How to Improve Employee Experience With Design Thinking

If employee engagement is an outcome, employee experience is how you get there. By taking cues from a process known as design thinking, we can promote better workplaces for employees.

If you’re a HR professional or senior manager, then you’ve probably come across the term “employee experience” by now. The only problem is that its definition can often be unclear, especially as it relates to your business and what you can do to improve it.

According to Deloitte, nearly 80% of executives rated employee experience "Very important" (42%) or "Important" (38%), but only 22% reported that their companies were excellent at building a differentiated employee experience. Clearly, a quality employee experience is important.

But before making employee experience a business priority, it’s also important to comprehend the priorities of your own employees. There’s far from one form of satisfactory employee experience. By utilizing an iterative process known as "design thinking," you’ll be able to unearth what works best for your people.

What Is Employee Experience?

In the same way that customer experience aims to improve the entire journey of a customer, employee experience is focused on improving all aspects of an employee’s day-to-day life.

Employee engagement is an outcome. Employee experience is how you get there.

You may have heard claims that employee experience is the new employee engagement, but that is not the case. Employee engagement is an outcome. Employee experience is how you get there.

Instead of relying on short-term fixes designed to boost engagement, employee experience is focused on changing the systems, policies and behaviors of your entire organization. 

Before we dive into specific techniques you can use to gather feedback and start making changes, it’s important to understand the bigger picture. The clearest way to illustrate the scope of employee experience is by breaking it into three environments: physical, cultural, and technological.

1. Physical

In a working world where many workers have not returned to the workplace, and where some might maintain a flexible approach to offices and sites, discussing the physical aspect of the employee experience has only gotten more difficult. However, the changing tides of physical workplaces have illustrated how important physical spaces are to the employee experience.

Historically, a common employee frustration with early-stage startups comes from the limits of the physical environment. That could mean sharing an office, hot desking, or cavernous warehouse spaces that are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. And while the option of remote working may alleviate some of these issues, it doesn’t negate the need to address them as the world opens up again. 

At a small company such teething pains may be tolerated, but any business moving past the bootstrapping stage can’t afford to ignore the impact of the physical environment. Companies well-known for their employee experience, like Airbnb and Facebook, invest hundreds of millions in creating a positive place to work. Some of the more common benefits include standing desks, catered lunch and on-site gyms—but the design and layout of your office is equally important, if not more so than free perks.

Part of providing a good employee experience is giving people the opportunity to collaborate and work in a way that suits them best. Mark Levy, the former head of employee experience at Airbnb, provides an excellent way to think about the physical environment.

"Our Airbnb space has moved from open space floor plan to a ‘belong anywhere working environment,’ where an employee can work from any number of workspaces. This allows employees to either work alone or congregate with the folks they are working with to create the sense of belonging, rather than working from a closed-in cube, office, or dedicated desk."

Mark Levy Former Head of Employee Experience Airbnb

The physical environment is an essential part of the employee experience, and that doesn’t just mean making people comfortable. Giving your employees standing desks and the latest tech will make them feel more valued, but the right office design can foster more connection, collaboration, and even act as a physical representation of your company’s core values. Part of that freedom may be reflected in flexible working opportunities, but using them as a crutch negates the positive impact a collaborative workplace can have. 

2. Cultural

Your company’s cultural environment consists of the values, attitudes and relationships that exist in the workplace. It’s the feeling we get from being at work, whether in-person or digitally. Do you feel energized by the work you do, or do the hours drag by? Do you find a sense of purpose in what you do? What are your relationships at work like? Are people aligned with the company’s values?

In the words of Karen May, former VP of People at Google for nearly 10 years, “It’s less about the aspiration to be number one in the world, and more that we want our employees and future employees to love it here, because that’s what’s going to make us successful.”

Culture doesn’t just happen, it needs to be created.

In order to maintain a consistent culture it’s essential to define your values. One of the most effective methods is to have a well-defined vision and mission statement, which gives shape to the attitudes and behaviours that you expect from employees.

For example, one of Google’s core values is that “You can make money without doing evil.”

While there is a potential risk of homogeneity here—namely, hiring staff from a narrow demographic set—by basing your culture on strong, central values, you ensure that existing and future employees alike recognize and can align with your company.

