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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Improve Your Employee Portal Experience with Viva Connections

By Rich Wood

Viva Connections is Microsoft’s new, digital gateway to the employee experience, and like most good things that are new, it builds on a great deal of good that came before. Like with Newton’s proverbial giants, there are plenty of shoulders for Connections to stand on—and yet when you do Connections right, there’s plenty there to make you step back and say, “That’s new,” but then immediately ask:

“So why didn’t we think of that before?”

Thought: Improve Your Employee Portal Experience with Viva Connections
Improve Your Employee Portal Experience with Viva ConnectionsRich Wood
Thought: Improve Your Employee Portal Experience with Viva Connections

Maybe you did. We’ve been talking about the concept of the “digital front door” for quite some time around these parts. Heck, one of us remembers editing a whitepaper on employee portals in 2004 with a GIF of an opening door featured prominently on the cover. Neither the imagery nor the idea were unique, even at the time.

The idea of a single door, a gateway through which you can access all the things you need to do your job well, no matter what that job—well, that idea’s a powerful one. We’re still not sure if it holds that power because it’s what we want (and still haven’t truly achieved) or that it’s truly what we need, but we suspect it’s a little of both.

Connect Everyone with Everything

The goal has always been to connect everyone with everything, in a simple, easy-to-use format. While that sort of ultimate digital workplace utopia remains beyond the horizon, we certainly think Microsoft’s Viva Connections is another solid step in that direction.

Connections is a re-branding of the familiar—a Modern SharePoint experience—into the more action-oriented environment of Teams, but to say it’s simply an intranet embedded in Teams would be wholly unfair and reductive. Connections leads you through the front door in a new way, offering swift immersion into multiple new hallways and rooms branching off from its ethereal atrium: rooms like Topics furnished with the technical elegance of AI-driven knowledge, or the personal efficiency and well-being cultivated through Insights, and more to come.

We like where Viva Connections is going. Like with so much else, to understand it the way we do, one first needs to understand where it came from—but also and more importantly, why.

Employee Portal Has Gone By Many Names

A brief history of employee portals and engagement would be instructive but ponderous. Let’s suffice to say we’ve called them many things over the years. There’s the “single pane of glass.” Anything with multiple views of data reporting almost always winds up as a “dashboard.” We’ve seen digital “cockpits” that have nothing to do with flying a jet plane, and of course there’s the time-honored “portals” that spun off, paralleled, and eventually re-assimilated the much-ballyhooed “social intranets” of the recent past.

Like the universal truths of Aquinas, there were always certain things you could count on from your employee experience: The news carousel, the localized weather widget, and the online cafeteria menu that felt more inevitable than Avengers archfoe Thanos claimed to be. Alongside these corp-comm standards, though, we also saw evolution—certainly in the tools’ and platforms’ ability to deliver on expectations, but also in those expectations themselves.

You can sum up the history of employee engagement technology in one of a hundred infographics floating around on the ‘net, but think of how your own expectations have changed. Early portal designs with their ubiquitous 1998-Yahoo-directory form factors reflected the corporate info worker’s appetite to see "all my information" in a single place. We slowly but surely realized that this level of information availability was more like information overload.

Faced with over a hundred links in a directory format, people regularly clicked on no more than four to six of them daily. Requirements duly shifted to reflect a desire for "my most important information." This was an important step but again, it was an incremental move forward, a pawn pushed up one square toward the opposing side and maybe—if you were lucky—capturing a piece of some value.

Yet the ability to surface key announcements, documents, emails, and tasks in applets, portlets, web parts, etc.—whatever you called them, they were all essentially frames on an intranet homepage—sounded better than it worked. Certainly these things were important, but an inbox with a thousand messages or red-flag tasks on a web page remained an inbox with a thousand messages or red-flag tasks. It just wasn’t in Outlook anymore. Faced with the choice, people simply went back to Outlook anyway. We wanted to do things better, but if we couldn’t, we’d do them the way that had always worked before. That wasn’t a path forward, but it explains why so many of us still spend so much of our day in our email clients.

If we wanted to improve on that baseline experience, we needed to sort the wheat from the chaff far better than the baseline did. We needed to speak to people’s priorities. Mid-2010’s employee experience efforts leveraged the power of search engines to feed people content that presumably mattered to them. These solutions saw some success but again, they could only do so much because they were prescriptive not predictive. Like Batman without his utility belt, curated metadata is a powerful thing but it can only do so much on its own.

In a context where solutions have always been built to help us do our jobs better, by 2019, innovation in this space felt a little overdue. Then COVID-19 hit, and everything changed. Digital employee experiences took center stage as huge sectors of the workforce went all-remote, all the time. Today, that era is slowly coming to a close as nations around the world begin to grapple with putting an end to the pandemic.

As we prepare to re-enter a world transformed, Viva presents the first major step forward for the employee experience post-COVID. How we consider, plan, and execute with it needs to reflect the opportunity in front of us. We can’t use new solutions just to do the same things over again. This is especially true for the digital employee experience—and particularly how we engage with it.

Viva Connections "Digital Front Door"

The “digital front door” presented by Connections is more than just a single pane of glass with a news carousel and a couple of web parts. It’s social connectivity, conversation, and personalized access to a hundred helpful apps. It’s the knowledge from Topics and how-to’s of Learning, served up by a powerful AI that’s made even more pinpoint when coupled with effective human curation. It’s queries and analysis and suggestions for our own well-being that can only come from effective Insights into passively collected data about how we work every day.

Does that sound like A Lot of Stuff? It should, because it is—but it’s not the Circa 1998 Intranet Directory. We now have the ability to strive for simplicity and bring our priorities forward. The possibilities might be more endless than the wait for an MCU post-post-credits scene, but if the point is to provide an individuated solution for each of our unique whys, the larger opportunity is how we streamline those possibilities down into the top two or three that matter. And it’s right here. That power is at our fingertips now too. Want a head start on figuring it out? Join us for one of our Employee Experience Workshops and let us help you open that digital front door. Contact us to learn more.