The the coronavirus crisis has made the importance of internal communication greater than ever before. Effective communication is the lubricant that connects people, creates a sense of community, and holds organizations together. Having an employee app has allowed many companies to remain capable of action, keep employees up-to-date daily, and implement necessary corporate measures quickly and effectively.

What is an employee app?

An employee app is a platform for internal communication. It focuses on the mobile channel in particular and is intended to be available to all employees, usually on both company and private devices.

Not only do employee apps remove the access barrier for communication, but certain essential functions such as push notifications also help to better activate dispersed employees compared to more conventional digital platforms for employee communication.

Anyone who starts researching employee apps will quickly notice that as simple as the concept may first appear, a whole host of questions will almost immediately arise. This is especially true for questions about technology, because at first glance everything looks familiar: a mobile screen, usually displaying news. That means your employee app is ready to roll, right?

The purpose of this overview isn’t to sell you an employee app (although if you're interested, you can find more information here), but rather to provide you with some practical orientation. 

At Staffbase, we have more than five years of experience in the introduction and development of employee apps for more than 400 organizations ranging from between 300 and 500,000 employees. 

Here we will discuss the 8 most important questions you should ask yourself when considering an employee app.

A graphic showing the eight most common questions about an employee app.
Here are eight of the most common questions asked about employee apps.

Don’t have time to read it all now? Don’t worry, we’ve compiled much of the information from this article into a free guide, Internal Communications App—All You Need to Get Started. Download it here.

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1. Is an employee app voluntary or mandatory?

This is a fundamental decision to make as you're getting started. Clarifying and communicating this point to all concerned from the very beginning will help prevent misunderstandings down the road. 

It is possible to mix voluntary and mandatory use. For example, management level employees might be given compulsory information via company-owned devices, while employees in production might voluntarily receive company news on their private smartphones.

Incidentally, in many countries, the question regarding voluntary use will be the first thing a works council will ask.

Here’s an overview of the main differences between voluntary and mandatory use:

Voluntary use:

  • Goal: better inform employees, encourage interaction, make everyday work easier
  • Devices: Private Smartphones + mostly private (data) charges
  • Alternatives: These methods may continue to be offered for sharing basic information (terminals, private PCs, limited edition of the employee newspaper, bulletin boards, etc.)
  • Advantages: Easy and cost-effective implementation
  • Disadvantages: Only limited reach for core work process

Mandatory use:

  • Goal: Mobile mapping of work processes
  • Devices: Smartphones / tablets (+ data charges) / WLAN (provided on-site by the company)
  • Alternatives: Not necessary
  • Advantages: Direct cost savings and direct improvements to core work process
  • Disadvantages: Higher investment costs, effort in maintaining many mobile devices

More than 90 percent of our customers offer the app for voluntary use. 

But how can you compel your employees to use the app voluntarily in the first place?

The main answer is that content in your employee app must be attractive and relevant for every individual employee. 

This brings us to our second question:

2. What kind of content works best for an employee app?

An employee app can only be successful if the interests and goals of both the company and its employees are taken into account:

An illustration of content strategy for an employee app: The Staffbase 8C Model.
A motivation-oriented view of the sample contents of an employee app: In addition to the differentiation between employees and companies, the differences between local and central administration plays an important role, especially in large companies.

By improving internal communication, companies can better achieve economic goals such as increasing the commitment, motivation, and job flexibility of their employees.

In addition, there are operational purposes such as the creation of more efficient personnel processes and employee self services with features like mobile vacation requests and shift planning.

Employees have a far greater self-interest in content that affects their immediate working environment and everyday work, such as the cafeteria menu, shift schedules, local site news, bulletin boards, and an employee marketplace.

Satisfying the interests and goals of the company and the employees must be taken into account when planning and implementing your content strategy.

The most important content and use cases of an employee app can be distinguished into four key areas: Communication, Interaction, Services, and Knowledge.

Contents and requirements of an employee app

Communication

Central use cases are company news or locally-specific updates. This need not always be top-down. A good employee app should support various formats here.

Examples and contents:

  • Promoting an understanding of strategy: Explaining vision, goals, and values, and using stories to make these explanations memorable to employees.
  • Help employees to get a picture of their company in the truest sense of the word: with pictures and videos (it’s a fact that many employees have never seen their CEO live or in a video).
  • Distribute time-critical information in real time via push notifications.
  • Ask employees for feedback and communicate its implementation transparently.
  • Communicate across departments or target group-specific channels.
  • Enable decentralized units to easily create content.
  • Combine of mandatory and voluntary channels.
  • Support operative communication (e.g. within a shift team).
  • Individual communication for moments that matter (e.g. onboarding).
An illustration
Communication with an employee app: Push notifications allow real-time updates—essential in crisis situations.

Interaction

Employee apps enable communication in two basic directions. Employees should be able to give feedback simply so that the organization can develop better and faster. An additional benefit is that the opportunity to actively participate and truly be heard leads to increasingly committed employees.

Examples and contents:

  • Questions to the management (public or anonymous).
  • Feedback via employee surveys.
  • Digital support of employee events (live survey, voting, questions).
  • Cross-departmental community building.
  • Social wall or bulletin board.
  • Raffles and competitions.
  • Collect ideas (digital suggestion box).
An illustration showing a CEO blog within an employee app.
A CEO blog allows employees to pose questions to the management. In the past, such formats were often reserved for intranet users. Now, with an employee app, everyone can be reached.

Knowledge

This use case may seem surprising at first, because employee apps are often thought of as being purely "news apps." Within this limited orientation, much potential and relevance for employees, as well as benefits for the company, are lost.

Knowledge and information that, unlike news, is permanently valid should be well structured and easy to find. Basic idea: Why not use content in the app to answer employee FAQs?

Examples and contents:

  • Emergency plans and contact persons.
  • Frequently requested topics (personnel, location information).
  • Important campaigns, projects, and events.
  • Information about the product and service range.
  • Uniformly provide frequently requested templates and documents.
  • Learning content (courses, short videos, quizzes).
Employeehandbook En 1024x912 1
An employee handbook in the app requires coherent navigation in order to be found easily. In a news feed, practical information can be easily lost.

This area is exciting because content can remain relatively stable, meaning that after your initial effort, there is less ongoing work for editors. For employees, however, this makes the app much more relevant by acting as a "company in your pocket."

An important requirement for a technology platform is therefore having content pages that are modular in structure, easy to edit, and that can be delivered to the right target groups via smart navigation.

Services

The focus of this use case is on the practical benefit for employees in their individual daily work routines. Those who can perform simple tasks themselves are more independent and generate less effort for internal service teams such as personnel.

Examples and contents:

  • Telephone directory
  • Shift schedule
  • Menu
  • Status of individual achievement of objectives
  • Employee discounts 
  • Leave requests and vacation status
  • Payroll accounting
  • Car-park occupancy
  • Carpooling availabilities
  • Travel management
An illustration showing shift- and vacation planning options as two examples of employee self services in an app.
Shift- and vacation planning are possible in an employee app. There are various ways to integrate third-party systems in order to bundle frequently required services in one place.

3. How are users administered and how do they log into an employee app?

Many production or service employees don't have a company email address and are not listed in company user directories (e.g. Azure Active Directory). In addition, their company tenure often fluctuates (e.g. temporary staff during the Christmas season).

On the other hand, many employees already have an AD account and want to log in to the app using Single Sign-On without having to enter a password with every use. An employee app should therefore offer options for both these target groups.

An illustration showing a typical example of two different types of login from Vi2Go, the Viessmann employee app.
A typical example of two different log-in options from Vi2Go, the Viessmann employee app. Viessmann employees are given a (company-owned) log-in for their single sign-on, while other users (e.g. retirees) have a normal log-in with user name and password.

Additionally desirable: information about location, contact data, or department, all of which can be used in the employee app for automatic personalization or a phone book.

User management can therefore become a very complex topic. The first step is to find the appropriate method for user onboarding or to combine different approaches for different target groups. 

The following is a brief overview. If you want to delve deeper, you will find a detailed description of all available options here.

An illustration showing an onboarding decision tree.
Decision tree for the user management of an employee app: A simple way to find the right procedure for your company.

4. What's the best way to brand and distribute an employee app?

At this point it is useful to consider the typical requirements and usage context of an employee app:

  • Ideal usage is regular (daily or weekly), but only for short periods (3–5 minutes).
  • Employee training about how to install and use the app is only possible to a limited extent.
  • Employee trust in data protection is important and must be communicated coherently (e.g. Does the app track my location? No. Is my personal data managed securely? Yes).
  • Various other tools and apps are often already in use or will be replaced by the app. How can clear recognition and differentiation between these tools be achieved?
  • Companies often take an employer branding approach with the app. Your employees should be happy to show the app on their phones, which will also act as a visible example of how your company is forward thinking and modern.
  • Existing internal media (an intranet or employee magazine, for example) have already established an internal brand for employee communication. Your app should reflect this branding.

