Corporate intranets have been used in some shape or form since the 90s, and many of them are worse for wear.

While the idea might be old, however, intranet offerings are constantly adapting to trends, adding functionality and purpose. The latest in modern intranets—what we’re calling the Employee Experience Intranets—bears little resemblance to the clunky, pandering versions of yesteryear.

In fact, these intranets are far from obsolete—they’re more important than ever before

What is an Intranet?

Depending on the organization, intranets can manifest as a website, internal communications platform, collection of collaboration tools, knowledge sharing platform, or even social network—there’s no one single definitive format. As a result, there’s often confusion about what exactly constitutes one.

Let’s try to break it down...

At the most basic level, an intranet is a private internal network designed to support an organization’s employees by facilitating communication, collaboration, and information sharing. They’re one of the many tools that make up the digital workplace, in addition to collaboration tools, cloud-based productivity solutions, and traditional enterprise applications. Together, these tools constitute the digital employee experience (DEX).

Staffbase Digital Employee Experience Diagram
Image courtesy of Step Two

Most intranet solutions provide a desktop web-based interface in which things like calendars, project timelines, task lists, confidential files, and messaging tools are available. Examples of products currently on the market include offerings like Microsoft SharePoint, Huddle, Igloo, Jostle, and Staffbase.

What’s the Difference? Intranet vs. Internet vs. Extranet

While all three act as information hubs, the core difference lies in accessibility.

While the internet is a public network accessible to all, intranets are privately owned and accessible to only members of a company. An extranet is like an intranet in its content matter, but it may be accessed by authorized third parties such as customers, vendors, or partners. 

Staffbase Overview of Intranets vs. Extranets vs. Internets

Why are Intranets So Important Right Now?

COVID-19 has changed the future of work, advancing digital transformation for workers across industries. According to research from Gartner, nearly three quarters (74%) of CFOs expect to transition previously on-premise employees to remote work permanently, driven largely by a desire to cut real estate costs.

Staffbase Graph Percentage of Remote Workforce Post-COVID
Image courtesy of Gartner

This changes the nature of communication for countless jobs, now to be conducted mainly through intranets and other collaboration software. Without the right combination of tools, this transition to full-time remote work invites the potential for neglect as more employees leave branded workplaces to enter roles reminiscent of those of frontline workers or gig-workers—a historically unengaged demographic. 

What's more, this neglect has serious monetary consequences.

For Staffbase customers in the automotive industry, for example, the comms and engagement gap for non-desk workers was costing them roughly 4,300 USD per employee per year. By accelerating digital transformation with an intranet, employees saved an average of 7.7 hours per month, equating to a 3,500 USD savings per employee per year.

Staffbase Direct Productivity Savings

How Has the Intent Behind Intranets Changed Over Time? 

Despite popular opinion, there are no inherently “good” or “bad” intranets—the strategy and idea behind them has simply changed over time. To understand them in their current iteration, let's take a look back at how they've adapted to trends over time.

Stage 1: The Basics

In the mid-90s, intranets entered the mainstream as simple, go-to internal web pages for links and resources with the goal of improving internal organization. 

Princeton University Outdated Intranet
Princeton University's Intranet circa 1996

Stage 2: Internal Comms

In 1996, Frontier Technologies made waves after introducing a groundbreaking product called “Intranet Genie.” This was not just another company homepage—it featured applications for document sharing, messaging, and more, designed to facilitate communication and collaboration among employees.

With this addition of internal comms functionality leading intranets toward digital internal homepages, comms and intranets became permanently intertwined.

Stage 3: Employee Self Service Portals

In the early 2000s, organizations began adding Employee Self Service functionality (ESS) to their intranets with the goal of taking work away from HR and saving time by empowering employees to complete more things by themselves.

This was achieved using portals—software that was easily integrated with existing intranets but presented barriers to previous methods of content management, quickly becoming expensive as a result of custom building. 

Stage 4: Social Networks

In 2010, social intranets—also known as interactive intranets—were used to encourage greater teamwork and knowledge sharing, featuring social media-like functionality like comments, likes, interactions, and team rooms. Software on the market featured mainly collaboration-centric Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) like Jive, IBM Connections, or Sharepoint.

Social intranets are limited, however, in their collaborative capabilities, as most don’t offer document management systems or tools for carrying out other HR and business processes. 

Dilbert SharePoint Comic

Stage 5: Microsoft 365

In 2017, Microsoft made big additions to Microsoft 365—the popular office software suite to which Sharepoint belongs—with the addition of Teams, Communication Sites, and Hub Sites. These new tools were part of Microsoft’s ongoing mission to dominate the DEX space by combining communication tools (Teams, Yammer, Outlook) and productivity tools (SharePoint, Planner, BI Portal, OneDrive, Word/Excel/PPT) in a single place.

However, the sheer number of tools served only to devalue Sharepoint, and the question of “what actually comprises an intranet” grew muddied. For Micorosoft 365, intranets are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  

Stage 6: Modern Intranets

The latest entrants to the intranet space—what we're calling Employee Experience Intranets—occupy the sweet spot of simplicity and collaboration between social intranets and Microsoft 365. They're hyper personal branded digital hubs that are mobile first and phase out more immediate collaboration that happens in Slack or Teams.

In other words, collaboration and teamwork are no longer a core task and requirement of modern intranets.

