As companies scrambled to account for far-flung employees and calm their worried colleagues in the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, intranets played a vital role.
They became electronic town criers, keeping employees in all locations up to date on who had been accounted for as well as providing information on company closings, counseling, and blood drives.
But even before September 11, the company intranet had become an important destination for employees separated by work schedules, travel demands, and office locations.
Initially looked upon as nothing more than an e-mail tool, intranets have become integral to everything from self-service benefits to fostering a sense of community among employees.
"We work with companies that want their portals to have the same types of features as a commercial portal," said Ken Barksdale, President of RewardsPlus, a Web-based benefits company. "A portal should not only strive to integrate corporate operations, it should help employees balance their work-life schedules.
"Employers should also keep in mind that, as the worksite becomes more virtual, the corporate portal will be the closest thing many workers will have to a community of peers."
Interest growing, multiple uses
Interest in corporate portals has taken off in recent years, according to research firm Delphi Group. A survey by Delphi of 300 big companies found 55 percent were working on portals and 25 more were planning ones within the next two years.
Asked why they were customizing their portals, senior management usually gave these reasons:
To provide a virtual working environment. To reduce administrative costs associated with employee benefits and communication. To provide real-time communication and one-to-many communication. To bolster the sense of community among employees.
Employment consultant Watson Wyatt Worldwide of Bethesda, Md., found that fully 79 percent of the 295 companies it polled used their intranets as the chief method of delivering services to employees, up from 50 percent two years earlier.
Barksdale said most companies with portals have only begun tapping into their strengths. According to research conducted by RewardsPlus, employees want their company's site to have a life-event focus - an emphasis on specific events in the employee's life and the subsequent action steps to follow. As for employers, they tend to consider providing employees these options through their intranets:
E-commerce. Self-service for managing benefits like 401(k) accounts. Payment of personal bills. Instant messaging and bulletin boards. Weather updates for traveling employees. Company-wide scheduling and calendar access. Ordering lunch from the corporate cafeteria or a nearby restaurant. Local news. The company directory. Electronic request forms for such things as vacations, personal days, sick leave, and expense reimbursement. Links to vendors, including travel agents, child-care providers, and real-estate brokers. Stock information.
"The beauty of the corporate portal is that the possibilities are limitless," Barksdale said. "For employers it's an efficient way to communicate with employees and boost morale; for employees, it's the best way to solve the issues of every day work - and life."