Viessmann Group has developed and introduced an employee app in just a few weeks. The Head of Corporate Communications, Albrecht von Truchseß, and Knowledge Manager Carsten Lucaßen, talk about the background behind Vi2go, reaching employees without computer access, start-up thoughts and the cultural shift the Hesse-based manufacturer of heating, industrial and cooling systems has gone through.
More transparancy, fewer gaps in communications
The original interview was conducted by Hilkka Zebothsen for the magazine Pressesprecher.
Mr. von Truchseß, what kind of role does digitisation play in internal communication?
Albrecht von Truchseß: Digitisation brings change. In other words, areas that haven't yet experienced change soon do. When it comes to communication with non-desk employees, for instance, this finally enables us to do the seemingly impossible: you will find it's in the fields of production and logistics that you can hardly reach these crucial target groups - or even not at all - via conventional channels.
Carsten Lucaßen: The app is a supplement to our existing communication channels. We print about 10,000 copies of our employee newspaper "aktuell intern" ("current intern") three times a year, and you can find it all over our company, i.e. it's distributed across the board. But digital channels? You can't reach non-desk workers or the sales department (which mostly uses iOS devices) using a classic Intranet connection. This means that the app actually closes two gaps in communication at the same time.
Von Truchseß: The app runs on our employees' private devices. Seeing as it's optional, it's all the more important for the content we deliver to be good quality. Up to now, managers and employees communicated in-house by word of mouth. Our regional newspaper is also important for in-house communication because our employees are often asked about what's in it. In rural areas like this, in-house communication obeys slightly different laws to what you might be familiar with in the rest of the country.
One of your target groups are your employees. Why do they need an app?
Von Truchseß: So we can close a gap in communication and foster interaction. And because, ultimately, we want all employees to be given the chance to keep up to date. In addition to this, we want to foster open and transparent communication that transcends hierarchical boundaries, and we don't want one-way communication - we want dialogue. So far, nearly 3,000 employees have downloaded the app.
Where did the name "Vi2go" come from?
Lucaßen: The names of our products begin with "Vito". The name of the app plays around with this whilst also trying to get across the idea of having a slice of the company "to go".
What kind of content can I find on the app at the moment?
Lucaßen: News, an internal job board and a virtual bulletin board where employees can sell things, arrange car shares or where they can find out about events. There is also an abbreviation glossary, cafeteria menus for our biggest production sites, idea management and access to time sheets and holiday sheets.
What made you go for the content that you chose?
Von Truchseß: We actually found out what our customers - i.e. the employees - really need. So, we began to examine relevant data, i.e. the sorts of pages our employees tend to click on when using the Intranet. Of course, it came as no surprise to see the cafeteria menu at the top of the list. Next, though, we had the internal job board.
Lucaßen: That was just the beginning. We then broadcast Intranet usage and we got people to give their views. The likes and comments began to come in. On Vi2go, we mentioned the Wood Energy Forum, for instance, which several employees from the sales department visited. They were happy to find the topic in the app, which they commented on, seeing as sellers tend to be big communicators.
Why is it so important to have communication channels that are specific to particular areas?
Von Truchseß: Here we have around 4,500 employees, with 2,000 of those in production. If they want to see their holiday sheet or their time sheet, for instance, they will be able to use the app to do so in future. Of course, this also works the other way round: let's say I want to arrange a special shift for Saturday as the Line Manager. Basically, I enter the shift plan into the app, announce it, and the first ten to like the announcement come on Saturday. That's something the employees wanted. We now have a tool that does so much more than provide information. Our app has the potential to become the central platform for communication and teamwork.
What's the main communication goal of the app?
Von Truchseß: The main theme is transparency and making communication and knowledge accessible to everyone. The app is a tool that ensures everyone can keep up to date. I can chip in with things that interest me, people will see how much I've done and I can learn. So, first you have the communication channel, and the communication itself follows.
So do employees get a sense of self-esteem from the app?
Von Truchseß: Absolutely. If you start something like this, you have to prepare yourself for its rapid success. Several employees come up to you to talk to you about things that interest them. This is because they have so many more opportunities than with a single publication that's only published three or four times a year. An app is also a much more laid-back tool: it doesn't involve endless edits and approvals. You just upload the photo with four or five sentences, and the reader feels in safe hands. The app changes the way communication is structured as there's no need for a piece to jump through countless editorial hoops first. A piece no longer has to go through 20 departments before it finally gets printed several weeks later.
