Head of Corporate Communications Albrecht von Truchseß and Head of Digital Communications Projects Carsten Lucassen talk about their decision to implement an internal communications app; reaching employees without computer access; and the cultural shift brought on by digitalization at the Germany-based company.

More Transparency. Fewer Gaps in Communication.

What kind of role does digitalization play in internal communication?

Albrecht von Truchseß: Digitalization brings change. In other words, areas that haven't yet experienced change soon do. When it comes to communication with non-desk employees, for instance, the app finally enables us to do the seemingly impossible. In the fields of production and logistics, you will find that you can hardly—if at all—reach these crucial target groups via conventional channels.

Carsten Lucassen: The app is a supplement to our existing communication channels. We print about 10,000 copies of our employee newspaper three times a year, and you can find it all over our company; i.e., it's distributed across the board. But digital channels? You can't reach non-desk workers or the sales department (which mostly uses iOS devices) using a classic intranet connection. This means that the app actually closes two gaps in communication at the same time.

Von Truchseß: The app runs on our employees' private devices. Seeing as it's optional, it's all the more important for the content we deliver to be of good quality. Up to now, managers and employees communicated in-house through word of mouth. Our regional newspaper is also important for in-house communication because our employees are often asked about what's in it. In rural areas like this, in-house communication obeys slightly different laws to what you might be familiar with in the rest of the country.

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Why do your employees need an app?

Von Truchseß: They need an app so we can close a gap in communication and foster interaction. And because, ultimately, we want all employees to be kept up to date. In addition, we want to foster open and transparent communication that transcends hierarchical boundaries, and we don't want one-way communication. We want dialogue. So far, nearly 3,000 employees have downloaded the app.

Where did the name "Vi2go" come from?

Lucssen: The names of our products begin with "Vito." The name of the app plays around with this while also trying to get across the idea of having a slice of the company "to go."

What kind of content can I find in the app?

Lucassen: News, an internal job board, and a virtual bulletin board where employees can sell things, arrange car shares, or find out about events. There's also an abbreviation glossary, cafeteria menus for our biggest production sites, idea management, and access to time sheets and vacation request forms.

What made you choose the content that you did?

Von Truchseß: We asked our employees what they really needed. So we began by examining relevant data, i.e., the sorts of pages our employees tend to click when using the intranet. Of course, it came as no surprise to see the cafeteria menu at the top of the list. Next, though, was the internal job board.

Lucassen: That was just the beginning. We then broadcast intranet usage and got people to give their views. The likes and comments soon began to come in. On Vi2go, we mentioned the Wood Energy Forum, for instance, which several employees from the sales department visited. They were happy to find the topic in the app, which they commented on, seeing as sales people tend to be big communicators.

Why is it so important to have communication channels that are specific to particular areas?

Von Truchseß: Here we have around 4,500 employees, with 2,000 of them in production. If they want to see their holiday sheet or their time sheet, for instance, they can use the app. Of course, this also works the other way round: let's say I want to arrange a special shift for Saturday as the Line Manager. Basically, I enter the shift plan into the app, announce it, and the first ten to "like" the announcement come on Saturday. That's something the employees wanted.

We now have a tool that does so much more than provide information. Our app has the potential to become the central platform for communication and teamwork.

What's the main communication goal of the app?

Von Truchseß: The main theme is transparency and making communication and knowledge accessible to everyone. The app is a tool that ensures everyone can keep up to date. I can chip in with things that interest me, people will see how much I've done, and I can learn. So, first you have the communication channel, and the communication follows.

Do employees get a sense of self-esteem from the app?

Von Truchseß: Absolutely. If you start something like this, you have to prepare yourself for its rapid success. Several employees come up to you to talk to you about things that interest them. This is because they have so many more opportunities than with a single publication that's only published three or four times a year.

An app is also a much more laid-back tool: it doesn't involve endless edits and approvals. You just upload a photo with four or five sentences, and the reader feels in safe hands. The app changes the way communication is structured, as there's no need for a piece to first jump through countless editorial hoops. A piece no longer has to go through twenty departments before it finally gets printed several weeks later.

How are you using the new formats?

