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Social connection: The changing hierarchy of intranet needs

Most people are aware of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, the pyramid with basic requirements like food and shelter at the bottom and more lofty goals at the top. In Maslow’s pyramid, “Belongingness and love needs” sit right on top of safety – our need for each other is only slightly less important than our need to not be eaten by a bear.

This “pyramid of needs” theory is often used in digital workplace design: ensuring foundational user requirements are given priority. Usually, these are considered to be information and systems to facilitate daily work.

"The primary purpose of intranets is to support staff in doing their jobs to help them complete common business tasks," says James Robertson of Step Two.

We digital workplace consultants are forever lecturing business teams about focusing on user needs and not simply serving them a lot of top-down communication. I have no argument with this, it’s best practice. But both recent client experience and conversations with peers have indicated that these needs are changing.

The role of the digital workplace is to holistically support work life and fill the gaps left by a distributed workforce, either due to working from home or organisation structure. These gaps can be technical such as document sharing or system access. They can be process-driven like requests or training. They can exist around desirable activities like ideation or recognising success. And – increasingly – there are significant gaps in the social fabric of our organisations.

After years of remote and hybrid work, fewer people need to be hand-held to find Teams or Planner. The systems for collaborating – both synchronously through chats and meetings and asynchronously via co-authoring and review – are central to most knowledge workers’ days. The need to collaborate is still fundamental to a team member’s success and satisfaction, but there is less requirement for the digital workplace to contribute through helpful links and “how-to” micro training. The gap is smaller.

Conversely, the social gap is growing. According to Buffer's State of Remote Work 2022, "52% of global employees feel less connected to their co-workers since they shifted to remote working."

I contend that the social value of a digital workplace – most likely concentrated within an intranet – should be one of the higher priorities. When designing a digital interface that supports remote work, the team should give the greatest consideration to how this platform will connect people. It’s nice to have an ideation widget that allows people to submit their ideas, but unless you can facilitate some informal discussion and cross-pollination across disciplines, those ideas are going to be pretty bland. While chat tools like Teams and Slack are great for team-based communication, the intranet is still the leading place for broad organisational messaging and cues to the social knowledge in an organisation.

I use the term “social value” deliberately as an organisation’s social fabric of relationships, trust, shared history, and knowledge has a dollar value. This is illustrated by the term “social capital”: the social knowledge and credit built up over time that helps people function effectively and confidently in the workplace. Smart organisations are now realising the need to proactively supplement their social capital via digital means, and the intranet is one of the most effective places to do this.

The concept of an intranet building social bonds is not new. There are many modules within a standard intranet offering that can help create and maintain human connection, they just need priority in terms of positioning, maintenance and user education:

  • Onboarding – connecting new starters with a few relevant contacts to establish a social base
  • Employee recognition and celebrating success
  • Likes, comments and shares encouraging discussion and contribution
  • “Working out loud” through chat or status updates
  • Functionality to facilitate in-office catch-ups
  • A platform for mentoring

This social functionality must then be normalised and used, which involves senior management. Remote or in the office, the leadership team (or a trusted proxy) must be commenting, liking, posting and congratulating for a social initiative to be effective. Imagine the impact of having the CTO send you a quick message or invite you to a lunch and learn when you have just started a new job. Receiving public acknowledgement of a job well done or a great blog post can do wonders for an isolated team member who may be feeling invisible. With a correctly provisioned digital platform, these social needs can be addressed cost-effectively to the benefit of all.

We all still need to log in to the HR system and check our annual leave. Many of us require templates and forms and publishing approvals. But it’s worth acknowledging our psychological needs and dedicating a proportion of prime intranet space to less practical – and more human – priorities.

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