Facebook adds 36K Telenor employees to Facebook at Work as it gears up for global launch

Facebook at Work — the enterprise version of Facebook that lets businesses build their own secure social networks — has racked up over 60,000 companies on a waiting list while still in closed beta. And as it gears up for a full global launch and new features like an app platform later this year, Facebook is announcing its newest big customer. As of today, Telenor, the carrier based out of Norway with operations in some 13 countries covering 203 million people, is turning on Facebook for 36,000 employees globally.

Sigve Brekke, President & CEO of Telenor Group, told TechCrunch that his company had actually been one of the first to trial the product as part of a wider collaboration with the social network. “We wanted to change how people work internally,” he said, which included not just how he’s able to speak to employees, but how groups could use the platform to break down traditional work silos and communicate better.

Facebook, he added, was a natural option since so many already use it and are familiar with it, whether on desktop or — as is a lot more likely in the markets where Telenor operates — on mobile.

Telenor owns carriers in still-developing countries like Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan ad minority stakes in 14 more via Vimplecom, and it has been an early collaborator on projects like Free Basics as well as the engineering efforts Facebook has been making to expand mobile network reach, such as Infra, which was unveiled last week at MWC.

There are now more than 450 enterprises using Facebook at Work, with new additions getting announced regularly. Without marking time on each and every one of them, Telenor is notable for a few reasons.

It’s a global carrier, and the largest global enterprise to sign up to date, according to Julien Codorniou, who heads up FB at Work globally. (The Royal Bank of Scotland plans to have 100,000 people on its own Facebook network but that is by the end of this year; right now it’s working on onboarding 30,000.)

And signing up a carrier potentially points to one way that Facebook may choose to grow its future customer base: carriers have strong IT businesses, where they sell services that operate on their networks, and so they can become a sales channel for the social network. (To be clear, Telenor’s main interest is in rolling out Facebook at Work to its own employees, not reselling it, Brekke said.)

One reason a carrier channel would make sense is that it could help the social network scale the business without scaling up its own staff. Sales is the area that Codorniou says is still the biggest bottleneck for the company when trying to scale the new enterprise business.

In this still-early stage, of course, Facebook is busy building up its own sales teams to handle the number of inbound enquiries that the company has received for people to try out the service.

As part of this, the company in February quietly hired Monica Adractas, a longtime VP at Box, to head up sales in North America, and Codorniou — who is based out of London — actually spoke to me after getting off a plane in Singapore, where it is also aggressively expanding its Work team.

He says that Asia is by far the region where Facebook has seen the most companies keen to sign up for Facebook at Work. It’s something of a first-come race at the moment, it seems: Slack, one of its big competitors in the space of workforce communication, has not made much headway into the East. (Not yet, at least: Young Slack has caught on like wildfire in several Western markets, burning perhaps only a few in the process.)

Another reason why Facebook at Work may be catching the interest of businesses in Asia is because of Facebook’s popularity there, especially among mobile users. Indeed, Facebook is taking an approach that reminds me a bit of Cotap, another employee communication platform founded by early Yammer employees. Both are aiming their services not just at the “knowledge workers” that Slack targets, but those who are on the move and at different tiers of the business that do not involve sitting at a desk.

“I would say Asia is very strong for Facebook at Work interest,” Codorniou said from Singapore. “Here we have companies with thousands of employees but up to now no way to connect them all. Sometimes we are giving access to Facebook at Work to people who never even had a company email address.”

And in this regard, the Telenor deal is also interesting in that it will help Facebook work out the kinks for how it would approach a global rollout for an enterprise working in more tricky markets. Facebook, the consumer-facing social network, has come under some scrutiny and has even been banned at times for hosting content that States have deemed inappropriate.

Telenor, with its footprint into emerging markets, has been among those under government pressure to bar access to the social network in the past, and it has complied.

From what we understand, Facebook at Work for now will fall under those same policies. Facebook at Work will adhere to the instructions it receives from its partners; so if Telenor is requested to shut down certain content by a government, Facebook will implement that on Telenor’s behalf.

And, if an entire country’s Facebook is blocked, then most likely both Facebook and Facebook at Work will temporarily be taken down in that country as well. Shutdowns like these, to be fair, have been rare, and companies like Telenor will continue to have backup options for communicating with employees should Facebook at Work get barred in this way. (In its case, Telenor has Sharepoint, Brekke tells me.)

New integration platform in the works with Quip, Box, And More

Looking forward, Codorniou says that Facebook will be adding an increasing number of features to Facebook at Work after is launches out of beta later this year. This will include actually asking people to pay to use the product, which for now is still being offered to businesses free of charge.

Charging will also lead Facebook to launch new services, to justify paying for the product.

Facebook at Work will continue to add features that give it parity with the core Facebook product — one notable example is the Work Chat app that Facebook released earlier this year, which essentially is a version of Messenger for those using Facebook at Work; another is the addition of Reactions, the “super-charged” Like button that was finally rolled out globally last week, which was also added to Facebook at Work at the same time.

But it’s not clear if the “parity” feature set will be priced as a premium. More likely will be Facebook’s bigger platform play, where it will give users access to integrations with other apps for an additional fee, and this will be charged per user and per month, Codorniou said.

He added that Facebook is already in discussions with Quip (the cloud-based word processing app co-founded by Facebook’s ex-CTO and in use by FB globally), as well as Dropbox and Box, and he also mentioned Microsoft’s Office 365 as another popular app Facebook would want to integrate.

This would be on top of integrations that Codorniou says have already been added as “Phase 1”, which include identity management tools such as those offered by Okta to ease the sign-in process.