Lucassen: Here's a good example: we're able to listen to employees who are working temporarily in different departments. Let's imagine an employee has done some sort of in-house internship in our Digital Unit in Berlin in order to see how we work and to develop her own working methods. A format that allows her to report her experience in her own words is just perfect for the app.

In our own academy, we also make films: a short intro, a video, an ending. We made a film about harvesting methods, for instance, as some of our heat comes from the fields around the factory. What we harvest from the poplar fields ends up in our wood-chip system, which supplies the bulk of our factory with heat.

The feeling of participation is even greater when employees find out from the app that Minister President of our home state of Hesse, Volker Bouffier, is inaugurating our power-to-gas plant today, not tomorrow as stated by the newspaper.

The introduction of an employee app also represents a cultural change since employees can use it on their own devices. How did you approach this issue?

Von Truchseß: Before we even started we posed the question: is this the right time for this app, and are we ready? But the mood was just right, and we hardly had to persuade anyone. Support from above was particularly important: the owning family has always been good about initiating developments early. This now applies to our digital transformation, hence the cultural change in the company.

Of course, it's no help whatsoever if people suddenly loosen their ties, put on their hoodies, rest on their laurels, and say "We're good now." The constant drive for improvement and the willingness to go in new directions is part of Viessmann's genetic makeup.

Despite all the demands for perfection, we released the app early as a minimum viable product with just a few basic functions. Since then the focus has been on testing, discussing, discarding, and improving.

And how long did this development process last?

Von Truchseß: Just a few weeks. We didn't start by writing up functional and technical specifications, develop a prototype, and only then release a finished product. The first workshop was held in early November, and a diverse team of employees came up with an initial blueprint for the app in six hours.

Who was part of this team?

Von Truchseß: Representatives from the Workers Council, HR, and IT; the digital transformation team, marketing, and our own department. The great thing about such a diverse team was that everyone could contribute their own point of view.

But there was one point on which we all agreed: If the app was to succeed, it needed to benefit the daily lives of our employees. This meant not only providing a news channel, but also seemingly trivial things such as a cafeteria menu and a bulletin board.

We then got together fairly quickly with Staffbase. In early December we had our Central Management Forum. When we called the external developers to ask whether we could present an initial, clickable prototype, they grimaced at first but quickly agreed it was worth a try. And it worked!

Vi2Go Prize-Winner
Screenshots (c) App/Vi2Go

Be it photos or explanatory videos, our employees receive information practically in real time—and they react. Many company apps are standardized today, and the prices tend to depend on the size of the company.

So was the Management Forum the first customer test?

Von Truchseß: Indeed it was! And it garnered several possible responses that we were able to incorporate into our next developments. This encouraged us to aim for roll-out on February 1. We knew a lot could go wrong, but the deadline was set. We wouldn't mind taking out a function or making it less fancy—as long as the app went live on February 1.

These were start-up thoughts that we've transferred to several other projects since then. The first 2,000 downloads came quickly, and several people from abroad are also opting in despite not speaking any German.

Did you track the first 2,000 downloads?

Lucassen: We did, though the data is distorted, seeing as we started later for non-desk employees. The first 2,000 downloads came quickly, though we were actually happier about the downloads that followed. Since February 1, we've been seeing a slower increase in downloads, though we still see 10 to 20 new users daily.

We're not advertising the app. Instead, employee curiosity is piqued when they notice their colleagues have got their hands on new technology. Some were skeptical about using their personal phones or tablets, saying "I'm not great with apps." But then they realized their colleagues were more in the loop thanks to the app.

We could be radical and stop doing printed publications right away, but we're not keen on that idea. In order for the app to be accepted, it's crucial that employees feel confident and that they have alternatives.

We meticulously examined data security beforehand, and we don't track any GPS data, for instance. After all, I wouldn't use an app if I wasn't sure it was secure. Anyone who's still concerned about security can use the app on their PC.

How big is your team?

Von Truchseß: We have just over a dozen employees covering three areas: Classic Corporate Communication, Strategic Association Work, and Sustainability. Our subsidiaries and foreign subsidiaries all have their own contacts, and we keep in close contact with them.

