Purposeful Design as the Transformational Differentiator of Employee Experience

By: Lisa Morris

An Employee Experience Perspective

In 1998 Pine & Gilmore published an article (and a subsequent book) entitled The Experience Economy.  Since then, an increasing number of businesses have embraced the concepts of purposeful design & orchestrated delivery of pleasurable, memorable experiences for their customers. According to Gartner, 89% of marketers expect customer experience to be their primary differentiator. Despite this shift in viewpoints and corresponding changes in the wider world, the path to a customer’s heart has not changed.  Staging experiences to create a memorable - and profitable - impression is now more critical than ever.

A ubiquitous example of a great experience is Starbucks Coffee - capturing a marketplace by creating a “third place” for conviviality beyond home and the workplace. Singapore Airlines receives unparalleled word-of-mouth praise in a crowded, competitive field where customer tales of woe are the rule rather than the exception.  As we all know, Disneyland is the Happiest Place On Earth – a boastful superlative, perhaps, but an ambitious and unalloyed standard for “cast members” and guests alike. 

These companies are selling an experience, not just coffee, air transportation or an amusement park ride, respectively.  The experiences they offer are memorable for their connection with their customers on multiple levels:  physical, emotional, intellectual, even spiritual.  These powerful, unique experiences in turn generate dogged customer loyalty and, ultimately, sustained revenue gains.  From an organizational standpoint, they are extremely disciplined and detailed in every aspect of the experience - from brand strategy to experience design and delivery.

Organizations’ desire to strengthen their connection with employees is pivotal in delivering customer experience and overall business performance.  Employee Experience (EX) is the culmination of this paradigm shift.  The staging of memorable experiences for employees takes its cues from the customer experience model and EX can produce its own gains in profitability.  Organizations that invest at EX outperform those that do not by 2.1 times average revenue, 4.2 times average profit, 2.8 times revenue per employee, and 4.0 times profit per employee.[1]  Furthermore, engaged employees and teams result in 24 to 59% less turnover, 10% higher customer ratings, 21% greater profitability, 17% higher productivity, 28% less shrinkage, 70% fewer safety incidents, and 41% less absenteeism.[2]

Google Trends reveals a 140% increase in searches for employee experience from 2011 to 2016.  “Employee Experience” now appears in over 2,500 job titles and/or listings and is cited in over 5,300 professional profiles on LinkedIn[1].  The number of books published on the subject is another indicator of the growing prominence of employer brand management and employee experience management, as well as the integration of these two concepts.

At present, expectations of the employee experience differ greatly from existing offerings. Veteran employees and newer hires (e.g. millennials) are unified in their stated desires regarding their professional lives. Employees now think like consumers.  They seek personalized experiences from organizations that satisfy their fundamental and higher-order human needs rather than a stereotypical job or traditional career path. Their ultimate objective is connection with purpose through meaningful work and the integration of their personal and professional lives as they see fit. With a larger and more diverse set of options, employees are more selective in choosing organizations to which they will contribute maximum passion and discretionary effort. These factors have permanently reshaped the employee-employer relationship which will continue to evolve at an accelerated pace set by the world at work.  

Organizations armed with an understanding of evolving employee expectations can enjoy a distinct advantage in attraction, engagement and retention stakes going forward. For now, however, many of these organizations still fail to fully appreciate the necessities of staging and delivering orchestrated memorable experiences.  They also lack the capability to purposefully design experiences for employees according to tenets delineated below.

Designing and delivering a truly differentiated EX requires comprehensive reimagining and reprogramming. A simple relabeling of current HR, IT, Marketing & Communications, Facilities, Knowledge Management and/or Shared Services functional areas (or their respective offerings) will fall well short of the mark. Connecting with employees on multiple levels and, in turn, attracting, engaging, inspiring and retaining talented individuals means that organizations must develop or source the capabilities necessary to purposefully design and bring to life memorable experiences for every type of employee. 

Employee Experience Defined

EX is the result of the sum of interactions between an employee and an organization as these interactions are perceived, understood and remembered over the duration of the relationship.[1] An interaction is made up of three elements: (1) the employee journey, (2) the touchpoints, and (3) the channel:

  1. The employee journey is the series of actions that an employee takes to fulfill a need. For example, the stages in the new joiner journey include pre-joining, onboarding, and assimilation. The end-to-end employee journey is composed of stages - from seek and explore through to leave and endorse, and states of being such as delighted, frustrated, etc.
  2. The touchpoints are points of engagement between an individual and an organization. For example, as part of the new joiner journey, employees may receive information from the organization prior to their first day.  
  3. The channel is the medium in which the interaction takes place. In the case of the new joiner receiving information from the organization the channel used may be postal service or email.

