A traditional office atmosphere, with all your talent under one roof, is often considered the ideal scenario for collaboration, innovation and creativity to thrive. But, in a world where flexible working is increasingly demanded, and global expansion is on many an agency's agenda, how can business leaders keep staff in hundreds - possibly even thousands - of locations, engaged and connected?

We Are Social has been around for nearly a decade, and we’ve had an international outlook from day one. We now have 10 offices around the world with over 700 hundred people, in 5 different timezones with 5 different languages used as the business lingua franca in their markets.

When we started out as an agency in 2008, we were lucky to have Skype as our founding client, and as such, much of our agency communication for the first few years in business was built around the platform. But as we grew and matured we realised that, while Skype is a great tool for day-to-day conversation, we needed something more robust. Our part of the industry is moving at such a pace that the immediacy of industry news, platform changes, social innovation and tech development is key to staying ahead and ensuring we can speak to our clients with the most update information. Also as a social agency that is literally built around the concept of connecting people, a bog standard intranet wasn’t going to cut it. So we experimented with a few different options, but when we had the opportunity to join the trial of Workplace by Facebook back in June 2016, ahead of its official launch, we jumped at the chance.

Workplace looks just like Facebook. It also works in a very similar way, in that users can post updates, can create private and public groups (well, public within the closed platform), and can like, comment on and share updates from any other user within the organisation’s network. The platform also contains a Messenger-style Workplace Chat functionality.

Ours is dubbed The Ship (insert all aboard jokes here) - it’s not an intranet in terms of being a traditional repository of static information; it’s a much more social way to share information, knowledge and news across our network. Its conversational nature, in a format that people are already comfortable with, also means that our team aren’t afraid or reticent to jump onto a thread; it helps promote a more collaborative, flat hierarchy. It’s been invaluable for working on global clients across our teams making sure sector knowledge and local work and responses are shared between our teams in a more fluid way, all with it helpfully archived.

It’s not perfect, of course. It’s hard to get busy people to spend time on a new platform, so we had to make sure it was the place to go for vital resources, information and contacts, not just office bantz. We put local ‘captains’ in place that are key to its success - they champion the platform, encourage usage, train teams locally, and are part of a global team that support, develop and grow the platform. Our senior leaders have been involved in The Ship since its inception, and are therefore very engaged - regularly posting and engaging with content, setting the standard for the rest of the agency. This has helped us reach a usage rate of 85% weekly, 65% daily - and we aim to build on this in the coming year. There’s also the issue that Facebook (and therefore Workplace) is blocked in China, where two of our offices are based - they have a pretty unreliable VPN access to The Ship, but despite this we still have very active users in China.

Getting feedback is essential, too. We recently ran a survey across our teams, asking for their thoughts on the tool. We found that 71% said it helped them to connect with their colleagues more easily, and that since we put it in place, they feel 3 x more connected to the global network. Some of our offices have even got rid of Skype completely, using Workplace’s chat function in its place. On the flip side, we learned we had to focus on getting our smaller offices more engaged - they tend to be less active on The Ship because their local colleagues are, at worst, just a few desks away to bounce ideas off. We also need to focus on making it a platform to help people become more efficient in their work - just 42% currently believe it does this.

The current thinking is that platforms like Workplace will, one day, replace all internal work emails. This is still a long way off, but The Ship has certainly moved our collaboration efforts forward significantly, cut down on the number of unnecessary emails, helped us share and (virtually) brainstorm more efficiently and effectively. Most importantly, it’s helped bring about the sense of a global connection that is essential for an agency like ours.