A small amount of text, more pictures, even videos - how exactly are you using new formats?
Lucaßen: You have to think in different formats. We listen to testimonials, for example, in other words we listen to employees who are working temporarily in another department. Let's imagine an employee has done some sort of in-house internship in our Digital Unit in Berlin in order to see how we work and to develop her own working methods. A format that allows her to report this authentically in her own words is just perfect for the app.
In our own academy, we also make a film: a short intro, a video, an ending. We made a film about harvesting methods, for instance, as some of our heat comes from fields around the factory. What we harvest from the poplar fields ends up in our wood chip system, which supplies the bulk of our factory with heat. The feeling of participation is even greater when employees find out from the app that Minister President for Hesse, Volker Bouffier, is inaugurating our power-to-gas plant today, not tomorrow as stated by the newspaper.
The introduction of an employee app also represents a cultural change given the fact employees are also able to use the app on their own devices. How did you approach this issue?
Von Truchseß: Of course, before we even started we posed the question: is this the right time for this app, and are we ready? But the mood was just right, and we hardly had to persuade anyone. Support from above was particularly important: the owning family always initiated developments early on itself. This now applies to digital transformation, and hence the cultural change in the company. Of course, it's no help whatsoever if people suddenly loosen their ties, put on their hoodies, rest on their laurels and say: we're good now. The constant drive for improvement and the willingness to go in new directions is part of Viessmann's genetic makeup. Despite all demands for perfection, the app was a MVP. In other words, we released it early on as a minimum viable product with few basic functions. Since then the focus has been on testing, discussing, discarding and improving.
And how long did this development process last?
Von Truchseß: Just a few weeks. We didn't write up functional and technical specifications first, develop a prototype and only then release it as a finished product. The first workshop was held in early November. Here, a diverse team came up with an initial blueprint for the app in six hours.
Who was part of this team?
Von Truchseß: A representative from the works council and HR, the IT, the digital transformation team, marketing and our own department. The great thing about such a diverse team is that everyone was able to contribute their own point of view. There was one point, however, where we were all agreed: If the app was to succeed, it needed to benefit the daily lives of our employees. This meant not only providing a news channel, but also seemingly trivial things such as a cafeteria menu and a bulletin board. We then got together fairly quickly with Staffbase, a start-up company based in Chemnitz specialising in employee apps. In early December we had our central Management Forum. When we called the external developers to ask whether we could present an initial, clickable prototype in the meantime, they grimaced at first at the tight schedule, but said it was worth a try. And it worked.
Whether they receive photos or explanatory videos,
our employees receive information practically in real time,
and they react. Many company apps are standardised
today, and the prices tend to depend on the size of the
company. Viessmann working with the Staffbase team in Chemnitz.
(C) Screenshots: App/Vi2Go
So was the Management Forum the first customer test?
Von Truchseß: Indeed it was. And it garnered several possible responses that we were able to incorporate into our next developments. This encouraged us to aim for roll-out on the 1st February. We've said it ourselves that a lot can go wrong, but the deadline is set. We don't mind taking out a function or making it less fancy - as long as the app goes live on the 1st February. These were start-up thoughts that we've transferred to several over projects since then. The first 2,000 downloads came quickly, and several people from abroad are also opting in despite not speaking any German.
Did you track the first 2,000 downloads?
Lucaßen: We did, though the data is distorted seeing as we started later for non-desk employees. The first 2,000 downloads came quickly, though we were actually happier about the downloads that followed: since February 1st, we've been seeing a slower increase in downloads, though we're still seeing 10 to 20 new users on a daily basis.
We're not advertising the app. Instead, employee curiosity is piqued when they notice their colleagues have got their hands on new technology. Some were sceptical as they had to use their personal phones or tablets, saying "I'm not great with apps." But then they realised their colleagues were more in the loop thanks to the app. We could be radical too and stop doing printed publications right away, but we're not keen on that idea.
In order for the app to be accepted, it's crucial that employees feel confident and that they have alternatives. We meticulously examined data security beforehand, and as such we don't track any GPS data, for instance. After all, I wouldn't use an app if I wasn't sure it was secure. Anyone who's still concerned about security can use the app on their PC too.
This means we're not doing any content distribution with the app, which was a conscious decision. Our servers are in Potsdam, which is beneficial to communication in the sense that people who handle the date responsibly will have a competitive advantage.
How big is your team?
Von Truchseß: We've got just over a dozen employees who cover three areas: Classic Corporate Communication, Strategic Association Work and Sustainability. Our subsidiaries and our foreign subsidiaries all have their own contacts, and we keep in close contact with them.