EX implies employee involvement at different levels, including rational, emotional, sensorial, physical and spiritual. The EX is created by the contribution of not only the employee’s values but also the contribution of the organization providing the experience.  Each interaction an employee has with and within the organization has an impact on their attitude and behavior, consequently impacting their engagement with and loyalty and advocacy of the organization.

A holistic view of EX includes an ecosystem of interactions and messages across internal enterprise-wide services, products, content/communications, workplaces, and environmnets, and artifacts and events that employees encounter during their relationship with the organization. It is encircled and guided by an interconnected system of organizational purpose, culture, architecture, and alignment of leadership and management. Collectively, the ecosystem in action is the manifestation of the employer brand promise.

Globally, the level of employee engagement stands at a moribund 33%[1].  Despite significant annual organizational investment in services, products, communications, workspaces, and events targeted at employees, many of these same employees avoid engagement, participation or adoption of them.  Ultimately, organizations are obtaining less-than-optimal impact/benefit to their internal customers, i.e. their employees. The criteria for a compelling experience are simply not being met.

The sizable gap between an organization’s offerings and the intended pleasurable, memorable experience typically exists for one or more reasons: 

  1. The offerings are not properly addressing the employees’ needs, feelings or motivations. In most cases this is due to an inadequate or even a nonexistent assessment of employees’ needs, feelings and motivations.
  2. The offering(s) are designed and/or delivered in a way that makes it difficult for employees to derive value from the experience.  In other words, they are not simple, accessible, effortless and uncomplicated.
  3. Offerings lean towards being created and applied in assembly-line, one-size-fits-all fashion.  Thus, the offerings add little value, and fail to meet employees’ needs at a certain time and place.
  4. The totality of the offerings - the overall experience - is not well-coordinated from the employee’s perspective.  Interactions and touch points are treated as discrete, silo-based transactions versus a compelling, seamless end-to-end experience. It’s safe to conclude that most organizations are not approaching the employee experience in the same detailed, comprehensive way that Starbucks, Singapore Airlines or Disney design and deliver their customer experiences.

Employee Experience Design (EXD) is the solution.  It is not a panacea for all organizational challenges but EXD can solve for engagement, loyalty and advocacy-related challenges that traditional approaches seem to perpetuate.

Employee Experience Design

Employee Experience Design is the practice of purposefully or intentionally designing ­­­experience(s) across the EX Ecosystem.  More broadly, EXD, is the practice of intentionally designing enterprise-wide services, products, content/communications, workplaces and environments, artifacts and events, and experiences with an emphasis on the quality of the employee’s experience.  It is perceived as personal and unique, no matter where the employee may be on the experience continuum.  It provides sensory, physical, emotional, and cognitive stimuli that make it memorable on multiple levels. The organization’s ability to connect to every employee’s reason, emotion and purpose across the ecosystem determines the quality of the design and delivery of EX.  In the end, it is concerned with how the experiences make the employee feel.  The underlying psychological assumption is that lasting, successful relationships are emotive.

In contrast to other organizational approaches, EXD focuses first on the people and the experience – not the process or functionality. While efficiencies and effectiveness are ultimately the result, they are not the object of the design.

EXD is a recognized but still-emerging field of study and practice. With design thinking as the overarching philosophy, it entails these tenets:

  1. It’s employee or human-centered. EXD starts by putting people first. It seeks to understand who past, present, and future employees are as human beings beyond the perception of them as mere functionaries. It focuses on identifying new offerings or ways to connect into employees’ lives, as opposed to shoehorning them into what has already been designed.
  2. It’s holistic. It examines how all experiences (and the offerings) fit into the totality of employees’ professional and personal lives.
  3. It’s collaborative and co-creative. EXD is all about creating and solving jointly.  It keeps employees involved throughout the process. After all, the experience is being designed for them. 
  4. It’s innovative.  EXD involves cycles of divergent and convergent thinking and iterative learning.  It considers the possibilities in future scenarios that are unencumbered by the present and mundane, to connect with employees in new and more meaningful ways.
  5. It’s multi-disciplinary. EXD overcomes organizational partitions. It unifies and aligns internal teams to develop an experience that is greater than the sum of individual products and services. It involves qualitative and quantitative user research - including interviews, observation, ethnography, surveys and synthesizing information, identifying patterns and extremes, and developing insights.  Findings from this research facilitate visioning and strategy development; ideation; visualization and concept design and development; storyboarding and prototyping; user testing and iterative design; and launch and implementation planning and development. 
  6. It’s realistic.  Every human has an uncountable number of experiences.  It involves prioritizing that which matters most to employees and the moments of interaction that have the most influential effect on emotions and behavior. 

EXD in Action

When considering the holistic employee experience, there are several distinct experiences as part of the overall experience that can be purposefully designed. The candidate experience, the new joiner experience, the career experience, the workspace experience, and a digital employee experience, to name more than a few.

