How to choose an employee app in 2021: your ultimate, best-ever guide

Do you know that frontline workers represent 80% of the global workforce? These are the people working on construction sites, factory assembly lines, local streets, and wherever customers need them to be. 

But if you’re leading an organization or team that employs frontline workers, you know first-hand how challenging it can be. It’s often hard to reach them or coordinate their efforts. 

When this happens, what do many organizations do? They label frontline workers as “remote,” or “hard to reach,” as if it’s somehow their fault. 

As easy it is to blame them, the whole situation needs a broad, holistic perspective. Think about it. There are a lot of tools and technologies available for communication among desk-based workers, whereas the plight of frontline staff has been largely overlooked. 

Most of them are not even provided with a digital identity (such as company email or phone), let alone added to their organization’s digital communications. 

It’s time to change that. And one of the best ways to drive this change is by investing in an employee app. So in this post, we’ll walk you through all you need to know before you start exploring the different apps on the market.  

Why employee apps? Why now?

Great question! The “employee engagement” market can be confusing for a buyer. Once you start looking for an employee app, you’re bombarded with a barrage of companies offering similar outcomes and identical features. 

So to understand the employee app landscape, it’s helpful to see what’s changed over the last few years.

Before there were any employee apps, companies relied on an intranet to communicate with their workforce. This intranet is basically an internal website with useful links and announcements. 

Then came the social networks for the general public such as Orkut, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Businesses followed suit with Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) for internal communication, like Jive and Yammer. These platforms focus on solving the challenges of internal communication with social features.  

Another recent development is the penetration of consumer messaging platforms such as WhatsApp for the general public, and business communication tools like Slack, Teams, and Spark for organizations.

This is all well and good, but an area where all these developments fall short is engaging frontline workers — the largest part of the global workforce. The enterprise tools and technologies we just discussed have been designed with desk-based workers in mind.

Frontline employees are often neglected even when it comes to providing a company email address, let alone a digital identity or device. 

But now, for the first time, we are in an exciting era where a majority of frontline staff members – 77% – have their own digital devices known as smartphones. 

In fact, mobile devices have overtaken desktop computers as the main way people access the internet. And they account for double the amount of time spent online, with 80% of mobile time spent on apps

As a business leader, this is your opportunity to make frontline workers a part of your digital internal communication, and to engage them with software that can reside on their mobile phones. So what better way to capitalize on this trend than an employee app?

Of course, you can just have an intranet platform accessible via a mobile device. But an employee app is capable of delivering a more intuitive and robust experience. It gives your deskless workers a voice, and access to the same tools and data as their office-based colleagues. The result is improved employee retention, satisfaction, and productivity. 

Now, with many different types of apps in the market, what do you exactly classify as an employee app? Let’s try to understand this better. 

What is an employee app?

An employee app has certain features that distinguish it from traditional communication solutions such as employee intranets or email. These features can include:

  • User experience and other features common to social media platforms, such as newsfeed, likes, follows, comments, etc.
  • Testing and analytics reporting to monitor the reach of your messages, engagement levels, usage patterns, and adoption rate. 
  • Options to share news and other information with workers using in multiple formats, such as audio, video, images, and text. 
  • A real-time communication platform that allows for two-way conversations. 
  • Features to segment groups of users and foster collaboration through targeted communities/spaces.
  • Ability to create, publish, store, manage, and share online content, documents, and other files. 
  • Project management features to assign tasks, request approvals, and simplify workflows. 
  • Security and user management features to grant access permissions and add workers to the platform even if they don’t have a digital identity. 

As you can imagine, expecting all these features to be in a single app is a tall order. So each employee app company prioritizes the features it deems to matter the most, leading to many different offerings in the marketplace.  

Types of employee apps available

Employee apps can be classified into different types based on their feature sets and focus areas. 

At the bare minimum, an employee app simply copies the same features as a typical social media platform. On a more sophisticated level are employee apps with advanced features to publish content and monitor usage analytics. 

So based on their positioning in the market, we have divided employee apps into four main categories.  

Communications: These types of employee apps focus on internal messages or news from an organization to its workers, along with how the workers engage with these updates.

Operations: This category is all about giving employees the resources they need to do their jobs, including tools for services, shift swapping, and integration with external tools. 

HR & People: People are at the heart of the functionality offered by these employee management apps. These apps provide features to boost employee engagement and help with people-related tasks such as onboarding, training, and talent management.

Digital Workplace: The apps in this category bring an array of tools together to give a digital side to the whole organization. They may include native features, but they also facilitate interactions with other systems to keep users in a single place. 

