Employee experience: Focus, action and scale

Employee experience: Focus, action and scale


Employee experience – how it feels to be at work, particularly in the moments when it matters most to us – is something we can all relate to. We know what good feels like, and we know what bad feels like. We share stories when workplaces let us down.

Increasingly, we also know why employee experience matters in business terms:

  • Strong employee experience drives strong customer experience
  • Employees’ experience is positively associated with discretionary effort at work
  • 83% of HR leaders say “employee experience” is important or very important to their organisation’s success[1].

Employee experience matters a lot to customer experience, yet we spend 1,000 times less on understanding employee behaviour than customer behaviour.

“[employee experience] lacks the intentional, holistic approach that is the hallmark of design.”[2]

Nous has been working on employee experience – our clients’ as well as our own – exploring how customer experience design methods, teamed with people and culture smarts, can unlock new ways to lift performance and outcomes through people. Though our experience we have learned:

  • Where to focus
  • How to take action
  • What it takes to scale up.

Where to focus

When we’ve talked to a broad range of organisations working on employee experience – sometimes we talk to HR teams, sometimes customer experience or design teams. A common reflection is: we’re not quite sure where to start with employee experience.

So how do you identify and make all the changes in an organisational system that contribute to employee experience? In business, many have been down the path of ‘culture change’ or ‘transformation’ programs. These can involve extensive action plans, intensive effort and long timeframes. We seek to change systems, behaviours, processes and measures, all at once! Demonstrating clear outcomes from all the streams of activity is often challenging, as is maintaining focus and momentum.

Looking through an employee experience lens offers a different way to take action on the people and culture landscape of an organisation. It offers a way to think big and start small, in targeted ways.

We’ve found that three helpful starting points are:

  1. Business pain points
  2. Moments that matter to employees
  3. Incongruity in the overall experience.

1. Business pain points. We are all too familiar with these: business results are poor, targets aren’t being met, errors are being made. Given that the vast majority of people arrive at work each day intending to do a good job, what is the experience we’re giving people that is preventing them from achieving what we want (and most likely, what they want too)?

Errors in product information and poor customer feedback in an automotive company flagged one significant pain point. Looking at the problem through an employee experience lens shed light on the fact that the employees struggled to access the right information on internal systems. A quick win was to tidy up access to information on internal systems by looking at it from a user journey perspective.

2. Moments that matter to employees. Based on turnover and exit interview data, interviews with employees, and 15+ years of experience as people managers; we developed our employee experience heat map – a combination of journeys that matter and always-on experiences – that make the most difference to employees.

Diagram showing journeys that matter process

Journeys that matter are experienced very intensely by the employee. In these moments, people are so keen to contribute and be part of their new team. They are powerfully motivated to succeed in step-up roles. Some people even resign rather than try to renegotiate their relationship with their job, like transitioning to part time.

Always-on experiences have a huge day-to-day impact on employees’ experience of work – how people treat each other and their experience of their one-up manager in particular, as well as the workspace they spend so much time in. These have strong, measurable impacts on employee experience and performance at work.

The employee experience heat map shows some good places to start in taking action on employee experience. Could any of these important experiences be described as or trigger pain points for employees in your business?

3. Incongruity in the experience. To scope the agenda for improving employee experience, it is sometimes useful to take a bird’s-eye view of the employee experience – look across the whole landscape and scan for areas that need attention, perhaps because they are not congruent with the overall desired experience. Some rituals may no longer serve us, the tools we give employees may not match our overall aspiration to provide simple, easy transactions, and so on.

One tool to help with this bird’s eye scanning is Brightspot’s Employee Experience Canvas. We sometimes use this to scan for incongruity in the system, areas where key employee touchpoints may not be aligned. For example, if one of our principles for employee experience is ‘simple and easy’, but our financial approvals process involves multiple approvals and systems, then that is an area to look at.

How to take action

Having worked out which employee experiences to work on, how do we then take action? It’s great to discover that our physical workspace is holding us back, or that our experience of helping people step up into stretch roles isn’t working, but what happens next?