Carsten Lucaßen and Albrecht von Truchseß, Viessmann
Carsten Lucassen and Albrecht von Truchseß in the state-of-the-art Viessmann company headquarters in Allendorf. Photo (c) Julia Nimke 

Do you think in terms of themes or channels?

Von Truchseß: We don't differentiate between internal and external communication. Instead, the work we do depends heavily on the project, and we frequently work in teams from various parts of the company. A silo mentality won't get you anywhere.

Are communication and marketing separate in your company?

Von Truchseß: Yes, but the two departments work closely together. There are, however, key differences: channels are one thing, but the messages are a different kettle of fish depending on whether I'm advertising and getting the products across as a brand or whether I'm getting the company across as a brand.

Do you need a lot of leeway in terms of budget?

Von Truchseß: We do need substantial leeway, though not in terms of budget. This is because we've started small and we have a start-up mentality, meaning we want to achieve as much as we possibly can with as little as possible. Then, if we fail, we can handle it. That's because we haven't come up with a gigantic app after a number of analyses and two years of development. We wouldn't do it again any differently.

Lucassen: It also makes for quicker, modular development. If something doesn't work, I don't have to double back. Instead, I can just pause for a bit and quickly move on. In that sense, we can't really talk about an overall budget, but rather just individual elements.

What content is coming out next?

Lucassen: We're continuing to develop the app into a digital information and communication hub. We've integrated idea management, for example, with 100,000 suggested improvements a year. Then there's Viessmann Selection, which is our merchandising shop. Both previously had their own apps that we've now been able to integrate.

The next stages of development involve integrating our job portal and establishing a public area that contains information and content for end customers and market partners.

Do you need to be brave to hand over control?

Von Truchseß: The fact of the matter is that we haven't been able to control some communication for a while already—companies only have to look at how many Facebook pages and Facebook groups there are that bear their name. When you simply take a glance at the things employees are organizing all over the Internet, it's staggering. Not to mention the customers. Those who are still afraid of loosening the reins on communication fail to see that it's been like that for a long time already.

What were the technical challenges?

Lucassen: It wasn't the app itself, but rather the interface. In other words, the link between the app, Viessmann IT, and our employees. The app is on an external server, and the provider is practically responsible for everything until we get to the factory entrance itself, which is where we take over.

Without being part of the Viessmann environment, the app needs to be able to recognize whether someone is our employee or not.  So, it asks our IT whether someone works here, and it gets a token that says either "yes" or "no."

In other words, the virtual factory entrance is the interface. New employees get access automatically, but we have to make sure that employees who leave can't just stand outside the factory and communicate with the app.

That surely requires a sophisticated system for identifying permissions and roles, doesn't it?

Lucassen: It certainly does. We have users, editors, managing editors, and administrators. We also have various user groups that may be regional. The Hof, Berlin, and Mittenwalde sites now also have their own news channels. We're also planning to launch the app in Finland and Hungary.

Do you have a universal content management system for all your sites?

Von Truchseß: Indeed we do because, all spontaneity aside, it's important to take scalability into account from the very outset, ensuring there's room for improvement in every area. If you have to consider everything in advance, you're dumbfounded. But we don't actually write in Finnish ourselves, so instead we provide on-site employees with the toolbox. That way employees won't expect to suddenly encounter a technological blockade seeing as they'll be starting from scratch. So the good news is we can definitely make rapid progress.

How much does that cost?

Von Truchseß: The app is a subscription model (depending on the number of users), but it's still far less expensive than printed publications.

Isn't it a problem then that the more successful the app, the more expensive it gets?

Von Truchseß: That's the kind of problem we'd like to have. The more successful the project, the more willing management will be to lend its support. Don't forget that.

What have you discovered now that you've had the app for a while?

Von Truchseß: You don't need dozens of strategy meetings or loads of project management in order for communication to blossom. Sometimes, all you need are simple resources in order to launch a new tool. But when you design this tool, you have to focus on the people who will use it—and you need to integrate them in the planning. Not only does this strengthen employee commitment, but it also fosters digital transformation in general.

The original interview was conducted by Hilkka Zebothsen for the magazine PressesprecherEnglish translation by Robert Grover.

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