Staffbase Intranet Example Mobile and Desktop Versions
Example of an Employee Experience Intranet From Staffbase. The interface is optimized for both mobile and desktop individually, but the underlying platform is the same. Content is only created and distributed once for all platforms.

So What Defines a Modern Intranet?

Given this realignment of core tasks, the goal of the modern intranet is to act as a personal guidebook to the employee journey for those entering the virtual workplace of tomorrow.

These intranets do so by improving four key areas of the employee experience: 

Staffbase Employee Experience Intranet Diagram: Communication, Contribution, Empowerment, and Learning

1. Contribution

For organizations to continue learning better and faster, there is nothing more indispensable than employee feedback:

“As a leader, you need to have a strong voice and you need to know when it’s time to listen. A real conversation is a two-way dialogue; it requires both parts.”

Amy Jen Su, co-owner of Paravis Partners (Source: HBR)

What's more, employees want to be heard.

According to a recent Salesforce report, employees who feel their voice is heard at work are nearly five-times (4.6x) more likely to to perform their best work, and employees who say their company provides equal opportunities are nearly four times (3.8x) more likely to say they are proud to work for their company.

Both of these goals can be met with a modern intranet, collecting feedback using in structured (surveys, social walls) and unstructured (comments and likes) ways to create involvement opportunity at all levels. This in turn promotes networking, exchange, and shared experiences. 

Employee Survey
Example of an Employee Survey Plugin from Staffbase—a classic feedback method that helps measure employee attitudes and perceptions about everything from leadership styles and business practices to an individual’s satisfaction with compensation and benefits.

The Benefits:

  • Reduced risk: Greater transparency regarding challenges and problems; appreciation and firm social integration that significantly increase employee loyalty.
  • Save money: Successfully implemented employee suggestions lead either to cost savings or decreased turnover.
  • Sell more: Better decisions are made possible with broader information available; best practices can be distributed decentrally via communities within the company.

2. Communication

The distribution of news has always been one of the main tasks of an intranet. However, other features—self service functionality and collaboration, for example—have shared the spotlight. In the end, these only served to compromise to initial goal of internal communication.

For Employee Experience Intranets, this is the number one priority, accomplished through things like push notifications, group-specific channels, tailored communication for specific moments (e.g. onboarding), and more.

Crisis Communications Hub
Example of an Employee Alert System from Staffbase. In combination with mobile compatibility, all employees can be reached immediately with both push notifications and email alerts. Read and acknowledge receipts on select messages allows measurement of critical updates.

It's also more important than ever to retarget the priority of internal comms.

Companies are more spread out than ever. According to US census data, the average 500-person company has an average of 12.5 office locations, and COVID-19 has only eased former work from home restrictions across industries. 

An example of modern employee-centric comms from Staffbase: Journeys. Tailored content can be delivered at exactly the right moment, guiding employees throughout their entire time at your organization.

The Benefits:

  • Reduced risk: Employees who better understand how their work contributes to the company's goals are more independent and motivated to stay with the company; in the event of a crisis, employees can be alerted in real time; compliance and security policies are more visible.
  • Save money: Printed newsletters and employee newspapers can be replaced or their circulation can be significantly reduced; improved onboarding makes employees productive faster.
  • Reduce turnover: Effective information distribution explains transformations and enables a higher speed of implementation; best practices can be distributed more quickly.

3. Learning

Organizations need to store vast amounts of knowledge for their employees: emergency procedures, pages on frequently requested topics (e.g. personnel, location information), information on the product and service range, FAQs, and so much more.

For all of it, intranets must serve as a easy-to-navigate single source of truth.

In contrast to distributed information, educational materials that are stored must be structured and easy to find, while simultaneously separated from the clutter of discussions that belong in team rooms or collaboration platforms.

Safety Security Resources Intranet
Example of a Safety Dashboard from Staffbase. Critical information is accessible and interactive within a single safety resources page, allowing important documents and contacts to remain unified. Specific policies with training videos and interactive tutorials can be highlighted to ensure all employees are up to date.

The Benefits:

  • Reduced risk: Processes and responsibilities in crisis situations are known and easily accessible to all employees; basic knowledge relevant to safety can be communicated more easily and regularly 
  • Save money: Less effort for personnel areas answering frequently recurring employee questions 
  • Sell more: Information on products, campaigns, and current changes is more readily available 

4. Empowerment

The line between learning and empowerment is somewhat fluid. An answer to a frequently asked question also offers practical benefits that employer employees.

However, while learning focuses on topics that are important to the company, information that empowers relates to an individual's daily work routine. The more relevant the information (staff directories, lunch menus, payroll accounting, vacation requests, etc.), and the easier it can be accessed, the greater willingness there will be to voluntarily use an intranet.

HR Employee Self Services
Example of a self-service planning interface from the Staffbase Employee Experience Intranet that empowers employees to coordinate their schedules and leave. This simplifies processes for both HR and team management.

In other words, increasing employee usage of the intranet through self-serving tools only supports the achievement of the other goals.

This empowerment is particularly important for millennials and Gen Z-ers entering the workforce. As those who grew up as digital natives with technology infused in their environment, they expect the same digital conveniences of their workplaces. 

Staffbase Gen Z Digital Natives Infographic

The Benefits:

  • Facilitates improved communication, learning, and collaboration.
  • Save money: Less effort for those processing employee services (vacations, time forms, etc.).