Over the past couple of years Microsoft has continued to release different functionality and features across Office 365 and, more specifically, modern SharePoint Online that intranet teams can use out of the box to enhance digital communications.
Communication sites, for example, have been a great way to deliver relatively simple updates with a nice user experience that is also easy to administer. There has also been a range of other measures such as hub sites and support for mega-menus that bring an “intranet” type structure and experience to SharePoint Online.
An intranet out of the box?
Of course, using SharePoint Online straight out of the box for an intranet is potentially a mouth-watering prospect particularly for IT functions who can see potentially huge savings with no need for a separate intranet product or CMS.
Internal communications functions and intranet teams may not be so keen as the publishing features such as content targeting, publishing workflow attractive templates and governance controls are usually not sophisticated enough to support the communications needs of large, medium and complex companies. These teams will still need to invest in a modern intranet platform like Wizdom to deliver the kind of intranet and digital workplace experience employees expect.
However, every time that Microsoft release a new intranet-ready feature in SharePoint it does offer teams more options. The latest of these is home sites, which should now be fully rolled out globally.
What are home sites?
Home sites were originally announced back in May 2019 and were described by Microsoft as “the landing sites for your organization that bring together news, events, content, conversations and video to deliver an engaging experience that reflects your voice, your priorities, and your brand.” Indeed, Wizdom was also announced as one of the partners working with Microsoft on home sites.
Essentially a home site is designed to replicate a corporate intranet homepage; potentially it is a structured entry point into a SharePoint ecosystem that could involve multiple communication sites and hub sites, and provides some kind of global navigation and search, as well as being the “official” home of enterprise-wide communications. Although this sounds complex, a home site is actually built on the same template as a communication site; in fact, you could consider it as a communication site with unique powers that:
- Allow for the site to be configured with organisation-wide news (that can be labelled as such with a special power block)
- Automatically sets the search scope to be tenant-wide not to just that SharePoint site itself (which is the usual default setting)
- Has some integration with the SharePoint start page that starts to deliver a more consistent intranet experience.
Renowned SharePoint and intranet expert Susan Hanley has written a very useful article that expands on how home sites integrate with the SharePoint start page in three ways:
- Via a link on the home site that automatically takes a user to their personalised SharePoint start page
- By automatically replicating the default mega-menu you have on your home site on the SharePoint start page, meaning this navigation can be more easily recached from any SharePoint site
- By automatically replicating the branding on your home site to the SharePoint start page.
Can I use home sites to create an intranet?
The potential for home sites is exciting, and IT functions and digital workplace teams will be asking themselves if they can now use a home site as the enterprise homepage for an intranet that’s completely or more or less out the box.
If you’re a smaller organisation with straightforward needs the answer could well be “yes” but before you plunge straight in, there are some questions to consider.
1. Will using SharePoint out of the box deliver the intranet we need?
Before you decide that a home site is going to be your de facto intranet homepage and you’re going to rely on out-of-the-box SharePoint for your intranet environment, make sure you go on with your eyes open. Is it really going go meet the needs of your internal communicators and the expectations of your users?
If you are a smaller organisation with straightforward communication needs, then a home site could really make an out-of-the-box SharePoint intranet viable at last. However, if your communication needs and user expectations are more sophisticated, or you want your intranet to be more of a front door to the wider digital workplace, a home site may not quite cut the mustard. As with any major technology deployment, make sure you have fully worked out hour requirements before making the leap.
2. Are we ready for a home site?
If you haven’t had a proper intranet or a home site before and the “intranet” is more like a disparate collection of different modern team sites, communication sites and some hub sites, the temptation might be to get a home site up and running as quickly as possible. But you may not necessarily be ready.
A home site suddenly places the need for some order and governance on what may have been a much looser environment. Intranets bring structure and governance to your environment and a home site can throw up various questions such as:
- Who owns the home site?
- What do other site owners think?
- Who has the final say on what the navigation will be?
It’s also worth considering whether the tenant-enabled search featured on a home site by default will highlight documents that previously have been hard to find but may now potentially be surfaced. Have sensitive documents got the right permission on them? Implementing a home site may throw up some content, search and governance issues that you previously hadn’t thought about.
3. Will we need to implement any other out-of-the-box features with my home site?
To get the most out of home sites and to create a convincing out-of-the-box intranet you will need to combine a home site with other out-of-the-box intranet innovations introduced by Microsoft such as support for mega-menus and content targeting. Make sure you introduce all the necessary features that will make your sites a true intranet.
4. Do we have the skills in-house to set up and configure home sites?
The advances Microsoft, SharePoint modern and other Office 365 tools have made in allowing non-IT professionals to configure and administer tools is considerable. The over-reliance on IT functions for everyday changes from the days of SharePoint classic are truly gone; however it’s still worth remembering that SharePoint is still a highly sophisticated and complex tool, that is even more powerful when you combine It with other tools like Teams of Power Automate (Flow).
To get the best out of SharePoint Online you need to have some experience and know what you are doing. While adding individual widgets to configure a homepage looks super easy, information and data architecture is considerably more complex. Having experience of the platform will also allow you to integrate with other elements of the 365 platform in the best way possible. While it’s good to experiment, we often get called by teams either frustrated with their SharePoint configuration or who have got themselves into problems because of relative inexperience with the platform.
5. Should we wait to implement a home site?
Home sites have only just been rolled out globally and there aren’t many examples out there of home sites use. Other features that make out of the box intranets more viable will also inevitably on Microsoft’s road map. If you’re not particularly in a hurry, there may be a case for waiting to see how home sites evolve and also seeing If some of your peers have successfully implemented one.
Need advice on an out-of-the-box SharePoint Online intranet? Get in touch!
We’re working with more and more clients who are excited about the potential for an out-of-the-box SharePoint intranet but aren’t quite sure where to start or need an expert eye to guide them through the optimal set-up for their needs. If you need advice on setting up an out-of-the-box SharePoint Online intranet or aren’t quite sure if it’s a viable option for you, then get in touch!