This classification gives you an easy way to make sense of the different employee apps available, but it’s also oversimplified. There is definitely overlap between features of one category and another.  

At the end of the day, the feature set offered by an app depends on its target industry. Despite that, there are many employee apps that market themselves as a good fit for any organization, blissfully ignorant of the blind spots they have missed. The most obvious of these blind spots is the plight of the frontline staff, along with other drawbacks. 

Weaknesses of employee apps 

Everyone in an organization, from entry-level workers to senior managers, may have a different set of expectations from an employee app. Not just that — based on their experience with consumer apps, they also expect a mobile app to be quick, slick, and intuitive. 

So it’s hard for a single employee app to meet all the expectations and live up to these high standards. No wonder employee apps are often far from being well-rounded. So here are some gaps we have noticed so far that could use some improvement. 

Switching on and off

Employee apps can do a better job of helping workers switch off from work. To be fair, users do have control over what notifications they get and when. But this places an unnecessary burden on them to manually alter these settings. 

An employee app doesn’t have to make the decision for them, but it can certainly provide some level of support. For example, some apps let workers define ‘do not disturb’ times, or let the admin block content shared outside of working hours. 

You can add your preferences in Notification Settings and Do Not Disturb.

The best employee apps go even further and allow integration with shift-management software to operate in sync with employee shift timings. 

Instant Messaging (Chat)

Do you remember what your life was like before Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp? Hard to imagine right?

Just like in regular life, the free instant messaging tools have created an indispensable place for them at work. 

Your workers already use them and are familiar with the features and experience these apps provide. Not to mention how fast instant messaging is taking over SMS.

So for an employee app to be adopted by workers, it must provide a similar or even better experience. Unfortunately, this is an area where many employee apps are falling short. 

The live chat functionally in most employee apps is either too basic or just non-existent. Advanced chat features in an employee app are essential to help employees move away from other communication tools and ensure better adoption.  

Searching and browsing

Search is a tricky thing to get right, even for tech giants such as Google and Bing. So it’s no surprise that many employee apps are yet to excel in this area. They come with varying strengths with regard to search. One app may be great at searching people but not content, while the opposite may be true for another.  

The same goes for browsing the information. The best apps make it really easy and pleasant to browse and view file formats such as PDF and MS Word on both desktop and mobile devices, whereas others, no so much. For vendors claiming to provide a digital platform that fits into a worker’s pocket, this is the most important aspect that needs work. 

Publisher and admin experience

Another weakness common to employee apps is admin experience and user roles. While an app may be pleasing to the end-users, it often neglects the need for high-level customization, administration, and security. 

Employee apps often neglect user management.

Granular user roles and permission settings are a must for any app that hopes to be implemented in a complex workplace. 

3rd-party integrations

The depth and breadth of integrations provided by an employee app is another important factor. Most organizations have tools like Sharepoint, Salesforce, and Google Workspace already in place, and they need an employee app that can play well with such applications. 

This is again an area with a lot of disparity among app providers. Some employee apps support a wide range of integrations but only on a surface level. This means that the integrations work only through iframes or Single Sign-On. Then there are providers who provide integration with fewer applications but do it really well.

Having said that, there are many aspects that the high-quality employee apps are getting right. So it’s time to explore these attributes.  

Strengths to look for in an employee app 

Many employee app providers have come to realize that it’s unrealistic to expect a single app to have everything built-in. That’s why the best employee apps prioritize the most essential features based on their deep understanding of organizational needs.

Key employee app features to look for:

A company newsfeed

The central part of an employee app is the feed where the news and updates are shared in real-time. This is similar to how stories pop up in the social media networks you’re already familiar with, such as Facebook. You can scroll through the messages and engage with them through likes, shares, and comments.

Employee apps let you share updates in real-time.

The announcements posted on the feed aren’t always top-down company messages, but also bottom-up stories from all the corners of the company. These include social updates, company news, celebrations, event photos, expert interviews, video recordings, and so on. 

A workflow hub

This is a storage area for uploading important documents and other files. It allows workers to get information on the systems, policies, processes, and manuals they need to do their jobs. For example, their work rotas or how to raise a ticket with IT support. 

An employee hub for all the important documents.

The more information you can provide at a single location, the faster and easier it will be to find, causing a spike in employee productivity. An employee app will also let you control who and who shouldn’t have access to the stored files. So you can be sure that any sensitive data is safe and secure. 

Analytics

Understanding employee behaviour is vital for effective internal communication. Yet only 14% of businesses are satisfied with their performance management system. So even the best employee app is worthless if you can’t keep a tab on your workers. 

Employee app has analytics to monitor workers’ activity.

