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Strategic employee experience: designing experiences that cultivate authentic and passionate brand cultures

yellow lemons with one pink

The idea that employees can have a positive impact on customer experience is not new.

In a nutshell

  1. The same segmentation applied to customer experience strategy can be applied to the employee experience, grouping employees into clusters based on their distinct aspirations.
  2. Employee experiences can bring to life a company’s distinct brand idea. People will embrace a company’s brand idea across a spectrum of commitment. The challenge for the company is to create experiences that encourage employees to live the brand in a way that is true to them. 
  3. This can be achieved through co-creation of employee experiences. The 'Brand Commons' framework can support this.

If employees feel valued, this translates into the quality of service they provide and the passion they exude.

However, only recently has this begun to be seen as a highly strategic pursuit, with businesses approaching the delivery of employee experience with the same effort as customer experience. The time is right to review where we’re at in strategic employee experience and also look to future horizons in this field.

Employee experience today: experience optimisation by applying best practice from CX

Denise Lee Yohn – author of What Great Brands Do: The Seven Brand-Building Principles that Separate the Best from the Rest – argued recently in HBR that “brands already know how to improve employee experience: all they have to do is apply to their HR practices the principles of customer experience design that their marketing and operations teams probably already use”.

She makes a compelling case. In TRA’s experience, the same segmentation applied to customer experience strategy can certainly be applied to the employee experience, grouping employees into clusters based on their distinct aspirations. As Yohn explains, “Most companies organise employees in standard groupings like job title, rank, department, business unit or geography. But just as customer experience design requires a more nuanced understanding of customers than simple demographics or economic value, employee experience design should be based on employees’ drivers and desires”.

Our work with a range of New Zealand companies based on this approach has helped to instill relevant and inspiring values, motivating incentive programmes and cultures that put the customer at the heart of employees’ thinking in a way that drives behaviour rather than blindly or mechanically chasing satisfaction or promoter scores.

Employees as drivers of change

"Journey mapping is critical for delivering competitive employee experience, identifying gaps between current experience and the experience required of the employee experience strategy right through from recruiting to retirement."

We agree with Yohn in the thought that employee experience strategy is about more than just acknowledging that employees are not all the same and providing experiences designed to effectively engage different segments. Employee experience strategy can also be used in times of change. Segmentation can be used to group employees ranging from those who drive change to those who resist it, each requiring tailored engagement tactics.

The other customer experience tool for better employee experience is the journey map. Journey mapping is critical for delivering competitive employee experience, identifying gaps between current experience and the experience required of the employee experience strategy right through from recruiting to retirement.

The unchartered employee experience: strategic experiences that cultivate ‘brand culture’

The most unchartered and possibly most exciting space for employee experience strategy concerns how employee experiences can bring to life a company’s distinct brand idea. Arguably, employees are the most untapped asset a company has to leverage in bringing meaning to the brand idea. In smaller companies you tend to have people that ‘live the brand’ and authentically exude passion for the core business and the ideology at its heart. TRA is a great example of that. Because employees in this type of company have the same values, and often interests too, in their work as in their daily lives, who they are is what they do – they build bridges and shift energy between their world and the company to spark innovation and also brand authenticity.

But only a few large companies such as Nike manage to maintain this kind of brand culture at scale. In The Practical Guide to Scaling Company Culture Nike is explained as “a place to explore potential, obliterate boundaries and push out the edges of what can be. The company looks for people who can grow, think, dream and create.” This is most definitely a company culture that embodies the spirit of the brand i.e. a brand culture. However, it is easy to look on in awe from the outside. No doubt even Nike must find it hard to have every last employee ‘living the brand’ in this way.

The fact is, people will embrace a company’s brand idea across a spectrum of commitment. The challenge for the company is to create experiences that encourage employees to live the brand in a way that is true to them. It might not be that all of Nike’s employees are out smashing boundaries physically and mentally every weekend. But they may like to support people that do. And that’s fine – in fact, it’s great because it is authentic. The question is, how should a company go about supporting employees to have these experiences?

nike
Source: Nike

Strategic employee experience as a design process

To chart this new territory requires that employee experience practitioners not simply apply a tool from the customer experience handbook, but take the lead. It requires becoming a lot more strategic about the employee experience as it relates to brand strategy, and actively designing employee experiences that cultivate authentic and passionate brand cultures.

Before doing anything though, it is critical to distinguish between experience optimisation (much of what we have discussed already) and experience design. In the context of customer experience Markus Giesler – professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University and founder of the Big Design Lab – has done us a favour. As he puts it “service optimisation isn’t experience design … experience designers don’t map journeys. They empower people to go on their own journey”.

Why does this distinction matter when considering how to inspire the kind of customer or employee experiences that can deliver to a brand idea? Because as we’ve identified, employees will only ever authentically ‘live’ a brand idea (one that is genuinely a brand idea and not a service mission in disguise) if they are empowered to do so in a way that is meaningful to them. Experience optimisation through journey mapping is a great way to improve the way employees interact with the organisation over time in order to improve the employee performance, but it won’t suffice for empowering employees to really embrace a company’s distinctive brand idea and bring it to life through their own experiences.

With the distinction made between experience optimisation and experience design, we now need to find the tool that can facilitate these kinds of brand-defining employee experiences. The challenge is significant – how do you empower employees to do something of their own but also ensure what they do aligns with the priorities of the brand i.e. make the action highly strategic?

brand commons diagram

Brand Commons – co-creating company culture

One possible answer to this is to apply a design process known as ‘Brand Commons’, developed by New York-based designer Leland Maschmeyer. This process was originally developed to support the holy grail of marketing programs – those that are animated by bottom-up participation of consumers – however it is equally applicable for the employee experience. Brand Commons is essentially a tool for co-creation, developed by studying emergent fields in social production (both real world communities and digital). In The Practical Guide to Scaling Company Culture, co-creation is held up as the key to scaling brand culture with co-creating the company passion the recommendation (essentially the brand idea).

However, with this being a highly strategic pursuit for a company I would argue a better idea is the co-creation of employee experiences (activities the company can support staff to undertake) that bring the brand idea to life. Brand Commons can support this.

TRA’s experience working with companies as diverse as insurance, dairy and travel has shown us the value of this type of work in creating an employee culture and experience that delivers the brand in a way that is meaningful to employees and customers – joining the dots between internal culture and customer brand experience – and has an impact on growth and profitability.

The seven steps to participation in the company’s goals

Marschmeyer synthesises a design process consisting of seven component steps to inspire bottom-up participation around a goal. The process seeks to ensure the resource (in this case, an investment by a company in employee experience) is not wasted by a community (the company’s employees) but that the community is also suitably empowered, inspired and enabled to do something real, important and meaningful to them (is there really any other way to create participation?). By facilitating this dynamic in an employee experience program, it could deliver on Geisler’s definition of experience design (“empowering people to go on their own journey”) while still giving real meaning to a brand idea, and by doing so, ultimately supporting the cultivation of authentic brand cultures.

Tim Gregory
Strategist at TRA

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