3. Technological

The final environment that’s crucial to a positive employee experience involves the tools and resources that people need to get the job done. Laptops, mobile phones, and secondary desktop monitors are just a few example of essential technology for the modern worker. When working remotely, there are further necessary considerations, such as desks and appropriate chairs.

While it’s important to have the right tools for the job, the technological environment can also feed into the two previous steps. For example, if everyone in the company has their own laptop, with access to Slack and video conferencing software, then you open the opportunity for a hybridized or flexible working model, in turn impacting the office culture and the physical environment.

A 2019 report by Buffer found that 99% of employees would choose to work remotely if they had the option, well before national lockdowns made working remotely necessary. Similarly, our Employee Expectations Report 2020 found that comments featuring flexible working-related terms increased by 18% during the initial stages of the pandemic, emphasizing how entwined with all three strands of employee experience flexible working is.

Above all else, technology should make it easier for people to do their job—whether that’s equipment used by all employees, or accessibility tools to promote an equitable experience for all staff. Anyone who’s had to deal with unreliable internet connections, inaccurate analytics, or outdated software will know the impact they can have on employee experience.

Employee Experience Is Not Only HR’s Responsibility

Airbnb were one of the first companies to replace their existing HR department with a team of people dedicated to improving the employee experience. Since then, a number of other companies have reshaped their cultures to embrace the employee.

Employee experience impacts all aspects of your business. Some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders have acknowledged the importance of keeping your employees happy, especially when you consider how it affects your customers.

Richard Branson is a firm believer in the power of putting employees first:

"My philosophy has always been, if you can put staff first, your customer second and shareholders third, effectively, in the end, the shareholders do well, the customers do better, and your staff remain happy."

Richard Branson Founder of the Virgin Group

It’s easy to think that creating a positive employee experience is the sole responsibility of the HR department, but when you look at each one of the three above environments, it becomes clear that there are significant areas of overlap between HR, IT, operations, and other areas of the business.

In order to have a lasting impact on the employee experience, HR needs to be put on the same level as sales, marketing and operations. It’s not a support function—it’s an integral part of championing better working practices and getting people excited about their jobs.

HR is pivotal to so many aspects of your business, whether it’s working with IT to supply the software needed for remote collaboration, planning an office redesign with operations, or getting approval from the CEO to implement a flexible working policy across the business.

HR teams are there to champion the employee experience, but in order to do so they need the budget, resources and support of senior management. Rebranding your HR department is one option, or creating a dedicated position for employee experience, but whatever happens your entire business needs to understand how HR actively contributes to the employee experience.

A Crash Course in Design Thinking

If you want to redesign the employee experience in your organization, then you first need to understand what employees want. Copying Airbnb and other large scale business will only get you so far—the key is taking the time to discover what’s important to the people in your business, and then using those findings to develop real solutions.

One of the best ways to create solutions that people actually want is with ‘design thinking’. Design thinking is an iterative process that offers a way to understand problems from your employees’ individual perspectives, to challenge any assumptions you might have, and then iterate on solutions until you find the right one.

Here’s how the international design and consulting firm, IDEO, defines design thinking:

Design thinking utilises elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.

In order to understand what your employees are feeling, there are tools we can borrow from the design world, including user journey mapping and employee personas. These tools help to eliminate guesswork when making changes to the employee experience.

For example, mapping the employee experience forces you to think about the path an employee takes through the company. This gives you a high-level overview of the different stages along that journey, including recruitment, onboarding, quarterly performance reviews, promotion, etc.

But that experience is very rarely universal. That’s why it’s best to understand the employee journey from different perspectives. Once employees have each mapped out how they view the journey, get the HR department and senior managers to do the same.

Any major differences between the two data sets are normally a good place to start your evaluations.

Mapping exercises and brainstorming are important parts of design thinking, but so too is user research. Interviews and surveys are an amazing way to gather feedback before deciding on where to make changes. Here are some of the most common approaches:

  • Employee interviews: If you want to understand the employee experience then you need to speak with employees. It’s as simple as that. Keep questions open-ended and make sure people are comfortable expressing what they really think.
  • Manager interviews: Speaking with your managers will give you a different perspective, including possible ideas about how to improve the employee experience.
  • One-off polls and surveys: Gathering quantitative data can uncover parts of the employee experience that didn’t come up in interviews. Sometimes people don’t always know what they want, which is where polls and surveys can help.
  • Pulse surveys: Measuring engagement on a more regular basis can give you a much stronger idea of how the employee experience is changing over time. For example, over time people may be getting less and less satisfied with your learning and development.

