Lucy dhr
Lucy Adams
Reading time: 16 minutes
Share this post:

Anyone who loves to shop gets what a great customer experience looks and feels like. With the impact of digital resulting in declining numbers visiting high street stores, retailers have had to work even harder to compete for the illusive and spoilt-for-choice shopper.

They have recognised that it’s not enough to just have great marketing and a decent range of products at the right price point. They have designed complete customer experiences that reflect and demonstrate their brand. No detail is too small to matter. Every interaction is deliberate, and is designed to get us to stay longer, buy more and tell others what an amazing experience we’ve had.

The parallels with the opportunity to create a wonderful employee experience are numerous. The need to attract talent and deploy them quickly. To enable employees to be as productive as possible and ensure they enjoy what they do. To create a culture where employees can freely contribute their ideas and voice their opinions. To retain great people and for them to act as advocates for your brand. Yet while the customer experience is well understood and embedded, the design of a great employee experience is still in its early stages.

We need to recognise that creating a powerful brand is no longer enough. As Director of People for the BBC, attracting people to work there was never the issue. The power of the brand pulled in thousands of applications from talented and wonderful people every year. The challenge we faced was about making sure the actual experience of working at the BBC lived up that brand image. When you think of the BBC you imagine creativity, excellence and the thrill of working in the fast-paced world of media. And that could be true. But equally, the challenge of working for a large and often very bureaucratic organisation that was subject to both intense political and media scrutiny combined with tough financial pressures could put a serious dent in your initial excitement. As I was told on my first day, “the key to working at the BBC is to recalibrate your expectations”!

The imaginative ways that companies now attract new talent is fantastic. Their creative use of targeting, employee referrals, social media, gamification, video and clever adverts gets stronger every year. Anyone relying on a careers website showing boring videos of bored employees talking to the camera about how great it is to work here should be worried. The competition is fierce. But often, that’s where our imagination ends. Once the employee has signed on the dotted line, that amazing recruitment experience can quickly feel like it belonged to another company. From here on in, the employee experience can often be a series of interactions that have been designed by independent and misaligned HR functions that either consciously or unwittingly begin to corrode the efforts of the talent attraction team.

Retailers have had to re-think and redesign their consumer experience by putting the desired experience at the heart of what every retail function does. And those progressive companies who have grasped the importance of the employee experience are doing the same with HR. Each interaction or “moment of truth” is designed with the employee in mind, not just the organisation. To continue with the retail analogy, let’s look at how they are doing it by focusing on five of the most important opportunities we get to shape that experience.

Entering the store (Onboarding)

Many companies still see the induction or onboarding period as a process to put people through. It typically involves a vanilla offering of a week of PowerPoint slides crammed with bullet points from all the departments who have managed to crowbar their way onto it, a cursory tour around the offices, and finally the ceremonial signing of countless pieces of paperwork. It’s about conformity, it’s about telling them what we want them to know. The smarter companies see it differently. They see it as a time to learn about the people you’ve hired and to find out how they can best be welcomed and deployed. Examples such as Wipro who use the onboarding process to find out more about the new employee’s unique perspectives and strengths and which led to 33% greater retention in the first six months. Smarter companies use onboarding to focus on enabling the new recruit to feel welcomed by the team. They don’t spoon feed their employees large amounts of information, but instead create an early expectation that employees will be treated as adults and are expected to use their judgement – as with Bazaarvoice and their onboarding scavenger hunts.

The store layout (Working environment)

Just as every aspect of the store layout is designed to optimise sales, so companies are focusing more on how to create the conditions where employees can be at their most productive and engaged. We’ve all read about the amazing physical working spaces enjoyed in Silicon Valley but creating a great employee experience is so much more than a table tennis table and free beer. Organisations are waking up to the idea that having the right variety of physical environments and the right tools for the job are what matter. As the brilliant Jacob Morgan details in his latest book The Employee Experience Advantage, HR has to work with both Property team and the Technology team to make sure that the culture, the physical space and the tech work in harmony to enable people to do their best work.

The changing room (Career, performance and talent)

In a recent conversation with a retail director of a well-known department store, he said how he had had to shift the focus of his customer assistants. They needed to be less worried about stock rotation and stopping people stealing stuff and instead focus on creating an amazing experience when customers tried things on. I know I’m stretching the analogy here, but there are some similarities with how we in HR need to refocus our approach to the numerous people processes that deal with how people progress. Instead of focusing on the completion of the process, we need to consider what experience we want people to have and work back from that. This thinking has already led companies to discard their annual performance reviews with an employee rating and move to frequent check-ins, to dump the 9 Box Grid in favour of frequent talent and career discussions at leadership meetings and to create self-directed learning opportunities instead of putting people on training programmes.

Customer Loyalty Programmes (Reward and recognition)

Why is it that, when I’ve spent a fortune in a shop, I’m always really thrilled when I get a “Personal Thank you gift” or some free samples? Probably because it’s unexpected, it’s personalised, it’s timely and it feels like someone cares. And it’s just the same with the rewards we get at work. The annual, bureaucratic, net-after-tax bonus never inspires as much joy as that hand-written card, or the thoughtful and personalised gift. Lots of companies are beginning to stretch their imaginations when it comes to the role of reward in creating the employee experience. Whether it’s getting rid of bonuses like Atlassian and Netflix or having employees reward their peers for being supportive and fostering collaboration like at NextJump, or rewarding the team through off-site activities that they share like at GoDaddy. The future of rewards is all about the personal, the timely, the unexpected.

Handling complaints (When things go wrong)

No employee experience design can be complete without considering how to handle an employment relationship that has soured. It can’t all be about promotions and recognition. While thankfully the moments when the outcome for the employee may be negative are in the minority, how these are handled – and more importantly, thinking about how you want the employee to feel – really matter. Netflix came right out with their “Sustained B-level performance generates a generous severance package, with respect” statement, a bold move that most companies would shy away from. We’re seeing greater emphasis on mediation over formal process to ensure the focus remains on the relationship and stays human if there’s a grievance. And some companies, like Zappos, are avoiding disappointing conversations altogether by replacing the unavoidable candidate rejection through traditional recruitment with an online community of potential talent from which they draw.

With the importance of employee experience increasing in the minds of executives, HR has a fantastic opportunity to use this as a catalyst to dismantle and dismiss some of our legacy approaches. Designing with the employee in mind will encourage and perhaps force us to break down the unhelpful structural barriers created with Centre of Expertise. It will drive us to work with partners from technology, property as well as with our traditional ally, finance. It will prevent us from producing beautiful processes in isolation of our employees. It will challenge us to question whether the Business Partner model of serving our leaders is enough. And finally, it will enable us to truly align with our external brand and values as the key source of our design thinking.

Originally published in The HR Director Magazine June 17

Join the Disruptive HR Club for free and enjoy a taste of our exclusive blogs, podcasts, videos, and live events

Recent Posts


Lessons from a scandal: Should bonuses be paid for ‘just doing the right thing’?

The scandal of the Post Office, where managers are being incentivised to help with the public inquiry, begs the question - should we ever pay bonuses just 'for doing the right thing'?


Health and Wellbeing: Less Zoom Yoga, More Trust

We should question whether our healthy snacks and instructive posters are addressing the real barriers to feeling well. Should HR be the caring parent and provide the right kinds of food, exhortations and education? Or should we look to reduce the things that create the stress in the first place?


How to help your leaders be more curious

Being curious is good for us and our organisations, but some of us do it less than others. This blog explores how we can help leaders to show more curiosity.