Employee Experience

Maja Ninkovic: Employee Experience: Strategy Playbook 

While 2020 will certainly be remembered as the year of the Corona, in the management world it will also be remembered for peak interest in the employee experience. Employee experience (EX) is a hot topic, but ask any manager to clearly define it, or worse, to explain how to strategically implement it across the entire organization and you’ll find that people have trouble articulating it in a consistent way.

Why is this?

The employee experience as a concept is very fuzzy because it refers to what employees think or feel about a dizzying array of organizational aspects during their everyday work lives. Does it include how employees feel about their physical workspaces? Yes. Social relationships with colleagues and managers? Yes. Comp and ben packages? Yes.

EX even includes the dreadful morning commute – research shows that the worse the commute, the less engaged and productive people are at their jobs, and more likely to leave their company for a shorter trip to work (Jachimowitz, 2016). 

With so many individual preferences and such a broad and complicated scope, how do you manage or control EX across the organization? The bad news for organizational leadership is that you can’t – because employee experience strategy is actually not about regulating every single aspect of your employees’ daily thoughts, feelings, reactions or behaviors. It is also not about chasing the elusive “employee happiness” or providing a workplace filled with ping-pong tables and other perks.

A good EX strategy is based on an organization-wide understanding of what different groups of employees need in order to perform best in their jobs, derived through a continuous process of listening and incorporating employees’ perspectives and solutions into the design of organizational processes that impact them.

In our work, we have identified 4 parts to a successful EX strategy plan and execution. Depending on the maturity level of an organization, you may jump in at different points – or as we’ll highlight later in the article – implement EX projects of different sizes. 

Figure 1. Four-part EX strategy development process (People Analytics Hub, 2020)


In 1998, two economists, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, wrote a famous book called “Experience Economy.” In their work, they trace historical transformations of economic offerings – how economy based on raw materials (e.g., coffee bean) was progressively superseded by an economy based on goods (e.g., packaged coffee in the shop), then services (e.g., coffee someone else made for you in a coffee shop) and finally, to an emerging economy based on experiences (think hyper-personalized Starbucks coffee or $15 cup on the St. Mark’s square in Venice).  

Figure 2. Historical progression of economic value (Pine, 2004)

In the new world of experience economy, customer service was replaced by customer experience (CX) and delivering it in a superior way became the leading management objective of many brands. Companies today have Chief CX Officers, CX Vice Presidents, CX managers – all responsible for creating “personalized and memorable” experiences for their customers that go beyond simple ‘service’ to involve sensory, emotional, cognitive and social responses to the brands. These experiences are intentionally designed across the entire customer journeys, composed of multiple touchpoints or interactions with the company as they progress along their path to making a purchase.

This transformation brought about increased attention to employee experience, as CX and EX are intrinsically linked together: disengaged workforce cannot deliver a superior customer experience. Following closely in the CX footsteps, delivering quality employee experience became a driving force behind many successful businesses – today we have Chief EX Officers and EX managers tasked with a similar job: to provide a superior employee experience for their workforce across the entire employee journey and across multiple touchpoints as they progress from being candidates to exiting the organization.  

Implementing EX-centric organizational strategies, however, required unexpected changes in leadership thinking. Fundamentally, EX-centric organizational design flips the traditional management script: instead of people adapting to the organization (‘how things are done here’), organizations that desire superior EX have to be designed around what employees need to perform best in their jobs. Instead of ‘top-down’, EX organizations need to practice a ‘bottom-up’ approach. Instead of opinion-based decisions, EX organizations need to rely strongly on people data. Instead of creating a culture for employees, EX approach meant designing it with them.

This has been a big mindset shift, with significant rewards for the businesses – EX-centric companies outperformed traditional companies in nearly every single people-related KPI (Morgan, 2017). Yet not all leaders are comfortable with this shift; but for an EX strategy to succeed, leadership buy-in is critical. Therefore, the very first step on the HR’s journey to better EX is to build a strong business case to their leaders on why employee experience matters. Some key activities that may help in this part of the journey include: starting with small pilot EX projects, documenting ROI, and partnering with other departments or leaders who are ‘on-board’ with the transformation and are willing to provide support. 