Let us use a case study drawn from real-life – fictionalized as XYZ Company - to illustrate the application of EXD skills, mindsets and capabilities that involved enhancing the new joiner experience. Many organizations today have difficulty delivering a compelling new joiner experience -  the onboarding stage being a common pain point.  Onboarding is generally defined as the first 90 days, commencing with acceptance of an offer of employment. Challenges with onboarding include everything from a lack of company preparation to a lack of job-specific training. The problem is compounded because onboarding is one of the first sustained series of interactions and impressions for new joiners.  All the usual caveats regarding first impressions apply:  it’s human nature to engage in conjecture about future experiences based on information on hand in the present. 

Let’s assume preliminary research on the overall employee experience had been conducted and onboarding was identified as an area of concern.

The next step involved gaining a more in-depth understanding of employees to understand who they are, what they value and their various onboarding experiences.

Third, empirical data was anonymized, compiled, synthesized, and analyzed.  An onboarding journey map was developed, identifying points at which emotional responses were at their most frequent and/or intense. As a means of empathizing, understanding, and explaining the findings, a finite set of personas with corresponding values, needs, and wants were developed to inform the design.

Fourth, groups of employees were assembled for an ideation session to identify possible ways of rectifying low points in the experience.  Based on criteria of feasibility, desirability and viability, a proposed solution emerged:  a welcome gift.  The welcome gift would be sent to employees’ residences a designated, uniform number of days before their start date.  It would be designed as an “out of box experience” like those so strongly emphasized by high-end consumer electronics brands.

The experience unfolded in five distinct, phased components:

  • A XYZ-branded box made of high-tech and/or quality materials that contained all onboarding information and would serve as a time capsule for future work mementos
  • A clear, concise guide written from the perspective of a new joiner which provided all pertinent, need-to-know information for the first days and weeks
  • A personalized welcome letter from the most senior leader of the organization
  • A health tracker to support the organization’s commitment to employee health and wellness
  • A sampler of XYZ products

Taking advantage of human nature and its heightened interest in the new and unknown, XYZ’s objective was to foster a positive emotional connection with XYZ as an employer and a brand at the earliest possible moment.  Providing a single comprehensive repository of information would also reduce anxiety and confusion in favor of these positive emotions.

The fifth step involved designing a prototype of the welcome gift and testing it with a subset of employees.  Employee feedback guided improvements in the design and contents. After the welcome gift was “in market” for a few months, recipients were surveyed to further improve the gift with subsequent iterations.

Surveys revealed that new employees were genuinely moved by the sensory and emotional stimuli of this tangible object.  They felt welcomed and valued and even went “beyond the call of duty” by expressing their pride in being employees of XYZ on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

While providing a truly differentiated employee experience also involves strategy, governance, and a dynamic culture guided by an honorable organizational purpose, EXD is clearly the indispensable ways and means of creating a compelling EX.

EXD Return On Investment

The “Out of Box’ welcome gift experience delivered significant business benefits including a 25% increase in new joiner engagement, 60% increase in new joiner retention and 18% increase in new joiner productivity. When considering the average annual salary for recipients of the Welcome Gift, along with the cost of turnover, the increase in engagement and the speed to productivity, the return on a mere $200, 000 ($200 per gift/1000 new joiners) investment was greater than 30X the investment made.

Go Forth

Through the streamlined onboarding experience example, it should be quite evident that practices and capabilities of EXD are not commensurate with the capabilities and disciplines of many traditionalists and/or companies claiming to prioritize Employee Experience. That’s the bad news.  But, organizations prioritizing EX have options.

Here are a few to consider:

  1. Build an in-house design capability. This is a growing trend. It requires C-Level commitment, time, and long-term investment.
  2. If time or ability to rapidly make long-term investments are not feasible, consider co-opting the skills and capabilities. Well-suited global and local innovation and design firms of all kinds are setting up shop in all regions and markets. Many can assist in building this capability.
  3. In the near term, make selective and immediate learning and development investments for your EX badged professionals in design thinking or human-centered design. Provide a risk-free environment in which to practice. They won’t become designers overnight but they will develop an appreciation for what it takes.

Enlightened organizations know that survival in this era relies on mastery of the art and science of customer experience, organizational performance, and beginning the adventure to human experience.[1] They have discovered that, in order to provide top-tier customer experience and benefit from strong organizational performance, they must first create and deliver top-tier EX. Employee Experience requires the same purposeful commitment, discipline and expertise as that involved in engaging experiences for customers.  Don’t allow organizational inertia associated with adopting new ideas and approaches and the observable experience design deficiency limit the transformational potential of EX for your organization.  Instead, convert such resistance into productive energy and initiative with positive results for all that will compound over time.


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