Many of the people we speak to who are keen to improve their employee experience stumble at this point. We appreciate that we can borrow from customer experience design to take a different focus:

  • Emotional connection – why do I work here?
  • Nuanced understanding of needs – my work/life balance is different from yours
  • Removing friction – get rid of whatever gets in the way of my best work.

The challenge can be finding a way of applying design techniques that recognises that employees are different from users, and that employee experience happens in the context of an organisational system.

Though our work, we have developed our own employee experience canvas – a tool for designing specific employee experiences within the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve.

For a specific employee experience, like on-boarding, the canvas can help us to thoughtfully design the experience, working through the why, the context and the how of the specific experience, including how to make it stick. This approach helps avoid a pitfall of employee experience – the “cool idea I heard somewhere” – that can make employee experience initiatives seem a bit faddish and insincere (foosball table and beanbags, anyone?). Using the canvas is a way to work through everything from the business case to the implementation and tick the boxes for all the stakeholders before you dive in too deeply, testing and refining the quality and relevance of the ideas.

We’ve tested this approach on ourselves to design the Nous onboarding experience.

Colorful diagram example of employee experience

We found the canvas an effective way to test that our good ideas were meeting all the needs we’d surfaced. We also found it imposed helpful discipline around articulating our hypothesis, testing a minimum viable product, then measuring and learning from the results.

It’s differences like these take the design from an adequate employee experience to a great employee experience.

What it takes to scale up

Once we’ve made some progress on specific employee experiences – the ones that matter most to employees and to the business – the natural progression is, how might we tackle employee experience at scale?


Just like with customer experience, it’s possible to design great individual experiences that do not translate into a great overall experience. One of our clients found, when it unleashed customer experience innovation, customers’ online experience didn’t match their phone experience and the cool app they could use for car insurance didn’t work for home insurance. The net result was a frustrating rather than great customer experience.

To bring consistency and elevate the importance of customer experiences, many businesses have a Chief Customer Experience Officer or CCO. By 2014, almost 25 per cent of Fortune 100 companies had a dedicated CCO. In small or mid-sized companies it’s the business owner or CEO who now leads the customer experience initiative. It was 2015 when AirBnb CHRO Mark Levy became its Chief Employee Experience Officer, accountable for building the “workplace as an experience”. His responsibilities reflected this expanded vision, including functions such as facilities, food, global citizenship, internal communications, as well as the typical range of HR functions.

While appointing a single point of accountability for employee experience is not the only way to achieve integration and may not be the right one for your business, it’s important to give thought to where ownership sits and the mechanisms by which integration happens.

Operating model

“The next journey for HR leaders will be to …[create] an employee experience that mirrors their best customer experience.”[3]

Taking employee experience seriously requires a shift in how HR works, in terms of:

  • Mindset – employee-centric, experience-centric
  • Skills – human centred design skills, technological skills to create new HR solutions for employees
  • Rhythm – agile working for continuous delivery of improved experiences
  • Partnerships – HR leaders are partnering with heads of Real Estate, IT, Marketing and Internal Communications to create great employee experiences.

Transforming employee experience may ultimately transform HR

The business case for tackling employee experience is becoming increasingly compelling, in terms of engagement and productivity, customer experience, employee attraction and retention.

We’ve found taking an employee experience lens, and applying customer experience design practices to the challenge of how to create the environment in which people do their best work, has also helped to:

  • Break big priorities, like ‘culture’ into smaller challenges we can take action on, one by one, measuring the results along the way
  • Offer different solutions to employees’ and business challenges and create a more human experience
  • Bring HR practice closer to the customer-centric and human centred design practices that are being applied elsewhere in the business.

We’ve found that seizing the opportunity of employee experience can start modestly, by knowing where to focus, knowing how to take action and exploring what it means to scale.

[1] The Future Workplace and Beyond.com study “The Active Job Seeker Dilemma

[2] Elliot Felix, “The employee experience canvas”, Medium.

[3] Jeanne Meister in Forbes, 2017