All of these points support the strongest possible internal positioning of the app to be a recognizable and easy-to-use platform. We therefore see the company branding of employee apps as an important part of their success and sustainability. This applies to both the external and internal design elements of the app:

An illustration showing an example of strong app branding form STaffbase customer Viessmann.
Viessmann's Vi2Go app icon and welcome screen are part of the external app branding. The screen on the left shows the "public area" of the app, which is necessary for Apple to accept the app in its App Store. It can be used for external messages or to share information with job applicants. After an initial login, authorized users will have access to internal, personalized information.

Distribution of the employee app

There are various setup possibilities which we summarize and describe here in detail. Basically, distribution via the public App Stores is the best option. Employees know this process very well, because almost every smartphone user has already searched for and downloaded new apps in the App Store.

5. What should editors focus on in an employee app?

Good content is what makes an employee app attractive to users. An employee app platform must therefore support editors in their work. To get started, let's concentrate on three requirement classes that are important:

Easy and flexible content creation

Some sample requirements:

  • Different templates for news articles.
  • Decide which content needs to be sent via push notification.
  • Mark selected articles as important or request a read confirmation.
  • Schedule articles for publication.
  • Integrate videos externally, loaded directly onto the platform and streamed from there.
  • Pictures and picture galleries, with automatically optimized file size.
  • Share or copy articles to other news channels.
  • Create content both on the desktop and mobile.
  • Use predefined content widgets to build clearly structured pages.
  • Have a preview function.
Example of a preview function for editors
The content preview function for editors: Content can be previewed on different devices.

Delegation of content creation to local sites and users

Some sample requirements:

  • Local editors can create and manage content in their specific area, but are only normal users in the rest of the platform.
  • User-generated content is possible in selected channels (e.g. bulletin board).
  • Seamlessly combine global and local content from the user's perspective.

Simple and advanced analytics options

Some sample requirements:

  • Local editors and users can easily and directly see the frequency of views in the app.
  • Analytics function for admins and editors to compare views and interaction with content over any period of time.
  • Analysis of different content types: news, pages, and chat.
  • Filter user activity based on group membership: job profile, location, or department.

The last point is very exciting for organizations that employ diverse groups of employees. For example, our clients in the health care sector (hospitals) see differences in the use between doctors and nursing staff. Trainees are often the most frequent users of an employee app. This kind of information helps to approach these groups with relevant messages to further increase use of the app.

An illustration showing the Staffbase analytics dashboard.
The analytics function in the admin area of the Staffbase employee app platform.

6. How does an employee app fit with my intranet and digital workplace?

This question is often not urgent, but it will certainly come up at some point and that's why it's important.

Many companies use an employee app in parallel to an existing intranet. That's a good idea, because it allows you to get started quickly. Your app will often replace the printed employee newspaper or at least alter the way it's published.

An employee app can be operated alongside an existing intranet for a very long time. However, it is a strategic advantage if an app platform ultimately integrates with an intranet. After all, intranets and employee apps compliment one another with their respective strengths and weaknesses:

App Vs Intranet
Compare the strengths and weaknesses of an intranet and an employee app. The two tools complement each other well when combined in a single platform.

From this perspective, a future trend in intranets and employee apps will be for the two platforms to converge more and more. For this reason we now offer the Staffbase Employee Experience Intranet, an extension of our app platform to a complete intranet:

An illustration showing how the Staffbase employee app and desktop intranet look.
The employee app and desktop intranet on the Staffbase platform. The two combined become an employee experience intranet.

With an employee app, your intranet relaunch goes from slow-motion to warp speed.

Employee apps can be introduced quickly and they will finally allow you to reach all of your employees for the first time. This creates an opportunity for a smart relaunch of an existing intranet: An employee app can be the first part of an intranet introduction with a clearly visible success, giving you greater freedom in scheduling the migration of your remaining content.

Intranet To Ex Intranet
At first the app can exist next to the old intranet, but later will become an integral part of the new intranet.

7. What are the employee app requirements of larger companies?

The larger the organization, the greater the technical requirements for the the app and its supporting infrastructure.

Here's a short overview of five areas worth considering:

Data protection and security

Both topics are without question important to all companies, but larger organizations generally place even more emphasis on security certification. The gold standard for data protection is ISO27001 certification. Providers should not only certify a data center where the data is stored according to this standard, but the entire product organization as well.

We provide a detailed overview of the topic of data security in the video below, or you can read all about it in this informative white paper.

Multilingualism

Global organizations employ people from different countries who speak a variety of languages. An employee app should provide the best possible support in this regard:

  • App interface available in as many languages as possible (for example, Staffbase offers 34 languages).
  • Content and navigation can be created in different languages.
  • Merge multilingual comments under multilingual content so that discussions are not separated by language.
  • Automatic translations of comments and content.

Global + Local = Glocal — Creating freedom for decentralized administration

Very large companies are too widespread to maintain content centrally. They want to delegate some responsibility for content to national territories or even individual locations.