How do you know what it is that people in your organization need to perform at their best? Which characteristics of your work environment act as drivers or barriers to productivity or engagement? What influences their decisions to join or leave the company? 

The EX-centric organizations around the world are ‘insanely’ data-driven, collecting and analyzing people data to gather insights on different EX processes. Organizationally, this is the task owned by the People Analytics (PA) function, an emergent set of roles within HR whose value is in providing insights into the inner workings of the company’s workforce.

People Analytics function will often implement an “Employee Listening” strategy, a concrete research plan to obtain employee (or candidate) perspectives from multiple data points and gather ideas for improvement.   

How can you “listen” to your employees?

Different types of surveys

Annual census surveys have been proclaimed dead; but we are not so quick to agree. Not to be used as a sole listening method, these lengthy surveys have a unique place in a balanced people analytics strategy – they act as a powerful signaling system that can reach a large employee base in a relatively short time period. 

Pulse surveys are more frequent and far shorter surveys that can be single-item such as eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) or 10-15 short check-ins on defined topics throughout the year. Some pulse surveys are action-triggered, meaning that they are automatically sent to employees at a defined point in time. 

“Always-on” surveys represent year-round open channels for employees to leave continuous feedback and ideas for improvement (think digital “suggestion box”), easily analysed with in-built NLP capabilities of many survey platform providers. 

Figure 3. Sample Employee Listening schedule (Willis Towers Watson, 2019)

Qualitative insights

Focus groups are an ideal method for gathering deep insights. For example, in one of our case studies, focus groups revealed that one of the biggest EX issues among employees was constant boosting of rivalry among teams – and consequently, feelings of injustice when other teams “won” in a given quarter, since it carried an implication that the other teams “lost”, despite the deeply interrelated nature of their work. Based on this finding, senior management implemented ‘shared’ rewards and put more focus on building a collegial, collaborative rather than competitive atmosphere and employee engagement shot up.

Individual interviews – which may be as short as 15 minutes – can reveal organizational issues by highlighting specific challenges in candidate or employee experiences. For example, by introducing candidate ‘follow-up’ interviews, our team reduced the offer rejection rate from 50% to 17%. How so? When qualified final-stage candidates were interviewed during a ‘decision stage’, the recruitment team could reveal critical indecision points and act to find solutions – for example, the team introduced additional “family-friendly” benefits for engineers whose future jobs entailed occasional night shifts. These added benefits tipped the decision scale and resulted in fewer candidates rejecting positions in this particular department. 

While qualitative insights like this may be time-consuming and usually require some prior research experience, EX issues in the organization cannot be diagnosed by annual employee engagement surveys only. Engagement surveys are good for signalling problems and providing quick status checks on a large number of employees, but they are not designed to give us the “why” behind the “what”.

One option to “boost” the power of engagement surveys in providing deeper insights is to include obligatory open-ended questions (“What can we do to improve process XYZ?”) and to use one of the open-text analytics providers such as OrgVue or Qlearsite to more efficiently analyse large amounts of qualitative data. 

Empathy mapping

One way to present qualitative data for further consumption is by using empathy maps. Empathy maps are borrowed from the UX research and can be easily adapted to the EX domain. Why are empathy maps useful? These maps present, in a neat and visually attractive way, main findings on what particular groups of employees think and feel about the given segments of the EX journey. For instance, this map comes from the most recent People Analytics Hub study on IT professionals’ reactions to remote work during the Covid-19 crisis.

As the map summarizes, these junior IT developers, contrary to expectations, had lots of difficult adjustments to working from home: boundaries between work time and non-work time blurred, home workspaces were full of distractions, employees lacked adequate equipment such as comfortable chairs or monitors, and most critically, they lacked easy access to senior teammates to whom they could turn for expertise, slowing down critical knowledge acquisition for these younger professionals. 

