July 13, 2021
“Is this actually possible with Teams?”
‘Moodbusters’ is the team that ProRail set up to improve the morale of its employees during the pandemic. “ProRailers feel very involved with each other,” says product owner Richard de Rijk. “But because of the pandemic, you no longer met each other and knew less well how someone was doing. The lunch together, the drink, the quarterly meeting: if all of that disappears, the color quickly fades. The risks of stress and burnout are also lurking. The assignment to Rapid Circle was one of the initiatives from the Moodbusters.”
Richard is actually a game designer at ProRail. He simulates complex problems with game forms to improve processes and collaboration within the company. The Digital Inktpot was his first experience as Product Owner, but determined to realise his strong vision, Richard took firm control over the process.
Family feeling and bond with the building
ProRail is a management company that ensures, among other things, that the Dutch railway infrastructure remains in top condition. In addition, ProRail is responsible for managing train traffic and providing up-to-date travel information. In close collaboration with transport companies and the government, ProRail ensures that we can travel by train every day and that goods are transported by rail. ProRail was able to quickly transition to the remote working situation. All office employees already had a laptop and access to most systems, so there were hardly any practical problems.
The use of Microsoft Teams quickly became the new normal. But Teams was mainly used for the business side of collaboration. “That all went fine,” says Richard. “But we missed the connection. People who work at ProRail are real ProRailers. There is a sense of family. The social bond is very strong and suddenly we had no place for that. We missed the meetings, the informal gatherings.”
There are enough standard solutions for this, but they were not an option for ProRail: “Of course, the fastest and cheapest solution is to set up a Facebook group or a Yammer channel, but those options do not contribute to the connection with ProRail. For example, we all really have a connection with the building, so I wanted to bring that back. In my vision, the Digital Inktpot had to be truly unique for ProRail and with such a generic platform, you get very far away from that vision.”
“WORKING FROM HOME IS PRACTICALLY DOABLE, BUT WE MISS THE CONNECTION WITH EACH OTHER.”
The plan and the reality
So, Richard came up with a daring plan: The Digital Inkpot, a digital map or 3D model of the building where colleagues could “walk around” as avatars. This would make it immediately clear to everyone who was there and make it easy to meet each other. It had to be something truly unique, but at the same time, ProRail wanted to have it up and running quickly and at low cost. After all, it was a solution to a very current problem, so there was no time for a long development process.
It was quickly decided that the app had to be built within Teams. “We imposed that choice on ourselves,” says Richard. “User management, security, hosting, deployment: all of that was taken care of in that way, so the team could focus on functionality. But it also meant that some things were not possible. We dropped the idea of avatars, for example, early on. Making the map was something that had never been done in Teams, and the design agency we worked with, Online Department, also faced some limitations. The people at Rapid Circle even contacted Microsoft with the question: is this actually possible?”
And it turned out, with some limitations, to be possible. Although Microsoft had never seen anything like it before. Richard: “We were able to realise a large part of the original idea. What couldn’t be done or became difficult, we adjusted or left out. After the first users were in, the performance was significantly improved, and after the ‘big release,’ some finishing touches were made. After that, we didn’t have to tinker with it anymore. Besides: it does what it’s supposed to do. The Digital Inkpot brings people together and provides social cohesion. I think that’s a beautiful result.”
The technology behind “The Digital Inkpot” ‘De Digitale Inktpot’
Two Rapid Circle developers were ultimately responsible for the technical implementation of the Digital Inkpot. Because it is an app within Teams, the ‘Digitale Inktpot’ can be quickly accessed via an icon. You enter through the “reception” and can choose to go to the “corridor” where you can connect with colleagues who are there at the time. You can also walk further into the digital building where you will find a corridor with several rooms.
Each room has its own theme. There are rooms where you can talk about the latest gadgets, exchange recipes, or play games together. The rooms are a representation of Teams channels. Each conversation within a room is a topic. This means that the functionality for rooms, conversations, and notifications was already present. This gave the team a huge advantage. For the graphical representation of the Digital Inkpot, they used a frame within Teams. This enabled them to make the app run entirely within Teams, with all the advantages that come with it, but with a completely unique appearance and character. And that was exactly in line with the original assignment.
Set up in record time
With a three-month lead time, of which a total of about 6 weeks was actual construction time, this project was set up in record time. “Rapid Circle was super-fast available and immediately 100% on board with the idea. They were always easy to reach, and we could achieve results quickly. They probably had to get used to my style and vision. I’m a designer, so I could clearly explain the problem and had made some sketches of how I saw the solution. Together with Rapid Circle, we were able to weigh the effort of the team and the contribution to the vision of each technical solution from the beginning. That cooperation went very well. Despite remote work, we kept the lines short. Everyone was made available for the project almost full-time, so everyone was accessible, and we spoke to each other at least once a day. That is really important for an agile team. The developers were also very enthusiastic because it was a different project than they were used to. That helped a lot to get it done quickly.”
Call for flexibility
To get an IT project from idea to rollout so quickly, a lot of people at ProRail had to be flexible. It started with senior management. They were willing to give the project team the freedom to develop the idea in an agile way, without the overhead of project plans and progress reports. But the IT organisation also showed flexibility. To get the Digital Inkpot operational quickly, they rolled out the app to all employees before all procedures were completely in place. For example, the helpdesk was not well informed at first. “They were happy to cooperate,” Richard says. “On the condition that I would handle the first FAQ. That was fine with me. And almost no one called, because we had everything under control through a phased rollout.”
