The phrases “employee experience” and “employer brand” have become popular among human resources professionals as they aim to bolster their organization’s ability to attract top talent. But for C-suite leaders intent on mobilizing their firms’ talent attraction strategies, it’s become ever more important that they, too, begin to embrace these terms in a new light.
Creating a clearly defined and formal employee experience has become a strategic foundation for businesses wanting to flourish in today’s global marketplace. No longer can companies act as if they only compete in a consumer-driven economy with traditional products and service brands. Companies must also find ways to stand out in a thriving talent economy with world-class employer reputations capable of attracting and retaining the most talented workers with the promise and delivery of an enjoyable employee experience.
The experiences employees have at work matter. Multitudes of studies and research from Gallup, Willis Towers Watson and others have shown how a rewarding employee experience can influence employee engagement, external customer experiences and bottom-line results. Businesses that invest time and resources on building outstanding employee cultures and work experiences see the impact of their efforts in that their people stay more engaged over time and speak more favorably of them as employers. They’re able to consistently attract and retain top talent, and they see positive business results in the form of increased levels of safety, quality and productivity, as well as higher operating margins and earnings per share.
The simple fact is that employees spend more time each day in relationship with their employer than with any other business or brand in their lives. Regardless of what they do or where they work in the world, people are having countless experiences every day with employer brands. That constitutes more interactions and opportunities to engage than we could ever imagine with our traditional consumer brands, but leaders’ job as employer brand owners is no different. They must focus on addressing and deepening the relationships they have with employees. If leaders want to receive employees’ best work throughout the employee lifecycle, the experiences people have while they work need to be positive, meaningful and worthy of engaging.
The big questions in this discussion center less on why leaders need to prioritize employee experiences and grow employer brand equities, and more on how. How do leaders build an employee experience so exciting that people come to work from day one engaged and ready to give their all? How do leaders sustain that experience and help their cultures thrive over time, so their brands, businesses and customers thrive too? How do leaders create a meaningful experience that leaves people feeling happy and positive, especially when it’s time for them to leave?
In the key takeaways and recommendations from its 2016 Global Workforce Study, Willis Towers Watson provided its answer to the how question: Businesses looking to increase engagement should begin offering their workforces more valuable “consumer-like experiences.”
Today, retention risk is higher than it’s ever been. Top talent now moves more fluidly from one employer to the next. Nearly half of the employers surveyed in the Willis Towers Watson study indicated that their recruitment activities are having to increase year over year, and more than one-third of the same employers report that churn and turnover is on the rise. What would happen if a company’s customers were churning at such increasing rates? Leaders would likely be focused on finding out what needed to be improved and doing something about it. Leaders therefore need to consider holding employee experiences to the same standards.
It’s never been more imperative that leaders reverse this momentum by beginning to consciously design and create experiences that workers want to have. In fact, in the same study, Willis Towers Watson uncovered that employees wanted to be treated more like consumers; 70 percent of workers who responded believe companies should understand their employee needs to the same extent that employees are expected to understand the needs of external customers. Yet only 45 percent believed they worked for employers who viewed them as consumers. That’s a big gap that needs to be closed.
One way companies are beginning to act more like employer brand owners is by placing an increased importance on influencing and listening to the stories being told about how their employees experience their work. Opinions of how businesses and leaders treat their people and how their people feel treated have never been more openly shared and discussed inside and outside organizations.
Stories that reveal whether leaders are meeting their employees’ needs are being magnified globally through social media and everyday conversations between peers. It’s important to pay attention to how leaders deliver and respond to these stories. Today, employer brands, like more traditional consumer brands, are being cocreated with employees, who from an employment brand perspective are their primary consumers. The experience that they create together not only influences the stories that are being told, but also how well companies compete in the global talent economy.
Leaders should never be able to separate employee experience from employer brand. In fact, they should begin thinking of the employee experience as the employer brand experience — because they’re intrinsically linked. If leaders want to grow their employer brands and be competitively positioned in the talent economy, they must be ready to invest in the redesign, improvement and transformation of their global employee experiences. These experiences must also be designed and created in ways that meet, if not exceed, the needs of workers. To accomplish that, many employers are being inspired by design thinking, a process commonly used in the consumer world to help define problems and implement new solutions and experiences.
Typical design thinking follows five simple steps:
- Empathize with the end user and understand their experience through observation, interaction
- Process and synthesize findings into a perspective that will be addressed by a future design solution.
- Explore a wide range of potential solutions
- Transform ideas into real solutions and prototypes, so people can engage and experience them firsthand.
- Use observations and feedback to refine experiences.
Industry leaders know the importance of using design thinking processes to innovate their consumer product and service brands to stay ahead of macro business trends and competitors. It’s no different with employer brands. Companies with high levels of employee engagement know the importance of actively designing and innovating experiences to reflect the ever-evolving workplace and meet the needs of their workers.
I can relate to the positive influence design thinking can have on creating a solid employer brand experience through my own work with NCR Corp., a technology company where I help lead an effort to transform the company’s global employer brand. I believe it serves as a case study for other executives looking to create and build on their company’s employer brand.
Most recently, as the company moved from a manufacturing-centric to more software-driven business, there has been an internal initiative to transform its global culture and employee experience. At the heart of this initiative is design thinking in action, and it centers around taking the company’s customer brand promise — NCR makes everyday life easier — and turning it inward toward its own employees. Leaders across the organization are collaborating to change why and how work is done inside NCR. In essence, they’re asking, “How do we create an experience that makes everyday life easier for our incredible team?”
