By Gloria Lombardi

London Heathrow is one of the world’s largest international airports, welcoming over 70 million passengers a year.

So how did Neil Barnett (pictured right), Senior Digital Communications Manager, set about helping the airport’s 7,500 employees feel connected, informed and involved in a working environment that changes from minute to minute? A key challenge the communications team faced was how to connect and engage with colleagues whose work is not desk-based.

Two years ago, internal research showed considerably lower engagement scores from front-line staff compared to those working in the office. A solution was clear: to build a consistent digital workplace experience across the whole organisation. With help from Content and Code and its Fresh Intranet solution, the Heathrow internal digital platform was born.

Today, 7,500 colleagues use the “Hub+” portal regularly, which is positioned as a ‘digital workplace’ rather than a traditional intranet. Here employees can collaborate, communicate, feel connected, and speed up operational processes. The digital workplace works on any device and delivers relevant, timely information and apps to Heathrow’s front-line employees.

Building the digital workplace – do your research

To build and implement an effective, engaging digital workplace, the team undertook a three-staged approach predominantly focused on front-line operational staff.  

The first of these three phases was an extensive discovery period with user research carried out in 2016. For Barnett, the research phase was probably the most important phase of the digital transformation programme and was essential for driving everything else forward. Barrett explains “It was really about understanding our audience, knowing our workforce, knowing what they found frustrating and what they found easy. We wanted to find out what would help them in their daily job to actually make them more efficient.”

Barnett’s team ran a series of workshops. The results were used to create six different ‘personas’, representing six types of work at Heathrow. Those personas would then help drive some of the potential solutions to make staff’s working life easier and more efficient.

Bamett comments “We mapped the various frustrations of our front-line employees to particular technical solutions. By doing that, we were able to feed the research back with some technology options.

“We didn’t want to deploy any sort of technology or build anything until we knew what the frustrations of our staff were and we had developed personas, which covered their pain points and what their device usage was like.

“Ultimately, we wanted to make sure that we were 100 percent clear and confident in what we were going to deliver, and that it would actually generate real business value.”

The team also produced a number of wireframes which could then be tested back with the users. This gave them a good idea of what was going to work with the wider audience and what wouldn’t.

Finally, after some further iterations, a final wirefame was presented back to the board for approval prior to the commencement of the build.  

Insights emerging from the  research

One of the key frustrations for front-line staff, which emerged from the research, was around ‘shift swapping’. It was difficult for employees to swap shifts with colleagues, for example if somebody wanted to take a day off at short notice to attend to family matters.

“The process for arranging a shift swap was tedious, hard, difficult, and time consuming. It involved lots of paperwork, and it was not efficient. If employees wanted to swap a working day, they could hear about some several weeks later whether they could do it or not.”

Another frustration was that frontline staff were not aware of the extensive range of staff discounts available from retailers throughout the airport and were not kept up to date about new offers. Yet employees valued these offers greatly and wanted to take advantage of them. The new digital platform aims to resolve both these issues.  

The deployment – focus on the user experience

In 2017 Barnett and his team have focused on deploying the technology.

Barnett and the team chose to deploy Content and Code’s Fresh Intranet, mainly because of its ability to deliver a great user experience. “We wanted to build a unique platform, a bespoke solution designed around what the research told us. Content and Code had the ability to do that.

“In terms of content, look and feel, and brand, we were able to deliver something that was of value to our workforce. It has a good user interface that is simple and works well, which we’ve been able to combine with customization and bespoke options that are unique to Heathrow. That enables us to engage with our workforce on both a brand level but also deliver something really useful to the workforce.”

Hub+ is also accessible on any mobile device including smartphones, tablets, and  laptops, a key requirement from the research. Barnett confirms “Heathrow digital workplace has to be 24/7 365 available. One of our long term objectives is agile working – working from anywhere, anytime, on any device.”

A digital workplace that is both informative and social

To date, the portal delivers timely, updated information. Operational information keeps employees in the loop about things like the weather conditions, any operational issues, and passenger forecasts – employees can actually see how many people are likely to be coming through the airport at any one point in time. The social aspect of the portal is also very important.

Currently, the organisation uses two social platforms: Yammer, part of the Office 365 suite, and ‘Buzz’, an internal communications app developed by third party Beekeeper.

Buzz was designed primarily to enable frontline staff to communicate with each other and it is fully integrated into the platform. It has a simple, intuitive user interface. Barnett remarks “All the apps that we use these days, have to be easy to use, and simple. And that’s one reason why we went for Buzz.”

Generally speaking, Buzz is used like a sort of WhatsApp for internal conversations. Employees post comments, pictures, or videos, and this enables the frontline to feel part of the wider team.

Buzz is also the tool used to arrange shift swapping. Barnett explains “Through Buzz, colleagues can request a shift swap through an online process. The time to arrange it is now down to a couple of days while it used to take weeks when the process was based on paper.”

Buzz is also used to report faults quickly. “If something is not working, for example, a lift, or a door, or an escalator of one of the terminals, staff can report that directly to engineers, who can pick up it through the app, see that there is a problem there, and actually arrange it to fix it.”

When engagement grows

According to Barrett, peer-to-peer engagement has grown remarkably since the implementation of the digital workplace. “There’s a lot of uplift in terms of morale and feeling. Just literally being able to talk to our colleagues through a digital platform on a daily basis has made all the difference.”

Live blogging has also become popular, especially for certain events. One of them, a day-long charity event called ‘Race the Plane’, has been incredibly successful. Different teams use a series of fixed cycles – a little like exercise bikes – to try and beat the distance in real time covered by an aeorplane that’s flying from London Heathrow to New York. “The idea is that the bikes actually race the aeroplanes,” explains Barrett. “During the event we do live blogging and there are big digital displays at the airport terminals, showing who is actually winning in real time. Great fun!”

Keep monitoring with artificial intelligence

Barnett and his team are keeping an eye on the adoption levels across the digital workplace. Engagement levels are already very good for tools such as Skype and OneDrive.

In 2018, monitoring will get more sophisticated as the team are currently testing some advanced, artificial-intelligence based plug-ins, which sit on top of the social channels to capture employee sentiment.

“With those analytics, we can understand what people are saying, and play that back in terms of positive or negative comments. We can understand the text that people are typing into the system, analyse it, and display it as a simple sort of bar chart or pie chart. We can do a temperature test of the organisation in real time – so red if it’s quite negative or green if it’s positive. We hope to get an instant replay of the overall employee sentiment, what staff are feeling at any point in time.”

2018 – the year of adoption

2018 sees the third and final phase of the digital workplace programme at London Heathrow. This involves “business change” and is about driving adoption. It also has the potential to bring on board the entire workforce of 75,000 who work at the airport.

“On top of our 7,500 employed staff, there are thousands of employees working at Heathrow for 350 other companies, such as retailers and airlines. We’re currently running a trial to see if we can offer access to the digital workplace and if successful, we may extend access,” comments Barnett.

Making digital transformation successful

It’s been an intense but very successful digital transformation journey for Heathrow Airport.

Reflecting on the progress to date, Neil Barnett emphasises the importance of change management and adoption.

“The same amount of time, effort, and budget you spend on the technology side, should be spent on the business engagement and adoption side too. Too many companies focus all their effort and funding purely on the technology, and then forget the rest.

“Technology these days is fairly easy. It is the simple bit of the transformation. The hard bit is making the return on your investment through people actually using the tools. If nobody uses the systems you deploy, then there’s no point in deploying them in the first place.

“The only way to get the business value from your technology, is through real business change and real business adoption. And you have to put a lot of ongoing efforts into that to make it happen.”