Figure 4. Sample empathy map: remote work perceptions, junior developers (People Analytics Hub, 2020)

Collaboration data (network data)

An emerging field of interest in People Analytics is harnessing the power of “network data.” Known as Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), it can be active (based on employee surveys) or passive (based on already existing communication meta-data, such as data from Outlook or other email/collaboration platforms). Both of these analyses measure EX from a completely different lens: they pinpoint employees (or groups of employees) who have some important features – for example, people who are at high risk of burnout because of collaborative overload; employees at high turnover risk; employees with business-critical knowledge whose departure may jeopardize organizational functioning; isolated individuals or siloed teams who could benefit from increased collaboration. Passive ONA allows easy tracking of workload metrics over time, providing significant insights into the workflow dynamics of different employee groups.  

An insightful example comes from the National Bank of Australia where the people analytics team mined Outlook metadata to understand work patterns and workloads during the Covid-19 crisis and the shift to exclusively remote work. Microsoft Workplace Analytics provided weekly dashboards that tracked metrics such as “time in meetings”, “time in emails”, “time in after-hours meetings and emails”, “one-on-one time” and other time and connectivity-based metrics.

Among other insights, the team revealed that senior leadership was most impacted by the shift to remote work – their days were full of meetings and emails, but work started earlier in the mornings and continued late into the evenings (important to note that individual-level data was anonymized and aggregated!). This workload pressure data was then used to prevent burn-out and provide support where it was most needed. 

Figure 5. Sample collaborative metadata dashboard report (National Bank of Australia, 2020)

Employee listening technology

Unless your organization is on the smaller side, employee listening strategies need support from HR Tech. The shift to EX means that HR tech providers are increasingly building their software to satisfy both HR and employee users. In our consulting work, we are often asked to recommend employee listening to HR Tech. Some standalone tech providers noted in this space are CultureAmp, Hive, Glint, TinyPulse, Qlearsite and OrgVue. Each has specialized for a particular niche – OrgVue and Qlearsite have the strongest capabilities for open text analytics, with some amazing use cases coming from their academic founders. TinyPulse has conquered the pulse survey niche, while Glint, Hive and CultureAmp dominate a more full-service employee listening packages, offering complete flexibility in surveying, interactive dashboards with real-time insights and advanced visualizations, peer-to-peer recognition and “Suggestions” features. While their products are neck-to-neck, the absolute winner for impeccable customer support – and cost-efficient solutions – has been the UK start-up Hive (www.hive.hr). 


“Every problem is a design opportunity”

People Analytics and employee listening are critical for EX strategy creation. However, what we often see is that HR teams may even collect the data, analyze it, obtain insights and then – not much happens! To fully embrace EX strategy, what’s required is an additional step – to actually design work experiences (processes, spaces, interactions, digital experiences, etc.) and to successfully scale these solutions to address the needs of different groups across the organization. 

To transform HR professionals into “experience designers” also requires a mindset shift and new skillsets, but HR teams can learn a lot in this process from the principles of human-centered design methods such as design thinking. We’ve written a lot in recent HR World issues about the process of design thinking – from research and discovery to ideation and prototyping – so, in this issue, we’d like to dig deeper into some useful tools and answer some of the typical questions we get in our EX design workshops.  

How do we define an experience?

Experience, by simple definition, is consciousness of an ongoing interaction. Each interaction between employees and the company is called a touchpoint, and each employee journey has potentially hundreds of touchpoints, which represent the building blocks of experience design. 

Experiences always have 3 phases: anticipation, participation and reflection. For example, pre-boarding is an important anticipation phase that may set important expectations for incoming hires. Many organizations see pre-boarding as simply a waiting period, but this phase may be designed with interactions that will address new hires’ needs and potential fears, as well as adding some “memorable moments” such as asking for “equipment wish-list” or sending a personalized gift. 

Experience designers also pay special attention to all the 5 senses – physical settings in which employees spend their work lives contribute massively to their overall experience. For instance, employees in open space offices have a difficult time dealing with constant noise, visual distractions and air and temperature issues; such badly-designed spaces lead to higher employee turnover and lower eNPS scores.  

What are employee journeys? 

Many brief micro-experiences accumulate to create larger macro-experiences. The largest macro-experience is a sum of all experiences an employee has with one company, a sequence of stages usually represented by an “employee journey map” with different touchpoints. 

Figure 6. Sample EX journey map with a selection of touchpoints or important milestones (People Analytics Hub, 2020)

What is exactly designed in EX design?