To ensure successful implementation and adoption of the employee app, you’d want answers to questions like:

  • Are workers actually using the employee app?
  • How often they are using it?
  • Is the content reaching its target audiences?
  • What type of content is the most effective?

So an employee app is basically informing you not just about usage of the app itself, but also about how your organization is functioning from a communication and collaboration standpoint. This data is invaluable to identify areas for improvement. 

Group Chat

Email has its place, and will always do. But group chat (aka instant messaging) is also here to stay. It allows real-time communication among employees, making it a quick and easy way to exchange information in the form of text, images, videos, files, and links.

Apart from one-to-one conversations, workers can use an employee app to create channels where multiple members can collaborate.

Employee Directory

An employee directory makes each employee visible across the company. It displays information about who they are, their job title, location, and more. So it’s easier to identify the right people for the right task. 

Employee Directory has the list of all the employees with their job role.

Once you find someone in the directory, you can initiate a chat with them and see past conversations in just a couple of taps or clicks. 

Push Notifications

Push notification is a recent feature that came into the limelight around the same time as mobile apps. It is best suited to make sure that employees are instantly alerted about important news and updates and announcements. And the best part is that they don’t even mind receiving them — 70% of app users find push notifications to be extremely useful.

On top of these essential features, the best employee apps have also found a way to provide you with features that are not native to the app. They do that by offering deep integration with other industry-leading apps. 

This ensures that even if the employee app isn’t 100% well-rounded on its own, it can make up for the features it lacks. For example, features such as shift management and scheduling, checking in, and video calls can be brought in from other solutions.

The other benefit of this approach is easy adoption. Most organizations already have certain tools in place that can be difficult to leave or switch, such as Microsoft 365. So by working in sync with other tools instead of working against them, an employee app can make a strong case for its ease of adoption.

These integrations, along with the game-changing Single Sign-On capability, allow workers to have access to multiple apps and their data in a single platform.  

So considering all the weaknesses and strengths of employee apps, what’s your best move forward? And how can you make the right choice? That’s what we’ll go over next.  

Is an employee app the right choice for you? 

If employee engagement and internal collaboration are important to you, then an employee app is a no-brainer. 

We’re past the days when the purpose of internal communication was just to broadcast corporate messages from upper management to the rest of the people in an organization. 

Today’s environment is different. Remote work and collaboration across different locations and time zones are the new normal. On top of that:

  • Millennials constitute half of the global workforce, with 59% considering technology as an important factor when looking for a job. 
  • 85% of millennials access the internet from their phones. 
  • 80% of employees rate employee experience as very important to them. Yet only 22% say that their companies meet this expectation.

The present era requires the use of modern technology to create a great overall employee experience. The time has come for digital tools that can facilitate two-way conversations between business leaders and employees. 

An employee mobile app can be your vehicle to deliver an exceptional employee experience and ensure your organization’s smooth transition into the future. 

But how do you evaluate and choose when there are many options available? The following steps will help: 

  1. Get clarity on your workplace functions and your organization’s internal communications strategy.
  1. Prioritize a list of high-level needs that define key scenarios in detail. This will give vendors some context as to how you’ll use the employee app. 
  1. Decide on the non-functional requirements such as language constraints, licensing model, and hosting.
  1. Ask for a demo tailored to your key scenarios. Even better if it can be put to test with the actual users. Most reputable vendors will be happy to provide a sandbox environment for trying out the app. Of course, they may expect some upfront payment to cover the cost of doing so. But it’s a better alternative than making a wrong decision that may cost you much more.

The idea is to build a dialogue with vendors. The formal procurement process that you use when hiring other vendors is not suitable for employee app providers. You want to know the company and the product as closely as possible. 

Your final choice should be the vendor that scores high on your most important scenarios, combined with the flexibility, support, and right pricing.

Final thoughts

Intranets weren’t designed with mobile devices in mind. While they can be improved, it’s not possible for them to reach the same level of sophistication as an app built from the ground up especially for smartphones. 

An employee app truly embraces the mobile-first approach that the world has come to adopt and expect, including first-line workers. It brings information and interactions right where employees are the most active — their touchscreens. 

Given that an internal communications platform is judged on its ability to engage a major part of an organization’s workforce, an employee app is the best solution moving forward. From off-the-shelf, employee ‘self-service’ apps to deeper SaaS products packed with APIs and integrations, there’s something on the market for everyone.

With this detailed guide in hand, we hope you’re finally in a position to zero in on the best employee app for your organization. So pick one that helps you break the wheels of isolation that have been holding your frontline workforce back for so many years. This could very well be the breakthrough that unites your organization like never before, boosting employee engagement and productivity.