Getting started with employee experience

A great employee experience is about making a workplace human-friendly.

I wish English had a word to express the feeling you have when an idea near and dear to your heart flies under the radar, and suddenly, it gets noticed.

We've been thrilled with the receptivity to focusing on employee experience (EX) with our existing and new clients, and to see articles like 2018 is the year of Employee Experience from Forbes. 

Why invest in employee experience?

A great employee experience is about making a workplace human-friendly. By removing poor, dehumanizing experiences that lead to broken trust, reduced engagement, and don’t support people being their best, we can attract, retain, and enable the people that will make our organization successful.

Being successful can include superior customer experience (CX), being more innovative, and being more profitable. And the numbers in this Harvard Business Review article show that investing in employee experience pays off.

Principles to get you started

So, let's assume that you too want to invest in employee experience. How and where do you start? 

Here are some guiding principles we use to create great employee experiences, both for ourselves at Habanero (where we are very proud to consistently be considered a great place to work) and with our clients, whom we work with on both culture and transformation initiatives and digital workplace solutions.

Design thinking is foundational

It would be easy to say that EX is all about design thinking, when in reality, we also use:

  • Service design tools
  • Employee engagement principles
  • Knowledge of organizational culture
  • Understanding of people as they relate to work, performance, and their work environment

However, design thinking is both important and foundational to EX.

Design thinking is all these things:

  • A mindset
  • A collection of behaviors
  • A tool that will help you create employee experiences to enable employees to perform at their best

Design thinking includes:

  • Deep empathy and understanding of the needs, goals, perspectives, and values of the people you’re designing for (in this case, your employees)
  • Defining the business problems related to employee experience that need to be solved (this could be anything from retaining skilled people to evolving CX to enabling innovation)
  • Collaborating and co-creating the experience with employees
  • Prototyping and testing ideas
  • Continuing to iterate and refine 

Our clients that are making the most gains in creating great employee experiences have embraced design thinking, particularly within teams that are key to many aspects of EX, such as People and Culture. (Watch the recording of our webinar, Aligning employees on a shared sense of purpose: igniting employee experience with design thinking and see how Arc’teryx uses design thinking to impact employee experiences.)

Employee experience goes both wide and deep

Employee experience is much more than what you see on the surface, such as office parties, bean bag chairs, and foosball tables. (Has anyone ever heard of someone staying at a company for its bean bag chairs or foosball tables, or attributing them to their success?)

EX includes A LOT, like:

  • Recruitment
  • Hiring
  • Onboarding
  • Interactions with managers
  • How decisions get made and who makes them
  • The level of opportunities for learning, growing, building skills, and using strengths
  • Role clarity
  • Levels of workloads and the pace of work
  • Flexibility and autonomy
  • What gets recognized
  • How people are recognized
  • Performance management and feedback
  • Having the tools one needs to do their job
  • Career opportunities
  • Who gets promoted
  • Levels of communication and transparency
  • Pride in what is being accomplished
  • Belief in the company's vision
  • How successes are shared

….oh, are you still reading? Well then…it also includes:

  • Inclusion and diversity
  • Psychological safety
  • An environment and work that inspires
  • The physical environment
  • A safe environment
  • Wellness support
  • Shared values
  • A sense of purpose
  • Confidence in leaders
  • Face time with leaders
  • Leaders "walking the talk"

And yes, EX also includes pay and benefits.

Because EX includes so much, it can be easy to get overwhelmed about where to start.

The key is to have a broad understanding of the reach of employee experience, your culture, vision, and business needs. From there, you can prioritize the areas that would be the most impactful.

Different employee experiences for different organizations

We do a lot of things at Habanero that work well for us. This doesn't mean they will work well for your organization.

As one of my organizational culture favourites (Edgar Schein) notes in the Corporate Culture Survival Guide, a culture is not inherently good or bad. It is only as good as how well it supports an organization in achieving its goals within the environment it operates in. The same goes for employee experience. So what is a fit for one organizationor even part of an organizationmay or may not make sense for you.

For example, a company that manufactures a product may have a part of the company to design products, market, and distribute them. In this part of the company, autonomy and flexibility are likely very important to support creativity, innovation, and the ability to adapt to the market. However, within a factory or manufacturing environment, working to deadlines and efficiencies will likely take priority and autonomy, flexibility, and innovation will have its own unique flavour.

So before you adopt something that has been a roaring success in another organization, you need to consider your organization’s goals, the problems you need to solve, your organizational culture, and the environment you are operating in.

Empathy is at the heart of employee experience

Years ago, when I was new to living in Italy, I asked the server in a restaurant if I could order a dish without the prosciutto. The waiter thought very hard about it for what felt like a minute, and then shook his head and gave me a firm, "No. You can't do that. It won't work."

You might ask if you can skip the step of taking time to understand your employees. No. You can't do that. Employee experience won't work without empathy.

At Habanero, we think of empathy as deeply understanding the people you're designing for. It’s also about embracing human-centred research, along with a spirit of collaboration and co-creation with employees in designing the employee experience.

It’s tempting to want to skip this work because humans are wired to jump to creating solutions. But you can’t because a great employee experience depends on it.

Go bigger with your win-win

To indulge in some over-simplification, the win-win in some traditional work environments is that the employee gets paid in return for doing what the employer tells them to do.

We view the employee/employer relationship in a much bigger way, as do more and more of our clients. The overall quality of someone’s life impacts their work, and the degree to which an organization detracts or enhances a person’s life can factor into retention.

At Habanero, we seek to help people working here live better lives, which we believe benefits our employees and our company. In our employee experience survey we run several times a year, employees rate how much they agree with the statement "Habanero helps me live a better life" and it's something we aim for in our EX.

We are seeing more and more of the organizations we work with creating an EX that helps people live better lives by creating environments and opportunities that support:

  • Meaning (such as through a meaningful organizational purpose or community initiatives) 
  • Personal growth (such as through workshops to explore an employee's talents and personal values, coaching, and other learning and development opportunities) 
  • Being part of a tribe or community (through shared values and culture, positive team environments, and other opportunities to pursue shared interests)
  • Respect and appreciation through being inclusive, recognizing employees, listening to employees, and open communication
  • Enabling people to have time for things important to them in their lives through flexible work and sabbaticals   

Seek insight with a tool that resonates with you

There are many different models you can use to get you started on your employee experience journey. These can be useful in helping you identify where your employee experiences may need some attention and to shape a vision for your employee experience.

However, the model you use is less important than your ability to understand your organization’s goals, your employees, and how to plan and prioritize your next steps. 

There is also a fair degree of overlap between many of the models, so pick the model that has the language, nuances, and areas of emphasis that resonate the most for your organization. Then use it as a tool to:

  • Facilitate conversations around employee experience
  • Discover what will be the most impactful in achieving your organization's goals

Some examples of models to get you started are:

In conclusion

As you plan or design your employee experience, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Am I embedding the core concepts of design thinking?
  2. Am I considering our employee experience broadly, with the goal of prioritizing a few areas of focus?
  3. Am I considering our unique business needs, culture, and the environment we operate in?
  4. Have we taken the time to truly understand the perspectives, values, goals, and preferences of our employees?
  5. Are we thinking big enough? Are we helping our employees live better lives?
  6. Would an EX model help us discover where we need work, or help us shape a vision? What are some concepts about EX that are important to us that should be in a model?

If you can say “yes” to the first five questions and can answer number six, then you are well on your way!

We are also always happy to be part of conversations around employee experience design and would be happy to chat more.

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