You can’t move for employee experience right now. Take a quick look at your LinkedIn updates and you’ll see colleagues with new “Employee Experience…” job titles popping up in HR teams large and small. There are new awards to win and so many new HR tech companies out to transform your employee experience that it feels like a Wild West gold rush.

You don’t need to be a massive cynic to suggest that employee experience is a bubble waiting to burst. 

So is it just a fad or is employee experience here to stay?

Well, in classic Pioneers’ style… “it depends”!

If your approach to employee experience is to change a few job titles and to launch a few ‘pilot’ projects, then you may win some points with your CEO, but you’re not going to deliver any meaningful change. Give it a few years and you can jump onto the next bandwagon.

But, if you’re genuinely interested in making your company a better place to work, then adopting an employee experience approach necessitates a profound culture change in HR teams.

Employee experience = design thinking + agile HR

To make employee experience work, HR/People teams need to adopt two new ways of working: design thinking and agile HR.

What is design thinking?

Deign thinking is the application of design practices to business challenges. It covers a myriad of techniques, tools and practices, but at its heart design thinking is about empathising with service/product users and using these insights to scope problems and to open up new possibilities for solutions.

In the context of employee experience, design thinking challenges two cultural tenets of traditional HR departments:

  1. Expertise isn’t the route to the right answer. When traditional HR departments decide what’s the right course of action, they would typically defer to expertise. If you want to design a training course, you go to the subject matter experts on the L&D team. If you have an issue with employment rights, you go to the lawyers. Need a pension, ask the pension experts. As a general rule, the way to find the right answer is to ask the person with the most qualifications, expertise and experience in that area. Design thinking challenges this fundamental cultural assumption, because by putting users at the heart of service design, the behaviour of the user, not the opinion of the expert becomes the route to truth. Adopting a design thinking mindset forces HR teams to worry less about what’s right in theory or what’s ‘industry best practice’ and instead to focus on what actually works for their employees.
  2. One size fits all, fits nobody well. Old school HR was very much one size fits all. Induction, training, performance management, benefits etc were the same for everyone. By putting users at the heart of services, design thinking forces HR teams to recognise that we need to design workplaces and experiences that work for more than just one type of employee. Adopting design thinking practices, like developing personas and journey mapping, helps HR teams to challenge lazy assumptions about what employees really want and need and to design new experiences that can flex to different types of employees.

What is agile HR?

If the role of design thinking in employee experience is to help HR teams empathise with employees as users, to define problems and open up new solutions, then agile HR is about how you build and improve these solutions.

The key principles of agile HR are taken from agile software development, namely that:

  • The best products or service are shaped by user behaviour and so need to be developed iteratively, through cycles of build, test and learn.
  • Sustainable efficiency gains come not from getting people to work faster or harder, but by having frequent inspection points that stop people over-investing their time on features that don’t deliver value to users and by continually reflecting on how the team collaborates.
  • Teams work best when there’s transparency and trust and when work is broken down into short sprints that allow the team to collaborate to solve one problem at a time.

Again, agile HR challenges some of the traditional ways of working in HR teams. 

  1. HR departments have typically taken a ‘waterfall’ approach to developing new services. For example, think about how a traditional HR team would develop a new training programme. At the start of the project, you’d get the ‘experts’ in the room to define what was needed. This meeting might have included senior leaders from Ops alongside colleagues from L&D, but it probably wouldn’t have included any actual ‘users’. Following this meeting members of the L&D team would have taken individual responsibility for developing the content for components of the training programme. They’d have gone away to research expert opinions or ‘best practice’ and tried to translate this into usable content. This probably took several months! Then the training would be launched to the organisation as a finished product with little or no scope for user behaviour to shape the design. As a way of working, this looks much more like building Windows 95 than building an app for your phone. And the big risk with this approach is that you spend huge amounts of time developing products or services that don’t create value for your users. If someone has spent 6 months developing training content, it’s really difficult to write this off as sunk cost and start again if it’s not the right answer for users. 
  2. Traditional HR departments might talk a lot about the importance of collaboration, but they actually tend to work in a very siloed fashion. A typical project starts with everyone coming together to divvy up a to do list of tasks so individuals can then retreat to their offices to do the work. If a project requires the involvement of another department, like IT, then most of the kick-off meeting and project management effort will be spent on clarifying areas of responsibility and handovers. In these circumstances the root cause of almost all delays and under-performance can be traced back to a planning meeting where people left with different interpretations of the jobs to be done that only came to light months later. In contrast, an agile approach requires everyone involved in a build to work on the same, multi-disciplinary team and for the team as a whole to ‘work out loud’ – coming together everyday to check on progress and to help each other solve problems. 

If you work in an industry where people and talent are a key factor on business performance, then your employee experience ought to be a source competitive advantage, but only if you do it right! In our view, too many HR teams are dipping their toe in the water. Doing a bit of design thinking without committing to  agile will result in you moving so slowly that you’ll never be able to build out services for different user personas. And adopting agile ways of working without design thinking will just make you more effective and efficient at building the wrong thing!

If you’re serious about employee experience, then you’ll only see meaningful results if you commit to genuine culture change that brings together both design thinking and agile HR.