The past couple years have been tough for those of us working in the technology sector, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any easier. Capital spending budgets have been slashed, new hires deferred, and (in many cases) salary freezes and layoffs implemented. At the same time, the pressure to make existing IT investments justify their costs has put an additional burden on the remaining technical staff.

As a result, employee morale has suffered, hurting productivity.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are things you can do to address that morale problem. In this column, I’m going to suggest something you might not have considered. By establishing or improving your organization’s employee portal, you can make your staff feel more connected and empowered. It’s no substitute for a GDP growing at 7 percent annually, but it is a move in the right direction.

Portals: The TechRepublic example
I want to demonstrate the power of an employee portal by relating my own experience here at TechRepublic, but first I want to make sure we’re clear on the terms. Portal is one of those words that can mean different things to different people. And in truth, there are different kinds of online portals: some face clients, others suppliers, and still others the media or investors.

An employee portal, on the other hand, is a Web site that offers links to information that is directly relevant to those working for that organization. A good employee portal contains information from the HR department, of course, but should provide much more.

Here’s my own positive experience with a well-designed employee portal:
TechRepublic’s previous owner sold the business to CNET in the summer of 2001. As you might imagine, it was a difficult time for TechRepublic employees, for several reasons. First, we were going from being an independent subsidiary of one company to an integrated business unit of another. While we had previously operated fairly autonomously, now we would have to function as part of a larger organization. Second, cost reductions were part of the acquisition process, and that was another source of pain. Third, most of TechRepublic’s staff lived and worked halfway across the country from CNET’s corporate headquarters. Fourth, there was the natural anxiety that comes from being acquired.

So there were lots of reasons for apprehension.

As managers, we did what we could to minimize employee anxiety (while trying to get a handle on own fears at the same time). We held lots of meetings. We published employee Q & As and FAQs about the acquisition. We tried to track down and answer unfounded rumors. We distributed workbooks, with titles like The Employee Guide to Mergers and Acquisitions and Smart Moves: A Crash Course on Merger Integration Management. We attempted to get as much information in front of people as possible, as quickly as possible. Finally, if individual employees were having a particularly difficult time, we had one-on-one meetings to try to answer their concerns.

We worked very hard. Yet, looking back, I’m struck by the fact that one of our most effective tools in making the acquisition work was a standard piece of CNET technology.

The employee portal at CNET is called Offline. The front door of Offline is pretty utilitarian, just a collection of links organized by topic. The beauty of the site to me is how it allows you to do so many things from a single location. Here are just some of the things you can find in Offline (all of which I believe should be a part of any employee portal):

  • Employee Directory: To me, this is the single most important feature of Offline. Using the portal, any CNET employee can look up the name and title of any other employee. Each employee listing also contains the business address, telephone number, e-mail address, and instant message ID. It also has two other important features. First, each listing shows a person’s direct supervisor as well as any direct reports they might have. These are links within the directory. Therefore, by clicking back and forth, you can get a pretty good sense of how each business unit at CNET is organized. When a larger firm has just acquired you, this is huge. The second feature is a photograph. While it seems kind of silly, the ability to look at a photograph of the people you’re learning to do business with everyday is really important. For the same reason, we worked really hard to get photographs of all TechRepublic employees into the Employee Directory as soon as possible after the acquisition became final.
  • HR information: You’d expect an employee portal to have this kind of information, and Offline certainly does. From the front door, you can see the company calendar listing holidays and paydays, employee policies, explanation of benefits, job listings, employee training, and a contact list for the entire HR department.
  • Company forms and reporting: If you need to fill out a company form, you can find it in Offline. This is true for both downloadable forms (such as performance review documents) and forms you can fill out online (such as an IT trouble ticket for PC hardware problems or a request to take a vacation day).
  • Company news and information: Offline is where you can find all our press releases as well as copies of the weekly employee newsletter. Since we also do Web casts for internal use, you can find links to those here as well.
  • Regular updates: This isn’t a feature per se, but it’s vitally important. Many companies establish an employee portal with a great deal of fanfare but never devote any resources to keeping it updated. In short order, the portal becomes worthless. In fact, it becomes less than worthless; it becomes a testament to management indifference. In my experience, Offline is kept very current.

Don’t get me wrong. Offline isn’t perfect. (For example, I’d prefer to be able to book conference rooms for meetings in Outlook rather than going to Offline.) However, it truly helped former TechRepublic employees feel connected to the new CNET company they were joining. Now almost two years later, it’s hard to imagine not consulting Offline for something almost every business day.

What about you?
Knowledge is power, as the saying goes. With a well-designed employee portal, you can empower all your employees, not just those involved in an acquisition. During these difficult times, it’s a relatively low-cost way to make your people feel better about your organization, while at the same time making them more productive.

From the IT Leadership Web log

I started writing about employee portals on TechRepublic’s blog for technical managers and their bosses. It’s called IT Leadership—check it out today. It’s free.