How do you get 1,200 at-home workers to feel like they're part of a team?
Telus Corp.'s answer was: Bring social media into the workplace.
Four years ago, the telecommunications company introduced a host of products for its employees, both working inside the home and in its offices, to help inspire collaboration among its workers.
"We've got a litany of options, which really allow the at-home worker ... [such as] the call-centre agents, to foster their collaborative work place," says Dan Pontefract, senior director, Learning and Collaboration at Telus.
Instant messenger helps the company's at-home workers ask questions of fellow employees, while virtual "fireside chats" allow employees to mingle and ask questions in a less formal environment in cyberspace.
"We've taken the approach [and the company's slogan]: 'where the future is friendly' not only externally, but internally and are using that to connect our team members with our senior management," says Mr. Pontefract.
For Telus, effective internal collaboration helps to eliminate feelings of isolation among employees, no matter where they are working.
"Even though they might be working at home by themselves, they feel as if they're working in an office with their colleagues that are right beside them," Mr. Pontefract says. But he says these tools are not just for the work-at-home crowd.
Using the latest social technology to cultivate internal communication - whether it be between departments or geographical divides - is the next frontier in business, says Connie Chan, co-founder of Chess Media Group, a management consulting firm in Vancouver.
Often referred to as Enterprise 2.0, these new business practices try to incorporate the newest in social technology to help companies form online communities among employees, partners and even the competition.
For Ms. Chan, it is not just about building camaraderie among employees; it's about creating efficiency and increasing productivity in the workplace through information sharing.
"I think the main problem I see is the inability to find information or the people who have the information quickly and easily and a lot of that is a problem around e-mail or a problem of people just not sharing information that could be of value to their peers," she says.
Saying goodbye to internal e-mail may be boggling news for some, but just last year, Atos, one of Europe's largest tech companies, caught global attention when it announced its "zero e-mail" policy. This will see its employees banned from sending internal e-mails as early as 2013. The purpose is to eventually avoid spam and push the French company's 74,000 workers - spread across more than 40 offices - to use social communication tools to interact with each other to increase worker efficiency. According to company statistics, middle managers at Atos spend more than 25 per cent of their time searching for information.
Ms. Chan's point is that by introducing collaborative platforms, such as wikis, blogs or Facebook-style mediums, companies allow employees to share information faster and more accessibly, saving everyone time and frustration.
"It's not unlike what we do on [our personal] Facebook, in that we put information out there that we think is interesting or valuable to other people or information that we want other people to know," she says.
But before companies jump into investing in these new technologies, Ms. Chan suggests they identify the specific social media tools they need, as it can be an expensive disappointment if they fail at Enterprise 2.0 because they do not have the proper foundation.
"We actually don't condone going the technology route first, we condone developing a really sound strategy and having the proper team in place before selecting the technology," says Ms. Chan.
At the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, Umar Ruhi teaches about the benefits of Enterprise 2.0, but he cautions about the need to regulate these forums.
"One of the things that organizations are having a hard time dealing with is the control and governance aspect of these tools," says Dr. Ruhi. He explains that companies have to develop boundaries for work-based social media.
"A lot of organizations do that through acquiring platforms which resemble some of the personal platforms," says Dr. Ruhi. "But they are more controlled."
The one piece of advice all the parties agree on: This is not a quick fix, so if a business is looking for an overnight sensation, then Enterprise 2.0 might not be the answer.
Social media in the workplace - tips for employers:
Lead by example
Employees cannot be expected to use these tools if the boss isn't on board.
It needs to be seamless
Try having social media pages pop up when an employee logs on to their computer.
Regulate - but not too much
Have some rules, but not so many as to discourage open discussions.
Help people interact personally when possible.
The last of a six-part series on how companies are finding business solutions and fostering innovation through partnerships and collaboration