d have done if my only option was a carousel with headlines and images.

In retrospect, we could have been a lot better prepared. In my time running that intranet we’d had to cover the deaths of the founder and a former company chair, but we were still caught out by something that was always a possibility.

Looking beyond the short-term

It’s a common complaint that intranets are treated as short-term projects when they need to be a consistent part of employees’ working lives. That thinking means that intranets aren’t conceived to take into account the certainties of company life.

Awful things happen – it’s only a matter of time – and it doesn’t have to take a high profile death to affect your colleagues deeply. But, if you only think of intranet news as CEO pronouncements, product news, personnel changes and occasional events, your intranet may not be ready to handle something significant.

Your intranet needs to be ready for a crisis

You need to spend time preparing. Ideally, this should be while planning your intranet, but doing this at any time is better than never.

Talk to colleagues and leaders about what crisis communications plans already exist. If there aren’t any, this may be your chance to lead.

Consider the kind of news that is likely to affect your organisation. Look in the media daily, and take time to reflect on what’s happening, and how you might approach such a story if it affected your business.

The more you look at the news, the better you’ll understand the intranet as a tool for emergency communications. Accessing information on the intranet can often be as simple as clicking on the home button in the browser.

For some organisations, the next crisis is only a matter of time from happening. This requires a lot more thought and connected thinking between the intranet and web teams, internal and external communications, HR, the board and other parts of the organisation such as legal or compliance.

This isn’t about you, and it isn’t about the intranet

This is about people having to work normally while under extreme stress, and how they can be reassured and supported.

And this could mean making changes to ensure that happens, possibly. Consider how major news events often start as confusing and contradictory and only become clearer later.

Your intranet should be designed to be able to react to these differing challenges. You probably don’t need to be ready for all eventualities, but you will benefit from considering how you might react from time to time. This is something you might consider for a team workshop or project.

Think about how intranet content is written for day-to-day use, particularly HR-related resources. How might information look on the worst day of an employee’s life? Amy Hupe’s excellent talk to SofaConf in June 2020 Designing Content For Emotionally Distressed Users is primarily for people designing web services, but anyone responsible for intranet content will learn from it.

Emotional distress may sound a strong term but, when highly stressed, employees can be distracted and more likely to make ill-informed decisions. In the face of uncertainty and speculation, people looking for quick answers might make all kinds of mistakes, with all kinds of knock-on effects.

One of Amy’s recommendations is to “reduce noise”, this makes sense for individual pages and, in a crisis, the home page too.

The emergency intranet home page

A modern cloud-based intranet is probably faster and more reliable than one on an old server sitting in a basement corner. It is unlikely to be overwhelmed by a wave of employees. However, bandwidth may be an issue, particularly when things are going wrong, and you may want to consider constructing a stripped-down version of your home page with just the information employees need, and all the extra content turned off.

There may be circumstances that radically change your organisation’s activities and you may choose to have alternative pages or designs ready for those moments. This may include being prepared for the death of a head of state. In the UK in 2021, this extended in some cases to the Queen’s husband the Duke of Edinburgh.

Getting the balance right…even for the good times

The bigger your organisation, the more competition you’re going to have for top-level content, and it is easy to get into the cycle of keeping up rather than one of analysis, reflection and preparation.

Bad things will happen within your organisation, it’s only a matter of time. Even if you aren’t fully prepared, that is very different from being completely unprepared.

However, this isn’t about you. It is about giving your colleagues, and therefore the whole organisation, the support they need at the time they most need it.

References and additional reading

Five Ways the Intranet Can Help During Difficult Times – Suzie Robinson (suzie-robinson.com)

Designing Content For Emotionally Distressed Users – Amy Hupe at SofaConf June 2020 on Vimeo

The lessons of history – the evolution of intranets | Intranet Focus | Intranet strategy & management

Life & Death Design by Katie Swindler | Chicago, IL (lifeanddeathdesign.com)

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