Carsten Lucaßen and Albrecht von Truchseß in the state-of-the-art Viessmann
company headquarters in Allendorf, Photo: Julia Nimke (c)
Do you think in terms of themes or channels?
Von Truchseß: We don't differentiate between internal and external communication. Instead, the work we do depends heavily on the project, and we frequently work in teams from various parts of the company. This helps digitisation as selectivity here drastically decreases anyway. A silo mentality won't get you anywhere here.
How big's your budget?
Von Truchseß: Let's not discuss that.
Are communication and marketing separate in your company?
Von Truchseß: Yes, but the two departments work closely together. There are, however, key differences: channels are one thing, but the messages are a different kettle of fish altogether depending on whether I'm advertising and getting the products across as a brand or whether I'm getting the company across as a brand.
It says on the website that the marketing department is looking for a Digital Designer. Would that happen to be the vanguard, so to speak?
Lucaßen: No, it isn't the vanguard. We're in the thick of the digital domain, which means we're dealing with expansion.
Let's get back to your employee app. Do you need a lot of leeway in terms of budget?
Von Truchseß: We do need substantial leeway, though not in terms of budget. This is because we've started small and we have a start-up mentality, meaning we want to achieve as much as we possibly can with not very much. If we fail, then we can handle it. That's because we haven't come up with a gigantic app after x number of analyses and 2 years of development. We'd never do it again any differently.
Lucaßen: It makes for quicker, modular development. If something doesn't work, I don't have to double back. Instead, I can just pause for a bit and quickly move on. Thus we can't really talk about an overall budget, but rather just individual elements.
What content is coming out next?
Lucaßen: We're continuing to develop the app into a digital information and communication hub. We've integrated the idea management, for instance, with 100,000 suggested improvements a year. Then there's Viessmann Selection, which is a our sponsoring and merchandising shop. Both previously had their own apps that we've now been able to integrate.
The next stages of development involve integrating our job portal and establishing a public area that contains information, i.e. content for end customers and market partners.
Do you need to be brave to hand over control?
Von Truchseß: The fact of the matter is that we haven't be able to control some communication for a while already - companies solely have to see how many Facebook pages and Facebook groups there are that bear their name. When you just take a glance at the things employees are organising all over the internet, it's staggering. Not to mention the customers. Those who are still afraid of loosening the reins on communication fail to see it's been like that for a long time already.
What were the technical challenges?
Lucaßen: It wasn't the app itself, but rather the interface. In other words, the link between the app, the Viessmann IT and our employees. The app is on an external server, and the provider is practically responsible for everything until we get to the factory entrance itself, which is where we take over.
Without being part of the Viessmann environment, the app needs to be able to recognise whether someone is our employee or not. So, it asks our IT whether someone works here, and it gets a token that says either "yes" or a "no". In other words, the virtual factory entrance is the interface. New employees get access automatically, but we have to make sure that employees who leave can't just stand outside the factory and communicate using the app.
That surely requires a sophisticated system for identifying permissions and roles, doesn't it?
Lucaßen: It certainly does. We have users, editors, managing editors and administrators. We also have various user groups that may be regional. The Hof, Berlin and Mittenwalde sites now also have their own news channels. We are also planning to launch the app in Finland and Hungary before the summer break in Finnish and Hungarian respectively.
Do you have a universal content management system for all your sites then?
Von Truchseß: Indeed we do because, all spontaneity aside, it's important to take scalability into account from the very outset, ensuring there's room for improvement in every area. If you have to consider everything in advance, you dumbfounded. But we don't actually write in Finnish ourselves, so instead we provide on-site employees with the toolbox. That way, employees won't expect to suddenly encounter a technological marvel seeing as they'll be starting from scratch. So, the good news is you'll definitely be making rapid progress.
How much does that cost?
Von Truchseß: It's cheaper than printed publications. This app is a subscription model (depending on the number of users), and would also be good for a company with eight employees.
But that's stupid, though: the more successful you are, the more expensive it gets?
Von Truchseß: And the more willing the management is to support the project. Don't forget that.
What have you discovered now the app's been around for six months?
Von Truchseß: You don't need dozens of strategy meetings or loads of project management for communication to blossom. Sometimes all you need are simple resources in order to launch a new tool, and when you design this tool, you have to focus on your users and you need to integrate them. This doesn't only strengthen employee commitment, but it also fosters digital transformation in general.