Using Yammer & Office 365 to engage and empower a highly mobile workforce

Virgin Trains operates long-distance high speed passenger services on the West Coast Main Line, running the length of the UK and enabling 35 million customer journeys every year.

As Virgin Trains invests in the West Coast franchise leading up to the re-franchise bid and beyond, it has a major focus on building the operating culture, infrastructure and processes needed to support and empower the front line to ‘Create Amazing’ for customers every day.

VT West Coast networkCentral to this strategy is the need to communicate, engage and collaborate more effectively with colleagues across the organisation – and there are particular challenges in this area. As a train operating company Virgin Trains has a highly mobile workforce, with the majority of its 3,400 colleagues working ‘front line’ on trains and stations around the country. Most of these people did not have easy access to the internet and existing communications channels – including a static, content heavy intranet and a printed magazine – were no longer fit for purpose.

Virgin Trains needed a way to communicate rapidly with all of its people, to engage and involve them with news and decisions and to move away from directive, top-down management by connecting colleagues directly with each other. They wanted to move away from static, “word heavy” content to more interactive “bite size” content and to move the focus of the communications away from the desktop and towards the mobile communications that were much more accessible to their dispersed workforce.

Virgin Trains therefore envisaged a new approach centred around an enterprise social network – this would be less top down and structured, mobile optimised, out of the box, Cloud- based and relatively IT ‘lite’. They needed a solution that could be introduced relatively quickly and simply from an IT perspective and which would align with its IT roadmap of replacing existing on-premise infrastructure which was approaching end-of-life.

‘Mobile first, cloud first’

Drawing on recently conducted research into user attitudes to the existing Virgin Trains intranet The Forum, Head of Internal Communication & Engagement Drew McMillan constructed a business case around a ‘mobile first, cloud first’ approach.

This envisaged a lightweight channel delivered to dispersed colleagues via a mix of company-provided and personal mobile devices that would replace a costly and cumbersome print publication with more flexible and interactive technology. The solution needed to coexist with and complement Virgin Trains’ emergent channel and technology landscape which includes digital posters, dedicated microsites and new, role-bespoke mobile apps being developed to support specific operational requirements.

Recognising the limitations of the existing IT infrastructure, the envisaged solution planned to take advantage of the capabilities, efficiencies and cost-savings offered by the Cloud:

  • A Cloud-based approach offered greater flexibility and was much easier to deliver; and didn’t rely on in-house capabilities that were expensive to purchase and maintain
  • Preference for a Software as a Service (SaaS) approach using an easily customisable platform rather than investing in an expensive and heavily bespoke solution
  • In terms of the wider IT infrastructure, Virgin Trains were looking for a platform that wouldn’t offer a ‘hostage to fortune’ i.e. an inflexible platform that would constrain their future development.

Phase One – Technology evaluation and selection

To help take the project forward Virgin Trains needed the right partner to provide the expert advice and services required: firstly to help to specify and evaluate the most appropriate technology solution, then to provide implementation and change management support to rollout the selected technology.

Given these requirements, McMillan was drawn to Betterworking both by their expertise in technology and change management, and by their vendor-agnostic ethos. Betterworking has both the ‘soft’ organisational skills to break down in-house silos to enable cross-functional collaboration to take place, as well as the ‘hard’ technical expertise necessary to work with the IT department, vendor and any third parties to ensure the software is effectively implemented and to provide a single point of accountability.

Overall these skills and qualities were felt to be a good fit with the needs of the project, and Betterworking were initially tasked with advising Virgin Trains on the most appropriate technology solution to support the new internal communications strategy.

Defining the vision

The first step was to bring together the core project team, comprising internal communications and IS/IT stakeholders together with Betterworking consultants, to define the vision for the project.

VT assessment process1The agreed vision was ‘to create a more collaborative, transparent and agile operating culture and supporting communication infrastructure that together enable the frontline to deliver an amazing customer experience’. Achieving this vision would require the project to identify and address key organisational, employee and technology priorities, barriers and enablers at Virgin Trains.

Requirements gathering

Using this framework of organisational, user and technology factors, Betterworking next conducted a pragmatic and efficient requirements gathering exercise. This included leveraging the recently conducted employee/user research – thereby reducing time and cost – and interviews with selected managers to understand operational challenges, opportunities and priorities. The insights from this consultation were used to both inform the technology assessment and selection process in the initial phase, and also to develop and prioritise use cases to support the subsequent configuration and rollout.

In parallel, Betterworking consulted with the Virgin Trains IT Projects team to understand relevant aspects of the technology landscape and future roadmap – in particular communication, collaboration and productivity technologies. This surfaced the work already in progress to explore potential replacements for the existing on-premise Microsoft Office and email solutions, as well as a planned infrastructure upgrade to improve access and identity management. As part of this the IT team was considering Microsoft Office 365 as a potential solution, although no decisions had yet been made.

Vendor shortlisting and assessment

Based on a solid understanding of Virgin Trains’ requirements and their overall ‘direction of travel’, Betterworking was able to develop a shortlist of vendor/platform options and a set of weighted criteria against which to evaluate them. This allowed Betterworking to conduct a robust, evidence-based assessment of the various options based on best fit with the organisation’s priorities, user requirements and technology landscape and roadmap – thereby streamlining the vendor selection process for Virgin Trains.esn

Through assessing a number of potential platforms against the weighted criteria – and taking into consideration the potential move to Office 365 (of which Yammer is a component) – the recommendation was made to go with Yammer.

The business case for YammerOffice 365 and Yammer

Yammer was a good fit for the mobile-first and lightweight communications strategy, and offered a relatively quick and cost-effective deployment model but without tying Virgin Trains into a fixed future programme. As with many organisations there was an existing free Yammer network at Virgin Trains, with and small group of users and some existing activity that could be built upon. Finally, Yammer also offered a very cost-effective licensing model.

Betterworking provided a comprehensive business case comprising vision and objectives, requirements and criteria, shortlisting and evaluation process, considerations and recommendations, and high level implementation strategy and roadmap. Betterworking also provided input and support to help guide the proposed solution through the internal approval process.

Phase Two – Planning, configuring and launching Yammer and Office 365 email

Following Executive-level agreement to proceed with the proposed solution, the Betterworking team was engaged to support both the technology and change management aspects of the Yammer implementation.

Project planning and management

The first step was to create a project plan detailing activities, resources, responsibilities and timings. This was developed by Betterworking in close collaboration with the Virgin Trains project team and incorporated three key delivery workstreams:

  • Business value
  • Technology
  • Change management

Betterworking was responsible for overall project coordination together with specialist advice and services across all workstreams, with the Virgin Trains internal communications and IT teams providing input and resources to the change and technology workstreams respectively.

Business value

To provide focus and early momentum for the new ‘official’ Virgin Trains Yammer platform, a number of high value use cases were selected as priorities for launch.

Good use cases have the right mix of clear business need, defined objectives, senior stakeholder support and sponsorship, day-to-day resource/focus – and of course they need to be well-suited to the available technology. For Virgin Trains, with its predominantly mobile workforce and a relatively ‘lightweight’ technology solution in Yammer, the use cases prioritised for launch focused on providing new capabilities for sharing information, generating dialogue and engagement, connecting employees (with each other and with the ‘corporate centre’), and enhancing operational processes and procedures.

Also delivered by Betterworking in the business value workstream was a measurement and reporting framework to track progress against project and use case specific KPIs. With Yammer itself providing only limited analytics and reporting capabilities, Betterworking evaluated a number of third party analytics solutions – with tyGraph selected as the solution that would best meet Virgin Trains’ requirements both for exec-level ROI-focused reporting and to support community management and adoption activities.


For Virgin Trains the primary objective from an IT perspective was to make Yammer available to its entire workforce of approximately 3,300 employees. However there were also some further objectives; the key ones being to:

  1. Provide a robust set of admin controls and processes to enable simple and effective provisioning, de-provisioning and management of users, and
  2. Ensure any investment in infrastructure and configuration provided the right foundation for further development as Virgin Trains evolved its technology roadmap.

Betterworking presented configuration and deployment options to address the above requirements, plus the further consideration that over half of the workforce currently had no Virgin Trains email account and were not present in the company’s Active Directory. Virgin Trains opted for a solution that provided an ideal combination of a robust Yammer deployment process and ongoing admin controls, a solid identity and messaging platform that accelerated the wider infrastructure upgrade strategy, and a cost-effective and flexible licensing model.

hybrid3From a technical perspective this entailed upgrading to Yammer Enterprise to provide more powerful user and admin functionality, creating a synchronised on-premise and Cloud Azure Active Directory and connecting Yammer to Active Directory in order to provide centralised user administration. Company-wide email was also provided for the first time through a hybrid on-premise Exchange and Cloud Office 365 mail setup. Betterworking managed this entire process, working closely with the Virgin Trains IT team together with Capgemini and specialist third party technical resources, delivering the technology workstream on plan and to budget.

Betterworking collaborated closely with both in-house IS/IT personnel and Capgemini – Virgin Trains’ third party enterprise IT services provider – to develop and implement the configuration, deployment and licensing plans.

For the software licensing, Betterworking’s partnerships with technology vendors including Microsoft meant they were able to advise Virgin Trains on the most cost-effective strategy: one that would provide immediate Yammer and email capability at the lowest possible cost, while at the same time providing flexibility to switch license types as the wider technology roadmap evolves.

Change management

The change workstream comprised activities to communicate the new Yammer solution, educate users, and engage the workforce – including senior business leaders – with the new capabilities now available and the new behaviours and processes these entailed.

Supported by Betterworking, the Virgin Trains team developed a comprehensive education, training and communications plan incorporating: online resources; roadshows and drop-in sessions; exec coaching; and a multi-channel promotional campaign including video, print, email and digital posters.  Additionally, a network of ‘Yambassadors’ was established to act as champions for the new platform by encouraging colleagues to get involved as well as actively participating themselves by posting, commenting, liking and sharing on Yammer.

Rolling out Yammer

As with many organisations there was already a free (‘unofficial’) Yammer network in place at Virgin Trains, albeit with negligible activity and only a handful of active users due to a lack of any strategic purpose for it. So unlike with a traditional intranet project there was no specific target date to ‘switch on’ Yammer, since it was available to anyone with a Virgin Trains email address who wanted to join. This meant that the rollout was more of a gradual process with a number of steps and milestones, rather than a ‘big bang’ launch.

The first priority was the group of colleagues/users with existing on-premise email accounts. A number had already signed up to the free Yammer network but were not active on the platform, while the majority had never signed up. To ‘activate’ this group on Yammer, the Active Directory and Yammer synchronisation processes were run to generate email invites to non-users, while a campaign (through email, print and the existing intranet) ensured Yammer was clearly positioned as the new ‘official’ primary enterprise internal communications channel.

The next step was to create new Office 365 accounts for the majority of colleagues without company email, which were synchronised with the existing on premise Active Directory to streamline user administration. Login details for the new email and Yammer accounts, including instructions for downloading iOS and Android mobile apps, were posted to employees’ home addresses. The IT support desk and team leaders were also briefed on how to help colleagues who might have questions about how to access or use their new email and Yammer accounts.

This was all supported by a comprehensive and integrated series of information, education, training and engagement activities. These included on-platform advice and tips, videos, competitions, giveaways, roadshows, drop-in training sessions, and ‘Yambassador’ events.

Since being officially ‘launched’ in July 2015, Yammer has gone from strength to strength as the primary enterprise internal communication channel for Virgin Trains.

From every perspective – user adoption, on-platform activity, frontline and senior stakeholder feedback, project delivery, business outcomes, return on investment – the project has been judged a success, to the extent that it is now providing the foundation for developing for the wider Virgin Trains communication, collaboration and productivity strategy.

User adoption and activity

While user adoption and on-platform activity are not ends in themselves, they are of course essential to achieving tangible outcomes for individuals and the business (not much can happen if nobody’s using the platform…), and they also provide an important measure of progress.

For Virgin Trains the data tells an interesting story. As of March 2015 (immediately prior to the project starting) there were over 500 users registered – many from a previous Yammer initiative in 2014 – but activity was low: less than 100 active users and only 300 messages posted in March, with only 65 new users joining in the period January to March. Overall the story was of an unmanaged, barely used free Yammer network, providing little value to either users or the business.The project had an immediate impact on adoption and activity even before the official July ‘launch’. In April over 200 new users joined Yammer – three times the total for the previous three months – and in June there were over 3,000 messages (original posts and comments) on Yammer, a tenfold increase on March. In the same period message ‘likes’ also increased tenfold, and the number of users being mentioned in posts by other users increased twenty times.

VT tygraph report1Adoption and activity then rocketed further as a result of the July and August launch and promotional activities. By September over 1,000 new users had activated their Yammer accounts, and by November the total number of registered users on the Virgin Trains Yammer network was at 2,000 and growing. Significantly, the majority of registered users are active on Yammer: during August almost 10,000 messages were generated by 1,000 active users in 3,000 separate discussion threads, with over 12,000 message ‘likes’ and almost 22,000 file views in the same period. File views then accelerated even further in September to over 32,000 in the month, with the growth in total messages stabilising following the high levels of promotional activity during August.

Overall the data tells the story of a thriving and growing Yammer community, with rapid and sustainable user adoption coupled with high levels of activity and engagement.

Update January 2017

In the 18 months since launch Yammer has established itself as a highly effective platform for internal communication, collaboration and engagement at Virgin Trains. It supports a huge number and variety of communities, and is now an indispensable cog in the day-to-day operations of the company.

As the size and vibrancy of the network has grown, so have the range of processes and use cases it supports. To pick a couple, Yammer is used as the promotional vehicle and engagement channel for the VTTV video platform and content, and supports regular innovation initiatives through an integration with the Sideways6 crowdsourcing platform.

Betterworking has provided guidance and support throughout this journey, including the introduction of 3rd party analytics solutions tyGraph and SWOOP Analytics to measure, improve and harness adoption, usage and the growing power of the Yammer network. In recent benchmarking studies, the Virgin Trains Yammer network has emerged as the most effective network in the global benchmark groups for both analytics platforms, confirming its status as the most effective Yammer network globally in terms of both usage and adoption, and from a social network analysis perspective.

This success was recognised recently at the UK & Ireland Employee Engagement Awards ceremony held at Wembley Stadium, where Virgin Trains scooped the ‘Best Use of Technology’ award and the top prize of ‘Employee Engagement Company of the Year’. Read more here.

Finally, the success of the Yammer project fed into Virgin Trains’ decision to extend their investment in Office 365. Betterworking helped to develop the strategy and supporting adoption & change plan for the resulting ‘Smarter Working’ IT transformation programme, which included additional Office 365 workloads alongside Box for file storage, an app portal hosted in Azure, and ServiceNow for IT support.