Facebook Workplace continues enterprise push with 80,000-seat rollout at BT

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 27, 2020
UK telecoms giant BT becomes the latest global business to roll out Facebook Workplace to enable enterprise-wide internal communications and collaboration

BT mobile storefront
(Image via BT)

The dark horse in the race to take the lead in enterprise digital teamwork is Facebook Workplace. What Facebook lacks in pedigree against more established enterprise players such as Microsoft, Cisco and Google, Workplace more than makes up in its ease of use and adoption, along with a growing set of enterprise-pleasing features. Its increasingly impressive customer roster is swelled today by UK telecoms giant BT, which has rolled out Workplace to 80,000 employees worldwide.

Replacing the historic patchwork of multiple communication channels across this multi-faceted organization took a lot of planning but has delivered several benefits. Most compelling among them is the ability to quickly communicate up-to-date information to the entire workforce when needed. BT wants its communications to follow the principle of 'inside-out' says Helen Willetts, Director of Internal Communications, which means that everyone inside the company should be first to hear when news breaks, rather than learning it from outside sources. She explains:

If news breaks externally, and you haven't told your people first, it really annoys people. And your traditional channels do not allow you to do anything different, because if you've got something market-sensitive, traditional channels do not allow you to get to people first.

With something as instant as Workplace, you can do it at the same moment, literally, that you see it playing out externally to internally — and/or sometimes give people a heads up.

Immediacy and reach of Workplace

For example, during the British general election at the end of last year, the opposition Labour Party came out with a proposal to nationalize the country's broadband infrastructure. With just a couple of hours' notice, the team was able to arrange for BT's CEO to record a video statement to go out on Workplace, so that employees knew the company's response before the news hit peaktime TV news bulletins. Willetts recalls:

We could talk to our CEO who was in the US, he could record a video on his phone in five minutes and get that out — we had about two hours notice — he was able to tell people, before they watched the News at 10, this is my view about that. And people came on in their thousands to look at it.

We've got such good Workplace adoption that people know now, if we can talk to them first, we will. So they go there to find out.

That immediacy and reach was a big factor in the choice of Workplace. Most people already know how to use Facebook, they can access it on their own mobile device, it's spontaneous and it invites interaction, which fosters engagement. Although this means the communications team have to give up an element of control over what gets seen on Workplace, the benefits are worth it, explains Willetts:

We wanted to make a cultural change, rather than a channel change. We could have gone for different solutions that we know, looking at the data, would not have had anywhere near the levels of adoption that Workplace gets because of its similarities with Facebook. It's so intuitive to people, people want to actively use it ...

We would rather have 80% adoption and have to work hard for our content — because of the cultural benefits of that and people connecting with each other — versus getting something that's very controlled by communications, but say we only get 20-30% of people on.

The medium also encourages more spontaneity in the messages executives put out. It's not just the ability to quickly record a video without having to get a script drafted and then book a film crew — something that became less practical during the pandemic in any case. It's also the instant feedback, as Anna Epps, Internal Communications Director, explains:

Immediately, you see how many people have viewed it, what's the response. And quite honestly, if your content isn't exciting, punchy enough, snappy enough, it's not going to get read. It is a great lesson that, obviously, we've been trying to teach for ages. But it's a very instant way for content producers, leadership — other teams as well — to see what's really landing with the organization.

This has helped the communications team achieve a long-term aim of persuading leadership to adopt a more authentic, less scripted style of communication, says Willetts:

The connection, then, for employees with those leaders is just so much more. You build trust, you build pride, you build advocacy, because people feel like they're hearing the truth from a real human rather than hearing a script from a leader. And that's quite transformational as well.

How BT managed the switch to Workplace

Introducing Workplace has required a significant change management effort, which included switching off several existing tools, including one or two that were core for major business units within BT. It was important therefore to get buy-in from those teams to making the switch to Workplace. The big selling point was getting everyone on a single platform, says Epps:

All of the tools that we were retiring as part of the rollout were very siloed in a part of the organization. The main point in the case for change was, this will unlock being able to reach across BT.

That really resonated, I think, with the teams that we were changing on, because that's such a core part of what we've been working on for many years now in BT — breaking down the silos and working collaboratively across BT.

This was backed up with deep-dive planning sessions to understand how teams were using their existing tools and what would be involved in making the change. Some collaboration tools have been left in place, such as Microsoft Teams, where project teams track their work and share documents. But in general, BT's mission is to simplify the number of channels in use and therefore small pockets of alternative channels are discouraged unless there's an exceptional business case.

A clear change plan was then put in place, with various activities to support Workplace adoption. Rather than switching everyone at the same time, the roll-out progressed one business unit at a time, over a six month period — but with a clear message that the replaced systems would be turned off once adoption had reached a certain level. It was important to have that driven by adoption, says Epps:

Migrate as many people as possible before you turn it off, so the turning off isn't the pull, you've already got people there to start with. We've then really thought about the content we're going to put on there, and even if we end up sharing content across multiple channels, it will be, where possible, Workplace first.

Facebook provided a lot of support to help BT understand how to set up groups. Epps says the admin capabilities in this respect are stronger than other platforms, but "you have to be quite proficient user to understand what you're doing by using them." For example, groups that are marked as 'official' or 'important' at an adminstrator level have to be chosen and used carefully, she says:

The moment that you mark something as 'important' that isn't actually that important, that is the moment that you lose everyone because you've not been authentic. So we try and hold that really tight.

Starting off on the right foot

Her advice to others embarking on a similar project is to put in the effort upfront to start off on the right foot. She elaborates:

Take time to think about the setup. Whatever the first state that you put out there, if you want to change the fundamental structure of what you've just done, that's really hard to go back on.

The second thing would be to think about the core purpose. Why are you bringing it out? And how will that fit in the tool suite that your colleagues will access? Be really clear, to both the people who put out the corporate content and your colleagues around, what this is for and how you want it to be used.

At the same time, it's important to accept that this is a two-way communications channel and that part of the reason for adopting it is to encourage people to come forward with ideas, share advice and connect organically. That means giving people freedom to participate within the general guidelines you set down, says Epps.

You can't control it. As an organization, you need to have a great framework in place, which we do, [to] have your social media policy really clear. You have to understand what you as an organization are going to find acceptable, and govern and framework around that.

Having gained widespread adoption, Workplace has now become an invaluable data source to instantly measure sentiment and engagement across BT, she says.

What's getting the pull of the organisation? What are the types of things that colleagues are talking about? What's the sentiment? That piece and the data view within Workplace, just gives us a really quick picture, right across BT. Before, we would have had to go to all the different channels, figure out the data, try and make it like-for-like, and build that picture.

With Workplace now rolled out, BT is looking at the future roadmap for the platform as the organization continues its mission of simplifying communications and collaboration channels. It's not out of the question that Workplace will one day replace the existing intranet, says Willetts. The aim is to work with Facebook as Workplace evolves to add features that make sense for the organization. "We've seen some great stuff in the roadmap," says Epps.

My take

However many bells and whistles a collaboration platform offers, none of it is any use without adoption. This is the trump card that Facebook has been able to deploy to good effect to drive its push into the enterprise market. While this turns its consumer market roots to good advantage, that doesn't mean it can't also provide the extra functionality and support that the enterprise market demands. BT is the latest in a growing roster of big name customers that are ready to put their trust in Facebook Workplace as the cornerstone of cross-enterprise digital teamwork. We'll be watching as that growth continues.

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