It’s best to use a combination of these methods to make sure you have a good mix of quantitative and qualitative data, which will make it easier to prioritize your efforts.

There are plenty of other creative ways you can gather feedback from your employees as well. For example, Cisco hosted a non-tech hackathon to generate new ways of thinking, applying design thinking to existing processes and to create hacks that could innovate on existing HR methods.

Over a period of 24 hours, Cisco employees across 16 time zones, 39 countries and 116 cities were able to generate 105 new HR solutions for their workforce of 71,000 people.

By focusing on “moments that matter," like joining the organization, changing jobs, and managing family emergencies, the company was able to redesign various aspects of recruiting, onboarding, and learning and development, in order to improve the employee experience.

How to Measure Employee Experience?

Gathering feedback is an important part of the design thinking process, but equally (if not more) important is measuring the results of a new solution. How do you know if your latest HR policy is having an effect unless you have some kind of metric to measure?

In order to measure employee experience, you need to measure the outcome, which is employee engagement. One of the most effective frameworks for measuring engagement is the Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS).

To understand eNPS, you first need to understand Net Promoter Score (NPS), which is used as a way to measure how likely someone is to recommend a company to their friends. It was introduced in 2003 and has since become the go-to metric for measuring customer loyalty.

In recent years NPS has been adapted to the world of HR. Most companies—including Rackspace and Apple—that use eNPS rely on asking employees one central question:

“How likely is it you would recommend [Company Name] as a place to work?”

You can respond to the question with a score between 1 and 10, which places people in one of three buckets: Detractors (0-6), Passives (7-8) and Promoters (9-10).

  • Detractors: These are the people in your organization who are disengaged. If your employee experience is broken then this is where you need to start digging.
  • Passives: While they don’t affect your overall eNPS score, it’s important to find ways to get honest feedback from passives. They might be satisfied now, but small concerns can quickly turn into problems that move people into the detractor camp.
  • Promoters: Our data has shown that promoters are seven times more likely to stay with a business over the next three months than detractors. This is group where you can learn what’s working and how it can applied to other teams and departments.

The simplicity of eNPS is one of its strengths, but it’s most effective when you understand how that score is changing over time. Surveying people once a year makes it difficult understand what impact new policies and initiatives have had on the employee experience.

As Bain & Company state on their own website:

The traditional once-a-year employee survey process, however, simply doesn’t meet the needs of most companies.

Not only is it important to gather feedback more frequently when measuring eNPS, it’s just as important to have a source of qualitative data that can help you identify common issues among detractors, or figure out what’s working for your most engaged employees.

This ties back to design thinking and the fact that most decisions are based on data. It’s important to have an intuitive understanding of your business, but if you want to measure the success of your solutions, you need to make sure you’re collecting the right information.

Key Takeaways

By now you should have a solid understanding of the employee experience, including what it is, why it’s important and how to measure it. The next step is to work on improving on it, but before you go and do that, here’s a summary of the core concepts to keep in mind:

  • Start with employees and the rest will fall into place: If your employees are happy then it’s going to make your organization a more enjoyable place to work, reduce the amount of turnover and result in more satisfied customers and shareholders.
  • Find someone in the C-suite to champion employee experience: It takes a lot of collaboration to make employee experience work, which is why senior leaders need to be involved. If Richard Branson and other CEOs have employee experience at the top of their priority list, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t be doing the same.
  • Learn from the best, but adapt solutions to your business: There is a lot to learn from Airbnb and Facebook, but culture is different for every organization. Figure out what makes your business unique and make that a part of your company culture.
  • Use design thinking to understand the employee journey: The people within your business are the best source of feedback and ideas you have. Use polls and surveys to speak with them and then figure out where the improvements need to be made.

To learn more about the employee experience, take a look at our guide, The Four Phases of Employee Experience, which is available to view online or download as a pdf.

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