The driving force in this culture and employee experience transformation is the idea of the consumer-worker. In simplest terms, NCR sees workers as the primary consumers of the NCR employer brand, and each day they actively consume an NCR experience. These modern consumer-workers have high expectations of employers, especially leaders, and they want customizable work experiences that are personally relevant and meaningful. When their expectations aren’t being met, they don’t hesitate to begin shopping and moving on to new employer brands that they feel better suit their own needs and dreams.
To help power incredible experiences for consumer-workers at any company, Andrea Ledford, the company’s chief human resources officer, outlined five actions — from what NCR calls its five-star model — that leaders can follow to create their own employee experience strategy and experiences using design thinking.
As the design thinking process begins with empathy, so does NCR’s five-star model. This first principle is grounded in listening and information gathering of all kinds, from the expectations of the business and its leaders, to the needs and desires of employees, to external benchmarking from the tech industry and other sectors. Main discovery methods include focus groups and surveys with leaders and employee groups from across the organization. The key is to listen with intent, to communicate what was heard and to take meaningful actions.
“Our discovery process on a new leadership development experience started with business leaders that crossed levels, functions and regions,” Ledford said. “We wanted to understand what they liked and didn’t like about how leadership training is typically delivered. We also wanted to involve them from the start in the content development itself, especially our senior leaders who are being given the chance to influence the learning experience being designed for their teams and lower-level leaders.”
When leaders make a genuine effort to listen to their people on a regular basis and take the time to discover what they’re really feeling and need, they can lay a solid foundation for a global employee experience that not only exceeds worker needs but is also beneficial for their business and employer brand as a whole.
Grounded with a thorough discovery process, the next destination in the five-star model is to define employee moments of impact. A term picked up from the customer experience industry, moments of impact are the make-it-or-break-it moments employers have to get right. The key is finding creative ways to use these critical situations to delight employees, address their most pressing needs and give them a positive feeling and memory — another common customer experience practice called emotional stamping.
Using insights that were discovered to define key moments of impact, emotion stamps and opportunities to delight is a critical element of the five-star model. It helps companies ground every global experience in what really matters for the business and employees. It also helps deliver more return for the business by focusing time and resources on the moments and experiences that are the most important to transform and get right.
The next practice in the five-star model is to identify and develop employee personas for the company and key talent groups considered the most critical to execute on the guiding strategy of the business. This persona exercise is an important practice for any company or brand to take to heart. It helps leaders design more meaningful and consistent experiences by creating very clear, easily understood pictures of end users — in this case, employees. When done right, personas have names, and their stories feel like those of living, breathing people.
“We call every employee at our company an iNCRedible team member,” explained Ledford. “We felt it was important to use this enterprise talent persona to bring our shared values, behaviors and needs to life. These shared parts of our talent story were discovered and defined through our conversations with business leaders and employees. We now help the business recruit, onboard, develop and recognize our team with this persona in mind — every experience in our employee’s lifecycle is influenced by our iNCRedible persona. But we don’t stop there.”
Deeper, more customized personas for priority talent groups can also be developed to help guide the design of more relevant, personalized experiences throughout their life cycles. “Because NCR is transforming into a more software-centric company, we’ve prioritized certain groups like sales, service technicians and software engineers to help drive our business strategy forward,” Ledford said. “These more functional personas influence the design of everything from new training programs for our iNCRedible sales and services employees to better recruiting and candidate experiences for our software engineers.”
Every brand stands out on the merits of its story and how that story connects with the hearts and minds of its primary consumers. Companies must develop strong employer brands with clear identities and value propositions that resonate deeply with their consumer-workers and set them apart from competitors.
“At NCR, one of the most important elements of our employee value proposition is the transformation of our business. In focus groups, we uncovered the sense of adventure our people feel who are on our reinvention journey with us,” Ledford said. “It helps us attract a certain type of worker, one who thrives on diversity, growth and change.” Adventure theming can now be found throughout many NCR experiences from its Summer Intern Expedition to its new Talent Scout employee referral program.
Brands differentiate to stand out. Committing to an employer brand story and bringing it to life through talent programs and experiences helps create a unique message and space for companies in the global talent economy.
Borrowing from design thinking, the deploy phase of the five-star model is where prototype and pilot experiences begin to be introduced to employees and discovery continues. It’s important to understand what’s working and what’s not when a new experience is deployed. The only way to do that is by observing and listening.
“We’re clear from the beginning on how we’re going to measure success for the experiences we design,” Ledford said. “We deploy listening tools to collect feedback, measure progress and direct improvements. This part of the five-star process helps us stay true to our NCR promise to make everyday life easier for our iNCRedible team.”
Many companies wait until an employee experience is fully baked and perfect before introducing it to workers. They spend vast amounts of money, time and resources doing heavy lifting, only to implement solutions that are not exactly ready. Design thinking processes like the five-star model remind leaders of the importance of listening, designing with certain personas in mind and deploying experiences in agile ways. These ways of working allow employer brands to quickly begin addressing consumer-worker needs and problems, and also help employees feel a sense of influence and ownership in the development of the experiences themselves.
Leaders must learn to stand out in the talent economy by building world-class employer brands capable of attracting and retaining the most talented workers with the promise and delivery of an enjoyable employee experience. Design thinking can become the pathway to that memorable employer brand and work experience we all want to be known for.
Kevin Finke is the owner and chief storyteller at Experience Willow LLC, an experience consulting firm based in Atlanta.
This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Talent Economy Quarterly. Click here to view the digital edition.