When we talk about EX design, we are talking about “setting the stage” for certain experiences to occur across a specific employee journey. Let’s say that we know – from EX research – that our new hires, especially younger generations, have a really hard time connecting the dots in the first 3 months. They feel disoriented and think they would benefit from more structure.

Based on these insights, you may run a design thinking workshop with 7-10 new hires and with their help redesign the onboarding process to include, for example, 5 critical introductions to key collaborators, an immediate “project” to jump straight into, and creation of detailed documents providing them with key tools and information they need. All of these are new onboarding “touchpoints” – interactions that will shape the overall new hire experience in positive ways.

While we cannot guarantee or control what our employees will think or feel as they go through different workplace interactions – what we can do is intentionally design those touchpoints in a co-creation process with our employees, making it more likely that positive experiences will result. 

Do we always have to run design thinking workshops in EX design?

No – sometimes HR teams will not have the required expertise, time or resources to run DT workshops. In that case, the process of co-creation can be indirect, meaning that it’s often enough to conduct employee research and incorporate those insights into the design decisions. 

Do all experiences need to have a “wow” effect?

A common misconception about EX design is that each segment of the employee experience has to be mind-blowing. This is not true at all. Experiences can generally be categorized into 5 types: 

Prosaic: everyday, ordinary events that require minimal conscious attention (think coming to work, swiping employee card, switching on your computer, making coffee – such experiences should not be memorable!)

Mindful: experiences that require mindful attention, engagement in thinking, reasoning, problem-solving (this is the bulk of our workday, when focus, attention and engagement in work-tasks are high)

Memorable: experiences that have a positive emotional charge (think for instance marking important employee events, such as gifts for new moms, recognition vouchers, anniversary or birthday celebrations, etc.)

Meaningful: experiences that teach us something new about ourselves or the world around us (think social interactions with colleagues, feedback we receive at work from people whose opinion we value, new relationships or important learning experiences) 

Transformational: experiences that lead to significant, profound changes in our perspectives, attitude or behaviors (very difficult to design for, and not always positive, but think within-company career changes, mobility programs abroad or being let go from the job)

Memorable, meaningful and transformational experiences usually make up “moments that matter” – peak moments that make lasting impressions on how employees think and feel about the company. Focusing on making these few key interactions positive for different groups of employees is a very good EX start.

In most cases, these key interactions take place during important transitions (first day, last day, promotion, new baby, etc.), important milestones (anniversaries, first 90 days, etc.) and difficult moments (unsuccessful launch, negative feedback, large scale crises such as ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, etc.).  


How do we tie all of this together? The prior three steps act as a necessary EX framework from which many EX initiatives can be launched. After this framework is in place – leadership buy-in, people analytics and employee listening program and an EX design know-how, what comes next depends largely on what emerges as a priority for your employees. Maybe you have a kick-ass onboarding program, but manager experience is problematic, or vice versa.

EX programs come in different sizes, depending on the resources that can be dedicated to the process. Some of the smaller EX projects you may embark on include a redesign of the company’s candidate experience process, a referral program, or a pre-boarding experience. Some larger projects include a redesign of the L&D programs, a new office design or a performance appraisal system overhaul. Regardless of the actual process to be designed or redesigned, some steps are critical in the implementation phase:

  1. After completing your research and workshops and mapping out a new process with new interaction points, have an EX strategy meeting with your stakeholders, where you’ll get a sign-off on a realistic action plan of implementation and iron out some last-minute dilemmas. Critical to the experience delivery are line managers, and if you haven’t partnered with them before this point, it’s critical that they be involved now.
  2. Prepare everyone for launch by communicating your new EX design plan across the organization: involve internal communications, marketing, leadership teams.   
  3. Launch your EX initiative – roll out a new referral program, or a new L&D platform or a new pre-boarding experience
  4. Plan for regular follow-ups: send an evaluation survey, talk to people, and make changes or tweaks as necessary to different touchpoints
  5. Document your successes: this is critical for ongoing stakeholder management – show your leadership teams exactly what KPIs you have improved and how big is the estimated return on their investment (and on the trust they’ve put into your EX team). 

PhD Maja Ninković

Founder of People Analytics Hub

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