In this scenario, global-only editorial roles won't be sufficient. You need local administrators (e.g. for a plant or a country) who have extensive rights for certain areas in the app, but are still prohibited from viewing or changing all other global content.

Staffbase calls this concept “Spaces,” a feature which makes the simple administration of a wide range of content possible within very large companies.

Functional extensibility

Large companies often have many different tools in use. One of the most important IT strategy goals is to consolidate these applications to reduce cost and complexity. IT will therefore look at an employee app platform from this perspective—in addition to its user management and data protection aspects.

From an IT perspective, an employee app has a very special position: it is often the platform with the widest reach throughout the company. Services and content that are relevant to all employees should be integrated into this platform as easily as possible:

  • It should be possible to create functional modules to extend the app yourself or have them created by partners and connected to the app platform via an open programming interface (API).
  • Individual integrations to third-party systems should be supported by various options (linking, direct embedding with SSO, individual development).

Introduction and continuous app improvement

Large companies will need to invest more effort in an implementation project and are therefore particularly dependent on a structured approach. This applies not only to methodology, but also to the initial and ongoing support provided by an app service provider, who should act in accordance to the processes and expectations of the customer.

An illustration showing the Staffbase Employee Experience Framework
The Staffbase methodology for the introduction of an employee app. Each department has a set of defined activities that provide clear guidelines for the project team.

8. What does an employee app cost and can you build one yourself?

Almost all app providers offer their platform as a so-called Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution. This means that the use of the platform is paid for with an annual fee which covers things like hosting, support, and regular updates.

Fees are usually based on the number of employees invited, as well as certain functional modules that can be chosen optionally. One example of an optional module at Staffbase is the chat function, which some companies definitely want and others either don’t need or are using another chat platform.

On this basis, providers can create an individual offer. Employee apps are generally cheaper in their price per employee than Microsoft 365 licenses, for example.

Build an employee app yourself?

Most of the apps we use in everyday life are based on standard existing software. In fact, most companies also see a clear benefit in Software-as-a-Service providers for internal applications. The reasons are clear: low costs, reduced risks, and shorter delivery times. Internally developed apps struggle with these challenges in all three areas.

Here are some examples of time and costs:

Time

With a SaaS solution, an app can go live in a matter of weeks or even days. For your own programming of an app, this period will extend well over a year:

  • Concept: The 80/20 rule applies when creating the concept of a mobile app. The hidden part of the iceberg lies in the details: How exactly will user onboarding work? What do you do if a user loses their login information? What are mandatory fields for editors?
  • Decision Making: With your own concept, long internal discussions about anything from button colors to app functionalities may arise.
  • Approval: Answers to questions from the works council, data protection officers, and IT security teams.
  • Development: Three versions of an internal communication app are needed: Android, iOS, and Web.
  • Testing: Android, iOS, and Web each have different software versions and browsers on the market. All of this will lead to a lot of effort in testing.
  • Submission to the App Stores: For an internal communication app, it is important that it is made available in the App Stores where it must comply with strict guidelines.
  • Downtimes: The app is a very "visible" project in the company and requires a highly available hosting environment and ongoing support.
  • Maintenance Time: New Android and iOS versions often include changes which will have to be implemented promptly, otherwise the app will become inaccessible for all users of the latest version.

Costs

The estimate of costs should be based on the actual size of the project. An initial news view in the app can be quickly developed, but as shown, much more content and functionality is necessary for an app to be successful. The overall scope of the project should therefore not be underestimated:

  • Development costs: The complexity of a solution is very difficult to understand without a detailed concept. Topics that are typically underestimated include user onboarding (how to integrate users who don’t have company email addresses?); security (secure hosting environment); integration (synchronization with active directory or CSV?); media (image and video hosting); App Store Review (a number of different requirements have to be met to get the app into the App Store); Android complexity (different software versions, screen sizes, devices).
  • Cost of a content management system: "It's just an app" might be the thought of a development partner, who will subsequently give a low project cost estimate. But how does content get into the app? 75 percent of our development power at Staffbase is invested in things that are not immediately visible in the app, for example the content management system, performance, and infrastructure.
  • Maintenance costs: New Android and iOS versions often contain changes that need to be adapted quickly and continuously in the app.
  • Costs for wrong decisions: In a user-defined app project, the app usually cannot be tested with many users before its go-live.

Combining the best of both worlds

Every company will have its own specific requirements, meaning that not everything will work with a standard solution. That's why modern SaaS platforms like Staffbase are open platforms that are easy to customize and extend. 

Standard Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) allow individual extensions that will remain compatible even after updates to the core solution.

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Further information and current news about employee apps: