“Apps have been around for a long time,” says Kate Jones. “They've been used for leisure, shopping and entertainment. Yet internal communicators have only recently latched onto the benefits that digital technology can bring when it comes to reaching offline people within the workplace.”

For example, she says, in 2014, multinational oil and gas exploration company Tullow Oil launched an app to deliver news and videos to its employees around the world. Manchester Airport Group has done something similar with an app which offers employee access to corporate news headlines, key contacts, links to social media, vacancies, and more. Heathrow Airport staff also have their own operations app.

Could 'employee apps' become a growing workplace phenomenon?

Jones is chair of the Board, Institute of Internal Communication (the independent professional body dedicated to promoting a deeper understanding of internal communication), and head of internal communications at Tarmac. "I hope more internal communicators will explore the benefits of apps as they get better at understanding the drivers of engagement within their organisations," she says.

 

Apps are more effective when employees can engage

 

There are two main types of employee apps. The first fulfills a communications/broadcast role, essentially using mobile phone technology to push company information and content to staff. This is fine as far as it goes; but according to Jones, the second type of app — which is more integrated — is better for connecting more effectively with employees. “With this app, employees are able to receive information and consume content, but they can also use it to give feedback,” she says. “Organisations that use such an app to listen to their people — as well as making their lives easier by giving them direct access to systems and processes — will benefit from better employee engagement.”

"The best employee apps allow employees to recieve content, but also contribute their feedback."

Internal IT departments can create apps in-house or buy externally produced or hosted apps. “The choice of bespoke or off the shelf technology will depend on your brief, your budget and the outcomes you’re looking for,” says Jones.

Yet there are issues to overcome in the area of employee apps. For starters, not everyone has access to them. “In my sector — the construction and utilities industry — many employees tend not to be given a mobile phone,” says Jones. “They might have a tablet of some sort, but it's often a fairly limited device which is used to download the day's job sheets. In fact, employees in some construction companies may not have anything more sophisticated in their pocket than a walkie talkie.”

 

Issues arise with network security and provision of devices

 

This problem can be overcome in a couple of ways. Firstly, and obviously, a company can bite the bullet and gives its people a bespoke mobile device. Or they can go down the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to work route. “But then companies are asking people to use their own devices and their own data plans to undertake ‘company work’,” says Jones.

That's not all. When plugging your own phone into your company's network — to book holiday time, report safety information or share ideas for best practice, for example — security becomes an issue. “If so, you'll have to operate within the company firewall,” says Jones. “Which means you'll need to work closely with your IT colleagues to make sure you provide access in a secure way.”

 

Apps should enhance, not replace, actual conversations

 

Apps are not a panacea for all corporate ills and there is a danger that some companies might begin to rely on them too much.

“The app you are buying or building needs to answer the problem you are trying to solve.”

Also, she says, use of too much app technology can result in the bypassing of line managers — a recognised driver of engagement, valued by employees. “Every piece of research I've seen shows that the line manager has a vital role to play in engaging teams and creating a link between the organisation and the people on the ground. If a line manager is disempowered by an app it will only remove the value that the technology can offer.”

Yet used properly, apps can bring organisations closer to their staff and by extension — through listening to employee feedback — their customers. “Apps are a great tool for change,” says Jones. “So if a company is looking at ways to become more efficient and improve customer experience, the best way to do it is to tap into the people who do the job every day. That's what apps can do.”