By Gloria Lombardi

London Heathrow is one of the world’s largest international airports, welcoming over 70 million passengers a year. So how did Will Day, Digital & Technology Communications Manager, set about helping the airport’s 4,500 operational team keep in the loop in a working environment that changes from minute to minute? The challenge he and the comms team faced was how to connect with colleagues whose work is not desk based.

When Will joined Heathrow, internal research showed that 80% of operational colleagues were willing to access company information through their own personal mobile devices. A solution was clear, to develop a simple but effective mobile phone app. With help from TheAppBuilder the Heathrow Operations App was born.

Today, 1,700 colleagues use the App regularly to access daily news and information, keep up to date on team events and recognition awards and submit ideas for business improvements or comment on the issues of the day.

“It has been invaluable in showing there has to be a cultural shift: employees want social, mobile, real-time and two-way communications.”

Building a sense of community

“The app is the first step towards a full blown enterprise social network (ESN),” says Will. He rates highly the ability of the Heathrow Operations App to demonstrate the need for Operations to have a network of their own. While each location is responsible for creating and managing their own content, the information available through the app is accessible to anyone.

“Before, each of the airport terminals was communicating in a silo. Now, barriers are breaking down with Operations from different locations on the 1,227 hectares airport starting to build a sense of community.”

Making it easy to go mobile

One of the key reasons Will liked the app from the start was its simplicity. “It was really straightforward to use.” However, he didn’t underestimate the natural resistance of people to new technology, plus the cultural changes in the process.

Local champions encouraged their colleagues to use the tool as the place to go for any updates. Training was done through reverse mentoring with younger employees sitting together with senior people and showing them how to use the app. “It gave a lot of satisfaction to see how quickly they learned and appreciated it”.

Adoption grew virally without the need of any internal campaign or promotion. Corporate Comms didn’t do anything formal apart from informing Operations on how to download the application. They could not use App Store as this would have caused confusion with passengers looking for Heathrow’s Passenger App. So instead posters went up advertising a download URL plus QR codes to make it as easy as possible to get connected.

Heathrow Operations App then grew organically. It became popular through word of mouth. Staff at all levels were inviting each other saying: ‘Did you know we now have an app? This is very good. Have you tried it?'”

Engaging in real-time

The Heathrow Operations App is the best channel to engage on a daily and contextual basis, with real-time content, claims Will. For example, it can be an effective way to involve people during important corporate events, such us the launch of Terminal 2 (T2). “Similar to BBC Sport live updates, we did live blogging through the intranet with all the content accessible through the app. Employees could access all the real-life stories of the day: new shops, new restaurants and first passengers arrivals…It was very engaging. So alongside images of Her Majesty the Queen opening the Terminal we could feature images and stories from teams throughout Heathrow.”

Another big success for the new medium was how it was used to promote the arrival of their new CEO. In July, John Holland-Kaye took over as Chief Executive and Will and the comms team used the Heathrow Operations App to promote his first day at work, what he stood for and his vision for the airport.

Another effective use of the app is to engage Operations staff in the new proposals for expanding the Airport. “Naturally there is a lot at stake for them. We aim to support colleagues understand the commitments the airport is making to local communities and the whole of the UK , promoting the ‘why’ as well as the benefits for them. At the same time we can listen and collect all that feedback.”


Another key feature of the app is the powerful analytics built into the platform. Will tracks all the content in real-time, sees what’s the most popular news at a local level or how long colleagues read an article. “That is very helpful in understanding what people want from the channel and acting on that feedback. For example, we see an appetite for daily briefing information, anything from corporate news to the lunch menu.”

The Heathrow Operations App is helping to boost recognition too. The company runs The Heathrow Star Awards through a competition format involving employee-generated content. The dedicated photo gallery of winners on the app has become very popular among colleagues.

The app also has a feedback mechanism, which allows colleagues to submit their ideas at any time. Among all the benefits in opening up listening, the system supported the Continuous Improvements Programme. This initiative asks colleagues to make comments on how to improve any aspect of Heathrow Operations. While in the past it was done through paper, taking much time and potentially missing opportunities along the way, now collegues can submit their reports immediately making sure good ideas are put in to practice quickly.

Library of apps

Will is now planning to build an ‘App Library’. “There is room for introducing other applications for multiple functions. For example, the HR team could benefit from accessing the whole HR system from a customised mobile solution.”

However, to be a success, Will knows he has to build strong governance. “First, we need to ensure that there is a good reason for doing that. Plus, we need to go through a process and have a consistent approach to content. We don’t want to end up having 15 apps all doing similar things and none of them being updated.”

All of this is part of the cultural change towards becoming a more mobile and socially collaborative company. It’s not about apps for apps sake: “As we go through, we need to ensure we take our people on the journey. Otherwise, there is no real reason for doing this.”

It will be interesting to see if the Heathrow Operations App will evolve into a full-blown ESN or whether, like we have seen in Barclays, the proposed app library will come to replace the intranet.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate