In the midst of a global pandemic, there’s a new category of technology that is unfolding right before our eyes. Yet most of us aren’t aware of it. And considering the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace, it’s a really important one that the C-Suite and communications professionals should take note of, not just IT.

I am talking about Employee Communications Applications or ECA — tools like email and intranets that allow businesses to communicate with their employees. Yes, these means of getting information to and communicating with employees have been around for decades. However, over the past several years, a new crop of vendor has arisen driven largely by the proliferation of mobile technology. And, in May of 2019, Gartner, the leading technology analyst group, coined ECA as an actual “market.”

Nevertheless, since then, employee communications applications and the ECA market have not received the attention that they deserve. Given what’s now upon us and the fact that the workplace will never be the same as a result of the pandemic, it is critical that businesses be aware of and educated about this market and the nuances of the solutions that exist within it.

Having founded a mobile app technology company for employee communications that I recently sold to a private equity firm, I feel obligated to continue to pound the pavement on the importance of ECA, not to mention employee communications in general. While there always have been employees who were disenfranchised from receiving transparent communications from the companies they worked for (especially those in industries like manufacturing, trucking/logistics and industries with many part-time and seasonal employees like hospitality and retail), because of COVID-19, more will be working remotely and just like their “deskless” counterparts, will no longer have the benefit of human interaction or face-to-face discussions (unless you consider Zoom, Skype and Google Meet to be face-to-face). This is where the ECA market comes into play and why it is so important.

In its “Market Guide for Employee Communications Applications,” Gartner analysts Mike Gotta and Adam Preset define ECA as “consist[ing] of products that enable organizations to create, coordinate, distribute, manage and execute campaigns, and analyze the effectiveness of internal communications.” They talk about different technologies that impact how organizations communicate with their employees — applications like a new breed of email and intranet providers, employee advocacy solutions, messaging and chat companies as well as mobile apps for communications (which, in full transparency, included my former company APPrise Mobile and theEMPLOYEEapp). While the Market Guide was intended to be a resource for communications and IT professionals to better understand this burgeoning and important class of technology solutions, I believe that it actually confuses the nature of the ECA landscape rather than help clarify it. (As an FYI, shortly after the Market Guide came out I discussed this with Mike and Adam. Now that I am solution agnostic, I feel more comfortable saying it out loud.)

Nevertheless, the report articulates the following important findings regarding the importance of employee communications as a critical aspect of organizational success – something that we in the communications industry have been fighting for over the decades. And these findings take on greater importance in a post COVID-19 World:

  • Organizations want to modernize employee communications to improve employee experience, employee engagement, community building and promote a more inclusive culture.
  • The use of email distribution lists and intranet sites remain dominant, but this results in suboptimal employee communications.
  • Mobile-first employee communications applications (ECAs) are gaining higher levels of interest, especially as a means to better reach frontline workers. Many organizations have been slow to make this transition.
  • Offering employees more communication options via their preferred channels and devices is becoming a more important requirement and will drive better employee agility and engagement.

There are dozens of solutions in the ECA market now with more definitely to come in the future. It is therefore critical for organizations and their IT and communications professionals to take a step back to determine if their current employee communications solutions are solving the challenge of getting information to, communicating and engaging with all employees. If not, they need to ask themselves which solutions in the market will allow them to do so. As I have come to learn after speaking and working with hundreds of internal communications professionals, just because a company is a “Microsoft company” doesn’t necessarily mean that the use of Teams, Yammer, SharePoint or even Outlook (all part of the Office 365 Suite) address the communications needs of the entire workforce. In fact, unless a company purchases a license for every employee, it will not.

When we first launched theEMPLOYEEapp at APPrise Mobile in 2014, I had the opportunity to conduct an analyst briefing with Mike Gotta. I recall him challenging me on where the “collaboration” was in our solution. This was at a time when Slack (also an employee communications application focused on peer-to-peer and group messaging and collaboration) was the darling of the tech industry as well as Wall Street. And he was right to do so.

At that time, theEMPLOYEEapp didn’t have a collaboration component. We were primarily focused on selling a solution that solved the problem enterprise organizations have in getting information to and communicating with largely “deskless” workers who don’t sit behind desks with access to desktop computers and intranets and, in many cases, aren’t given company email addresses. And this was intentional since Slack, chat and collaboration weren’t tools used by the workers we were trying to help (the 3 billion “deskless” workers globally) and who, for eternity, had been disenfranchised from receiving corporate communications given the nature of their jobs. Nevertheless, with the proliferation of mobile technology and the fact that pretty much everyone now had an Apple or Android device, this no longer had to be the case and, in fact, this was what largely deskless enterprise organizations were looking for in a mobile employee communication application.

Since 2019, many new ECA vendors are now looking to take advantage of the massive opportunity of contributing to enhancing what has come to be referred to as the “employee experience.” But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that organizations employ many different types, levels and classifications of employees. Each has a common need for communications and information. At the same time, each has different requirements when it comes to receiving communications and information. As a result, and in most instances, a one size fits all approach to selecting an ECA will not prove successful in addressing the communications needs of all employees. To the extent companies don’t provide all employees with corporate email addresses, email is not an appropriate ECA. To the extent employees are driving trucks, drilling for oil or working on a manufacturing line, they probably have no use for collaboration tools like Slack in their work.

And this is why greater attention needs to be paid to the ECA market. The World and the workplace will forever be changed. However, this does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. While many challenges will exist as employees return to work, communicating effectively and efficiently doesn’t have to. All that is required for organizations to succeed in their employee communications efforts is for their communications and IT professionals to work together, understand their respective ECA goals, understand the demographics of their organization’s workforce as well as each type of employee’s communications needs. From there it is just a function of better understanding and navigating the complicated ECA market landscape and putting to work the opportunity that it has to offer.