“THROUGH A PHASED ROLLOUT, WE HAD EVERYTHING UNDER CONTROL.”
Externals also connected
In order to be successful, the ‘Digitale Inktpot’ had to be accessible to everyone at ProRail. This was done by enabling the app by default in Teams and including it in the standard onboarding for new employees. External employees also have access to the platform. “We have a lot of hired colleagues and work closely with other companies,” explains Richard. “It would be strange to only let the insiders on the platform while trying to work on connectivity. We also received that request from the teams themselves: we want to stay in contact with everyone.”
As a test, about 750 colleagues were allowed into ‘Digitale inktpot’ Soon the rest could follow, and the app now has 6000 users. And they immediately used it actively. People met each other in the app itself, but also made appointments to walk or play games together.
How do you measure well-being?
The success of a project that focuses on the “soft” side of work is difficult to express in numbers. How do ProRail’s results improve because people are better connected? What do ProRail’s partners get out of it? Difficult questions, but for De Rijk, they are not the core of the matter. “The management of ProRail feels responsible for the well-being of its employees. In this case, it is about the connection with each other and with ProRail. Because when you’re sitting at home, behind your laptop, in Teams, you no longer feel that connection. You could just as well be working for another company, without your work environment changing significantly. We wanted that connection back. We can measure how many active users the application has and how often people are online, but that actually says very little. It’s about helping the right people. If there are users who have come out of their isolation through this app and as a result have not burned out or quit, then the app has proven its worth.”
“IF THE APP GETS COLLEAGUES OUT OF THEIR ISOLATION, IT HAS PROVEN ITS WORTH.”
First step towards faster innovation
The legacy of the ‘Digitale Inktpot’ project is much larger than just the online meeting place where colleagues can find each other. Within ProRail, an organisation where much is done “by the book,” this project is an example of how innovation can also happen. Richard: “It pays off to give people the freedom and opportunities to work on a good idea. We were given a lot of freedom from above, and the success of this project is mainly a real process success, showing that with a non-hierarchical way of management, we can quickly create something beautiful that adds a lot of value. I hope and expect that we will do this more often within the organisation.”
“IT PAYS OFF TO GIVE PEOPLE THE FREEDOM TO WORK ON A GOOD IDEA.”
ProRail is thinking about the world after the pandemic and what the hybrid workplace should look like then. The “physical” ‘Inktpot’, the building, is currently being renovated to the latest insights on collaboration and employees will have more freedom to work from home. Teams will therefore continue to play a role in digital collaboration and ‘Digitale Inktpot’ will continue to help people connect. With the agile approach and Teams as a foundation, there are many more opportunities to improve collaboration and social interaction.
externals are also connected
To be successful, the ‘Digitale Inktpot’ had to be accessible to everyone at ProRail. This was achieved by enabling the app by default in Teams and including it in the standard onboarding process for new employees. External staff also have access to the platform. “We have many contract colleagues and work closely with other companies,” explains Richard. “It would be strange to exclude only internal employees from the platform when you’re trying to build connectivity. We also received requests from teams themselves: we want to stay in contact with everyone.”
Around 750 colleagues were initially allowed access to the ‘Digitale Inktpot’ as a test. Soon after, the rest were able to follow, and the app now has 6,000 users. They also began using it actively. People met each other within the app, but also made appointments to walk or play games together.
How do you measure well-being with KPI’s?
It’s difficult to quantify the success of a project that focuses on the “soft” side of work. How do ProRail’s results improve because people are better connected with each other? What’s in it for ProRail’s partners? These are challenging questions, but for De Rijk, they aren’t the crux of the matter. “ProRail management feels responsible for the well-being of employees. In this case, it’s about connecting with each other and with ProRail. Because when you’re at home, behind your laptop, in Teams, you don’t feel that connection anymore. You could just as easily work for another company, without your work environment changing significantly. We wanted to bring that connection back. We can measure how many active users the application has and how often people are online, but that doesn’t say much. It’s about helping the right people. If there are users who have emerged from their isolation because of this app and therefore haven’t burned out or quit, then the app has proven its worth.”
“IF THE APP HELPS COLLEAGUES EMERGE FROM ISOLATION, IT HAS PROVEN ITS WORTH.”
First step towards faster innovation
The legacy of the ‘Digitale Inktpot’ project goes far beyond the online meeting place where colleagues can find each other. Within ProRail, an organisation where many goes “by the book,” this project is an example of how innovation can also happen. Richard: “It pays off to give people the freedom and opportunities to work on a good idea. We were given a lot of freedom from the top, and the success of this project is primarily a real process success, showing that with a non-hierarchical way of management, we can quickly create something beautiful that adds a lot of value. I hope and expect that we will do this more often within the organisation.”
“IT PAYS OFF TO GIVE PEOPLE THE FREEDOM TO WORK ON A GOOD IDEA.”
ProRail is thinking about the world after COVID-19 and what the hybrid workplace should look like. The “physical” Inktpot building is currently being renovated to reflect the latest insights on collaboration, and employees will have more freedom to work from home. Teams will continue to play a role in digital collaboration, and De Digitale Inktpot will continue to help people meet. With an agile approach and Teams as the foundation, there are still many opportunities to improve collaboration and social interaction.