In 2018, Daimler officially opened a Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Russia. Located in the town of Esipovo, forty kilometers northwest of Moscow, it is the first plant in years to be opened by a foreign carmaker in the country, where investment into the once burgeoning auto industry dried up amid western sanctions and a stagnant economy.
The factory itself, built after Daimler signed a deal with Russia’s authorities in early 2017, produces 25,000 cars a year and employs nearly 1,000 people. Mercedes also has two offices in Moscow, with another 1,000 employees.
The company needed to find a way to foster and share communication between these locations, and after weighing their options they settled on Staffbase as the best solution for doing just that.
We spoke with Ilya Chuev, the Chief Information Officer at Mercedes Russia, and asked him about how the company is overcoming certain specific challenges when it comes to implementing an employee app in the face of some tough legal and cultural obstacles.
Staffbase: How did the idea of an employee app first come up at Mercedes Russia?
Ilya Chuev: When I joined Mercedes, we were already discussing the idea of purchasing some kind of internal communication platform for our employees. We were having the problem of being unable to reach everyone with certain types of corporate communication, things like general announcements about what was happening inside the company, our goals, where we’re heading or not heading in the coming year. Things like that.
We had our old intranet portal, but it was quite antiquated and it didn’t allow for mobile communication, which is to say that it wasn’t mobile-first and it didn’t feature an app.
Due to security reasons, we weren’t allowed to use any Google services for communication. Platforms like WhatsApp were also forbidden. We were looking at several solutions to see which ones were capable of dealing with our problems — things like reaching all of our employees — while also being able to meet our legislation requirements, IT security restrictions, and other similar things.
Once we finished our assessment, we chose Staffbase.
Staffbase: And what was your role in the project?
My task was to implement the Staffbase app within the company. We started our go-live procedures in February of 2018, and it took a couple of months to overcome the main challenges and deal with our legislation requirements.
In Russia, we have a lot of restrictions for companies operating with personal data, and particularly in regard to the transnational transfer of personal data, which in our case included the transfer of employee data to our German headquarters, as well as to the Staffbase server system.
It took a lot of time to comply with our cloud risk assessment as well as assessments from our governance and so on.
Staffbase: Were these legal restrictions your greatest challenge?
Ilya: I think the Russian mindset regarding change was our greatest challenge. When you try to implement something new in Russia, it’s normal for people to react with some anger, some reticence, and some fear. It was really hard to make our employees sign a consent to release personal data, which is a requirement from our internal legislation, and then get them to install the app and realize its potential to help them do their jobs.
So all of that was really quite a challenge, but after lots of internal promotion in our canteens, as well as some contests with attractive prizes, the app was quite well received and we’ve seen a burst of user activity.
Staffbase: How did you first find Staffbase?
Ilya: We were looking at several applications that could work as internal communication platforms, and there were a lot of requirements that it needed to meet: It would have to integrate with some of our existing tools; it had to have messaging capabilities; and we wanted it to have a newsfeed. We had a list of 10 or 12 parameters, and based on those, the best choice was Staffbase.
Staffbase: How much time was there between choosing Staffbase and going live?
Ilya: We made our decision in February 2018. In February and March, we negotiated our way through the contract signing processes and building the internal structure of the application. We were gathering all of our folders, all our channels, all the responsibilities for the platform, and aligning all the user uploading processes so that they’d be efficient and unnoticeable to our employees. Our actual go-live was in April.
Staffbase: You mentioned that there was a lot of resistance to this new tool, but with some PR campaigns and some prize giveaways, you were able to get people on board. Could you tell us a little bit about what those campaigns were like and where you are now in terms of app adoption?
Ilya: We had several contests where we really tried to showcase our employees’ creativity, like asking them to make a minute-long film about their life at Mercedes focused on their purpose at work, the factors that drive them, and so on.
We also had some contests for the New Years’ celebration where people were asked to make a short music video, and a lot of really beautiful work was posted as a result.
We had a photo contest where we chose three different objects and asked our employees to put those objects into one photo. We judged the entries on their degree of creativity and the unusual thinking in which our employees approached the task.
First prize was given to a woman who made a complete dress using just vegetables. It was amazing! She was standing alongside a Mercedes dressed entirely in cabbage, and it was really beautiful.
Staffbase: When you have a new hire, are they given access to the app as part of their onboarding process?
Ilya: New employees are informed from the beginning that we have an app and that they need to sign a consent to personal data processing. They do as soon as they start their job. At first, we had a special video from our CEO who briefly described and promoted the app, but after he was replaced in September, we’ve had to remove it.
Going forward, I think something like a quick manual that you see when you open the app will be quite useful. And we’re thinking about changing the welcome message. We want to ask in the settings for new hires to agree to all the terms and conditions related to the app use, and we’ll also try to notify users about what they can they find in the app.
Staffbase: How many employees actively use the app?
Ilya: For this week we have 180 active users with the daily activity of less than 100. That being said, it’s August and lots of our employees are on vacation. Our registration rate is around 71%, which according to a benchmark, is a very good rate.
Staffbase: That’s great!
Ilya: We also have more than 300 employees in pending status because our colleagues in the plant aren’t properly distributing invitations to employees.
Many of the pending users simply don’t know about the app.
These people are mostly non-desk employees who don’t have laptops or access to corporate email. Of course, it’s these people who will find the most value in an employee app, and so we’re going to push our colleagues with new contests and promotions and really try to activate those pending accounts.
Staffbase: How many locations are you trying to connect?
Ilya: We have two offices and one plant. In our plant, we have approximately 1,000 employees, and among them we have maybe 200 users active and 200 in pending status. The two office locations total about 1,000 employees, and we have about 700 of them in the app.
Staffbase: It sounds as the people who are aware of the app are reacting in a positive way. It’s ironic that those 300 pending users are remote or non-desk employees who are the main audience for a mobile app, and it’s exactly this kind of information that you could make easily available via an employee app.
Ilya: It’s taken a while to bring some understanding about the benefits of the app to my colleagues, but as they learn more about the possibilities, they’re becoming a bit more flexible.
We have several ideas about developing embedded pages, which I find extremely useful. We want to set up some popular links that users can browse in the morning, whether it’s something like The New York Times or weather forecasting or traffic reports, etc.
When I first proposed these sorts of ideas, I faced a lot of corporate resistance. The C-level didn’t feel that stuff like this was business-relevant content. But my argument was that if we’re developing a true internal communication or employee platform, it needs to present practical value to our employees.
We want to provide things which are opened on a daily basis by everyone. Once you can find everything you need in one place, we’ll have a really great app. That’s the direction we want to go.
Staffbase: What’s resonating with the people who are currently using the app? What brings them back on a regular basis?
Ilya: I think they’re checking some of the practical things like the cafeteria menu on a daily basis. They also seem to be using the chat feature.
Staffbase: Well, I’m not surprised to hear that the cafeteria menu is a hit. As simple as it sounds, people want to know what they’re having for lunch! But I understand the challenge of trying to get people to adopt the app in their daily work lives, especially given these cultural resistance attitudes that you pointed out earlier. What do you plan to do about that? Do you have any great ideas about how to get the attention of those people and make the value of the app apparent to them?
Ilya: We’ve had several ideas about giving the department whose users are most engaged in the app on a daily basis something like a discount in the Canteen or a free coffee or yogurt. And maybe on the last day of the month we’ll give away a big prize.
Staffbase: That sounds like a good idea. Everyone loves free food and prizes!
Thank you so much for sharing these insights. We can’t wait to hear how things proceed as you move forward with the app. It sounds like by this time next year you’ll really have things rolling. We’ll be sure to check back, but in the meantime, good luck!