What is an employee app and why do you need one?

Employee apps and mobile experiences are becoming more common in the workplace, but what exactly is an employee app? Why is a branded mobile app valuable? Is an employee communications app worth it for your business? Find out all the answers in this go-to guide for the mobile workplace.

Woman holding phone

Employee apps: The digital experience your people want

From the launch of the iPhone in 2007, the internet has shifted from desktops and PCs to our pockets. Now, we can access almost anything we want in seconds no matter where we are. It’s a technological revolution we often take for granted, to the point where many of us can’t remember life without it (even if the screech of dial-up modems still haunts your dreams).

Even as late as 2010, 97% of all internet traffic came from desktop computers. In 2016, mobile internet traffic overtook desktop traffic for the first time, and we haven’t looked back since. This clearly illustrates people’s preferences – mobile-first is what we want.

It begs the question: If, as consumers, we prefer mobile over computers, why should workplaces be any different?

Enter the mobile employee app.

What is an employee app?

An employee app (also known as an employee engagement app) brings communications, productivity tools, integrations, and search features to a native app for employees to use on their mobile devices. As either standalone software or an extension of an intranet, employee apps allow businesses to improve employee experience no matter where people work.

Often called a branded mobile app; a frontline communications app; a business app; or an employee self-service app, employee apps bring digital workplace access to the fingertips of often hard-to-reach employees and audiences.

Whether used for connection and communications, administrative tasks like rota scheduling, or to bring productivity tools to those without computer access, an employee app is a valuable asset to any modern enterprise, particularly those with frontline or remote workers.

'Discover the power of a mobile intranet' - Unily guide flat pages


Discover the power of a mobile intranet

2.7 billion people work away from a desk. That’s 80% of the global working population. These employees need more from their organizations, from their technology, and from the employee experience. This in-depth guide details everything your enterprise needs to deliver a consumer-grade mobile experience that connects and engages everyone from head office to frontline.

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Why do you need an employee app?

In recent years the employee app has grown from a nice-to-have into a must-have tool in the digital workplace. Hybrid working, an ever-growing 2.7 billion-strong frontline workforce (over 80% of employees aren’t office-based), and a world in which smartphones outnumber computers 15 to 1 set the scene for a clear mobile advantage.

Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report found that 63% of global enterprises regard mobility as the most significant factor contributing to competitive advantage, and 70% cite it as a top priority.

By all accounts, an employee app is not a luxury, it has become essential. If you’re not offering an employee app, you’re actively making user experiences worse for your employees.

What challenges do an employee app solve?

To really understand the value of an employee app, and why your enterprise may need one, you have to look at the solutions they provide and the challenges they solve.

Enterprises with remote, hybrid, and frontline workforces will know all too well the difficulties involved in aligning and engaging these hard-to-reach audiences. These struggles apply to communicators, to IT, HR, and to employees themselves, who may miss out on important updates or a sense of connection to their organization. Thankfully, employee apps present solutions to a series of these key issues, such as:

  • Traditional communications channels favor office-based employees, leading to engagement gaps between business units
  • Frontline and remote workers feel less connected to the wider business, unaware of changes and updates from HQ
  • Deskless employees have the highest turnover are at the greatest risk of disengaging – and that disengagement brings the greatest impact to bottom lines, threatening 18% lower productivity and 15% lower profitability, per Gallup
  • Deskless employees are less able to make their voice heard, forming knowledge silos and decreasing morale among isolated employees
  • Frontline employees, typically those delivering customer experiences, have limited access to useful and accurate information when needed
  • Employees without access to desktop computers often lack access to key business tools and productivity-driving features

Who is an employee app for?

The easy answer to this question: Your employees. 88% of businesses employ frontline workers, and 94% are offering more flexibility as to where and when people want to work. If we want to improve the employee experience and gain the business benefits that entails, the first place we should look isn’t the office, but everywhere else.

An employee app is valuable precisely because it is user-centric, and because its advantages center around making life easier, more engaging, and more productive for typically underutilized sections of the workforce.

For enterprises considering adding an employee communications app to their tech stack, the potential use cases span across industries and markets. From healthcare to retail, hospitality to travel, and energy to manufacturing, it's rare to find a workforce that won’t drive positive business outcomes from implementing an employee app.

