As Virgin Atlantic restarts operations following the industry-wide airline shut-down caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook’s Workplace is providing staff with the resources required as they work to get more passengers back in the skies.
When Virgin Atlantic deployed the social network to connect its workforce four years ago, the move was an immediate hit with employees, most of whom are in frontline roles such as its cabin crew and pilot teams.
While the focus was on community building and communications, the application has increasingly become an information portal for the airline’s 6,000 workers, delivering access to resources such as employee learning and development information.
The resources offered include a catalogue of mandatory training courses for aircraft staff and thought leadership articles in a purpose-built area within Workplace along with the recently introduced Shift Cover feature frontline staff use to coordinate shift swaps. There are also plans to migrate staff rostering information from Virgin Atlantic’s intranet to Workplace.
“We're looking at Workplace moving from a connectivity platform to a productivity tool,” said Megan Buck, channels and social manager at Virgin Atlantic. “When it first came in, it was amazing for connecting people across the business, from around the world, and creating that two-way conversation.
“The strategy that we see for Workplace going forward will be an enabling tool to let people do their jobs better.”
Changes in how Virgin Atlantic uses Workplace reflect a wider evolution among enterprise social network applications, said Raul Castanon, a senior research analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence’s 451 Research.
That trend has seen various business social tools, from Slack to Microsoft’s Teams and Viva, widen their scope and move from a predominantly top-down communication medium to become “comprehensive digital employee experience platforms” that provide access to a variety of company resources and applications.
“The experience of Virgin Atlantic reflects a more mature deployment,” Castanon said.
A spike in use during the pandemic
As with other airlines, Virgin Atlantic’s business operations were hard hit by travel restrictions during the pandemic, with as much 85 per cent of its workforce furloughed and a wave of redundancies as flights were grounded.
Virgin Atlantic did what other companies around the world were forced to do in 2020 — closed offices, sent workers home, kept them updated with critical information, and worked to keep business moving forward.
During the fast-changing early stages of the crisis, there was a surge in demand for company updates, which translated to a 96 per cent weekly active user rate on Workplace among the 6,000 employees. The weekly active user rate before the pandemic was 76 per cent.
As concerns around the pandemic have subsided, usage has dropped back to the earlier levels, even though almost half of workers remain on full-time or “flexi” furlough.
“We had this hypothesis that uncertainty drives Workplace usage,” said Buck. “When there’s a big government announcement or general uncertainty in the market, people go to Workplace to see what the leadership team is saying, or what information the comms team [is] sharing, or cabin crew groups, for example.
“Our usage rates were absolutely through the roof, especially at the [height] the pandemic," she said.
Castanon described the surge in use at Virgin Atlantic as “high, although not entirely surprising when we consider the unprecedented surge in demand experienced across all digital channels – including video collaboration and chat applications – during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Enterprise social network application such as Workplace emerged as a critical element for business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
One key reason for the spike was access to a microsite created on Workplace’s Knowledge Library. This gave employees a “one-stop-shop” for updates related to the pandemic, furlough decisions, and tips how to keep safe. All workers were able to access FAQs as needed, reducing the strain on the skeleton team still working.
“We did our best to make people feel like they were fully informed and engaged with what was going on across the business, and without being too intrusive,” said Buck. “It's a gentle balance of making people at ease, informed, engaged without being too overbearing. Sending constant email updates is a bit of a barrage for people who may not be checking in with their emails.”
More recently there's been information about the return to the office for furloughed staff. “We've reduced from two offices to one, so there's lots of people who have never worked in our main head office…. It’s about giving them guidance and making them feel a bit more at-ease about the return to work,” said Buck.
Video also played an important role in connecting workers. Virgin CEO Shai Weiss did weekly broadcasts that summarised events across the company as business unit leaders offered up their own videos. In addition, in-person “team huddles” that were common pre-Covid became online town halls or Workplace Live events, said Buck.
“A huge amount of our leaders, and even people further down the food chain have adopted video as a core platform that they need to be using to update their team,” she said.
Workplace, while critical, remains just one part of Virgin Atlantic’s communication efforts. Microsoft Teams is also used, though generally for more direct collaboration within smaller groups, such as instant messaging and file hosting.
“Microsoft Teams is a more collaborative tool for the day-to-day check-ins with the team,” said Buck. “We've tried not to be too prescriptive about how the individual user needs to access both platforms. As a comms team, Workplace is the big broadcast platform; if we're sending out big messages or there's a big announcement, Workplace will absolutely be the number one place we go to."