If employee experience is a concept for making sense of what people see, hear, feel and do at work by recognising that people construe their working lives as a journey…. what does that mean in practice? 

How should companies go about incorporating employee experience into their people management practices, HR processes and workplace environments?

The pioneers of employee experience have been rapid growth tech businesses. The success (indeed the survival) of these companies is contingent on their ability to attract and retain coders so investing in employee experience makes sense because there’s fierce competition for talent. Newsworthy perks like free coffee, beer on tap, yoga classes, table football tables, dogs in the office… all make sense if they help you attract and retain the talent you need to grow.

But if you’re working in a different industry then there’s a real danger of messing up your business if you cherry pick these sorts of perks and apply them out of context. The rules of the game are fundamentally different in a rapid growth tech environment – in a winner takes all market, companies are expected to sacrifice efficiency (profit) for growth. When you’ve got millions of dollars of VC backing, you need to spend money to try and eke out every advantage for growth. 

So while, for example, there’s currently a real shortage of chefs in London, the answer isn’t just to splash the cash on employee experience perks. Putting arcade machines in your kitchens might help you attract more recruits, but it’s also likely to kill the profitability of your business! 

If you want to improve your employee experience you need to start with your company’s story and the journey you’re on. If you aren’t clear on the culture you’re trying to grow, your strategy, what’s important to your company and why, there’s a real danger of improving employee experience in a way that delivers no value to the organisation.

Creating personas

Once you’ve identified where you ought to focus and why, you need to create narrative personas for different types of employee. Everyone who works for you is unique, with their own history, personality, values and dreams. One of the most exciting opportunities created by taking an employee experience perspective is switching from ‘one size fits all’ HR processes to tailored provision that responds to the different needs of different people over time. But if you’re a company of any size, you can’t design and build for every single individual employee. Instead, the most sensible way to approach the challenge is to start segmenting your employee population into personas with shared needs or experiences in a way that helps you identify what’s really important to different groups of employees.

Journey mapping

For each persona, you then need to put yourself in their shoes and journey map their experience. Looking at the journey as a whole it’ll become apparent that not all the elements are equal. Certain touch points, interactions or processes will have a disproportionate impact on the employee’s experience. Things like your first day, your appraisal conversation or your team away-day tend to stand out as ‘peak’ experiences. Journey mapping helps you to identify the moments that matter most to both the organisation and the employee. 

Improving the moments that matter

Having identified the moments that matter, you need to take a human centred approach to redesigning these interactions. It’s critical to the employee experience approach that you treat employees as people and users not as a ‘resource’. We know that people are emotional, prone to irrational bias, and they have limited reserves of energy, attention and motivation. It’s easier to redesign your people management/HR processes around real people, than to try and undo millions of years of evolution and turn employees into cogs in the machine.

Every process and interaction needs to work from the employee’s perspective. Employees have functional needs (e.g. a chair that’s comfortable to sit on), but they also have an engagement need (how does this interaction impact how I feel about my relationship with the company) and a ‘life’ need (how does this fit into my broader sense of what I want from my life).

Similarly, every interaction or HR process has to satisfy three types of organisational need. It has to work from a functional perspective (e.g. a recruitment process needs to hire the right people at an effective cost and within an acceptable timeframe), but it also has to fit with the organisation’s strategy and culture.

There’s also a contextual perspective – interactions take place within a given environment and as part of a wider system. They’re underpinned by certain tools or technology and tend to include some element of human or behavioural interaction. Each of these elements can be designed intentionally and comes with a set of constraints and opportunities to do things differently.

Taking an agile approach

Finally, there are a set of broader principles that are wedded to the employee experience approach. Given the number of interactions and the number of factors that influence an employee’s experience, you can’t design the perfect experience behind closed doors and then launch it to the organisation. Improving employee experience necessitates taking an agile, experimental and evidence based approach. You need to focus on the moments that matter and look to deliver iterative improvements that have a measurable and positive impact on what’s important to both the organisation and the employee.

And if you prefer graphics to words…

The Pioneers: how we improve employee experience