The international airline Cathay Pacific, for example, sought to reinvent digital experience for their employees and create a targeted, hyper-relevant single source of truth that could be accessed anytime and anywhere. Since more than 40% of their workforce uses smartphones as their primary device, mobile optimization was a guiding principle for launching The Hub, their NN/g award-winning employee app:

Cathay Pacific: Launching an award-winning mobile intranet' case study flat pages

Case Studies

Cathay Pacific: Launching an award-winning mobile intranet

Built on a passion for flight and a commitment to achieving the unthinkable, Cathay Pacific has secured its status as a leading airline for more than 75 years. To connect its workforce of 26k+ employees who are mobile by design, Cathay Pacific launched a redesigned employee experience platform that has earned a spot among Nielsen Norman Group's best intranets.

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What are the benefits of an employee app?

Having defined the newly emerged employee app and examined the use cases and business challenges they address; it becomes clear to see the benefits they offer both enterprises and employees. Below are just some of those benefits, as well as the general features the employee app market typically offers enterprises:

#1. Putting powerful tools at employee’s fingertips

Productive mobile experiences are all about connecting people to content and resources as efficiently as possible. Seamless integrations with third-party applications deliver a unified digital workplace via a mobile app that employees can take with them anywhere, accessing all the tools they need to remain productive on the move. Where 86% of leaders noted in a Harvard Business Review study that frontline employees need better technology to make important decisions and improve productivity, employee apps empower these workers with all the tools and information they need.

Unily targeted search experiences drive productivity on iPhone

#2. Connect your business from frontline to HQ

As the demographic most vulnerable to disengagement and prone to feel isolated or disconnected, your frontline needs every opportunity available to interact with colleagues from across your entire business, not just their department. Especially today, as hybrid and remote work has workforces reliant on technology to get work done, employee apps can help keep people connected and still feel a part of something.

A perfect example of this frontline connection comes from the Zaxby’s franchise of restaurants, who launched their mobile-first intranet, ZNET, to unite and engage all corporate departments and franchisee and corporate stores in a single, one-stop-shop system.

"A significant portion of our corporate team members are out in the field or on the road, so we knew we had to supply them with a mobile option to ensure they stay connected with news, announcements, and information. Our franchisees want information on demand, and ZNET allows them to view it on their own time while still getting real time alerts."

Andrea Griffith - Director of Corporate Culture & Communications at Zaxby's

'Zaxby’s unites retail franchises and corporate employees with an intranet' case study flat pages

Case Studies

Zaxby’s unites retail franchises and corporate employees with an intranet

Zaxby’s restaurants serve thousands of customers daily across America with fresh, high-quality chicken. But with more than 1.9k corporate and franchise owners spread across more than 900 locations throughout America, Zaxby’s needed a way to unite its stores under one cultural initiative to ensure employee happiness and a set model for business standards.

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#3. Tap into frontline knowledge

Your frontline are the eyes and ears of your enterprise. In many industries, they are responsible for delivering your customer experience and get to see how people interact with your brand. As such, your frontline workforce holds invaluable insight into improving your relationships with customers. Employee apps help bridge the communications gap with your frontline and enable knowledge to flow freely back to HQ and throughout your enterprise.

Internal comms newsroom

#4. Drive engagement with targeted experiences

Frontline employees have completely different needs than their office-based counterparts, so enterprises require a configurable solution and personalized experiences to target users. Targeted app experiences allow enterprises to leverage content to create dedicated experiences for users depending on their role and location, more closely catering to the needs of, for example, frontline retail workers. This enables you to deliver a more visual experience optimized for mobile devices and quick access to tools for the tasks your users’ face.

Cathay Pacific enlisted seven different targeted homepages to closely meet the needs of the enterprise’s core employee personas:

"A lot of work went into creating this level of granular personalization, but it’s worth it. Now every user gets an experience specific to their unique needs, and as a result adoption of the platform is at an all-time high."

Carly Nankin - Head of Internal Communications and Engagement at Cathay Pacific

#5. Provide seamless user experiences

One of the key benefits of an employee app is its ability to act as a standalone system. While perfectly capable of integrating with your wider digital landscape, the best employee apps are built on independent architecture, enabling native identification and mitigating the need for every user to have a Microsoft license. Users are able to login to the intranet using identification from alternative providers such as LinkedIn or Google, further streamlining access to the intranet. This democratizes access to everyone and makes it as easy as possible for users to access the app, which boosts adoption by eliminating any digital friction or reason to avoid your UX.

Unily single-sign on with multiple social identities on iPhone including Facebook, Google and LinkedIn

What features does an employee app offer?

Employee apps bring a range of features, tools, and capabilities to mobile devices. From integrations with popular workplace apps to AI-powered translation, here are just some of the useful capabilities an employee app brings to enterprises and employees alike:

Branded app experiences

A branded employee app better connects users to your organization via seamless native app experiences. Instead of a generic platform for users to learn to use, they’re greeted with an intuitive UX and theming that embodies your brand and culture.

Targeted mobile search

Mobile search experiences deliver streamlined access to resources and information, boosting productivity among deskless employees by reducing time to task and surfacing highly relevant information quickly.

Commonwealth Care Alliance knowledge hub search feature on iPhone

Search features proved particularly valuable to Commonwealth Care Alliance, whose intranet and employee app, CommonGround, went on to win several international awards, including being named one of the Top 10 Intranets of the Year by the prestigious Nielsen Norman Group.

'Commonwealth Care Alliance: Launching an award-winning healthcare intranet' case study flat pages

Case Studies

Commonwealth Care Alliance: Launching an award-winning healthcare intranet

People are at the heart of Commonwealth Care Alliance’s mission. More than 40k members turn to the not-for-profit organization for their healthcare needs. By launching an intranet that is accessible on-demand from anywhere, Commonwealth Care Alliance has created a winning experience for their people that has earned international award recognition from the Nielsen Norman Group.

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Seamless 3rd party integrations

Integrations with popular workplace tools like Microsoft 365, G Suite, Slack, Salesforce, and ServiceNow, bring a complete solution to mobile users, so employees can access the power of your digital workplace however and whenever they want.

Native push notifications

Taking advantage of native mobile experiences helps content and communications on employee apps grab attention more effectively than other channels. Native push notifications cut through the noise, offer a more convenient way for employees to enjoy content, and bring 50% more readership to communications than email, per Salesforce.

Native push notifications drive reach and readership on iPhone

Social networking features

The vast majority of traffic on social media comes from mobiles, not computers. Bringing intuitive and familiar social features like commenting, #hashtags, likes and reactions, and @mentioning to employee apps help build connections and encourage collaboration across your enterprise, sharing expertise from your frontline to benefit everyone.

AI-powered multilingual translation

AI-powered multilingual translation helps deliver highly personalized experiences, extend the reach of your technology beyond language barriers, and let users better define their own digital experiences to suit their needs.

AI-powered multilingual translation into Mandaring Chinese delivers personalized experiences on iPhone

Offline reading

From factory floor to 30,000 feet in the air, employees without an internet connection can stay in the loop with offline reading. Employee apps can help connect the disconnected and give every user the opportunity to engage with your content, no matter where they work.

"Offline support drives amazing performance. Engineering offline usage can be challenging, but the benefits are almost always worth it."

Forrester Research
Unily offline reading feature for frontline employees on iPhone

Give people the experiences they want with an employee app

On top of all the use cases, challenges solved, business benefits, and features that employee apps offer, research from Harvard Business Review also shows that organizations with a more engaged frontline see customer loyalty rates 12% higher than their competitors. On top of this, enterprises investing in engaging their frontline workforces statistically outperform companies that don’t – proving to be up to 4x more profitable.

So, mobile access to the digital workplace is shown to be more profitable, better for your customers, better for the overall employee experience, and generally (as internet traffic shows) what people want. The closer you look, the more it seems that employee apps aren’t a flash in the pan – they’re the future of work.

In 2021, when Unily became the first employee experience platform provider to win 4 of the Top 10 Intranets of the Year awards with Nielsen Norman Group, every one of these winners featured a strong focus on their employee app and mobile experience. If that isn’t a sign of the shifting tides of workplace technology, what is? It will be interesting to see how the future unfolds – as technology advances and flexible work becomes more possible – for enterprises that jump on the employee app opportunity and those that stick to a desktop-only experience.

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