All hands on deck in a plucky attempt to reframe the hoary old culture and engagement tropes. Important issues — both. But, is there a simpler solution to these complex challenges. What if an answer lay, say, in redesigning the employee experience, we wonder? A curious bound through possible as we incite the shrewd leader (you!) to reimagine the methods used to connect with, inspire, and move your people.
As we push into February, cast your minds back to Christmas. Alternatively: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day, Solstice, Yalda, Yule, Festival of the Ass (legit!), or plain old Holidays, whichever your particular persuasion.
Good memories, mostly. With one notable exception:
Yes, each and every year, gathering gifts extracts a good deal of my Christmas cheer. I’m quite aware of the irony — the joy is meant to be in the giving and all that. But… seriously, it’s horrible out there. Three weeks of trench-to-trench warfare fought on various fronts. We fight them in the malls; we fight them in the car parks. Sweating through crowded malls under a few thousand pounds of presents and pretty baubles. A soundtrack of infuriatingly upbeat jingles. Fake snow on fake trees; two year olds tugging on fake Santa’s faux-beard. Bored-looking teenage elves… It’s all very magical.
Worst of all, at the end of this horrific experience, we’ve usually dropped too many dollars on underwhelming presents. It’s enough to rob the fruit right out of my plum pudding. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻
Every year, without fail, I repeat this experience. But not this year. No… this year I finally did what any self-respecting Gen X has been doing for years — I did my shopping on the line. And, oh — the revelation. No more chaotic carparks. No more dodging harried parents, cleaving crowds with strollers, banshee wailing from within. Best of all — no mediocre gifts to give at the end. Granted, half the presents never arrived in time to be hauled from their wrappings on Christmas day. But a great present in the mail is still a whole lot better than a bad present held resentfully in hand. Probably.
So, could it be that the answer to a better Christmas — a better experience — lay in the tiniest of tweaks? We pondered…
Enough talk of past festivities — we’re a twelfth of the way through the year already, so let’s get down to business.
Looking back at last year, eight out of every ten conversations† we had went something along the lines of:
“How do we increase engagement?”
“How can we shift/build our culture?”
We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that these two things are our El Dorado; our Everest; our Holy Grail. These are the things we need to get right for people and organisations to perform at their best. Get ‘em interested! Get ‘em inspired! Build a culture!
Honourable intentions, all of them.
Yet it’s interesting that when you ask someone how their work day was, they’re unlikely to answer:
“A little bit disengaged, actually.”
Or, “really enjoyed the culture today.”
Nope. They tend to respond quite simply:
Or, hopefully (if they work with us), “it was great.”
And while culture and engagement probably influenced these answers, the wording of these answers is telling. Not surprisingly, the way people summarise a work day is no different to how they would describe any other non-work experience — watching a game, going out for dinner, or Christmas shopping.
When it comes down to it, work is just another experience — one that consumes the most hours in our day. Countless moments occurring over days, weeks, years, and careers. A series of touchpoints experienced positively, negatively, or neutrally, all merged together in our memory. Simplified into a one or two word summary.
Never complex words like engagement or culture.
Simple words, describing our memory of the experience.
I don’t mean to belittle the complexity of business or leadership. I certainly don’t mean to devalue the importance of engagement or culture. Well, maybe I do — just a little. There’s a tendency in business to overcomplicate things sometimes.
But, what if we took sheers to the typical approach? What if we no longer had to deal with big, fuzzy words like engagement or culture — vague notions that are tough to define, and even more difficult to change.
What if we reframe the usual questions:
“How do we increase engagement?”
“How can we shift/build our culture?”
“How can we shape a better employee experience?”
Then — how the possibilities shimmer!
Because, experiences aren’t intangible. Experiences can be defined. They can be changed. They can be improved. And it’s all remarkably simple.
By identifying all the interactions between our people and the business; mapping their days, weeks, years, and careers; and understanding the science of how we remember experiences — we can make them better.
Heck, if the process can make Christmas shopping more enjoyable, it can definitely make work more appealing.
And here’s the real kicker: by focusing only on creating great employee experiences: better onboarding; better programs; better days; better careers — there’s a really, really good chance we may also increase engagement and shift culture in a better direction as well.
For decades organisations have thrown resources with wild abandon at the customer experience. That makes sense — customers have the money, and happy customers happily hand over their money. There’s a proven return on investment that makes customer experience very easy to justify. Yet it’s only recently that businesses have seen the value in investing the same effort in their people — in the employee experience.
Perhaps it’s a shift in mindset as millennials fill the workplace. This is a generation that sees work as more than a wage like it was for the generation before. For folk who banged away in undesirable jobs day in, day out, to support their families, that attitude probably seems a lot like entitlement.
“We did it tough — they should just suck it up”.
I don’t disagree, but the times — they are a changing.
Yes, there’s an increasing expectation that companies will provide purpose and possibility. Today’s workforce wants to work for brands they believe in. Entrepreneurialism is on the rise, and real talent is becoming harder to attract, and even more difficult to retain.
Focusing on the people inside our organisations isn’t just smart — it’s essential. And there’s increasing evidence to back the investment.
In exactly the same way customer experience leads to happier customers, employee experience leads to happier employees. And happy employees translates to whole bunch of benefits: increased engagement, better productivity, better customer experiences, increased motivation, higher quality of work, fewer injuries, lower absenteeism, and lower attrition rates, to name a few. These are not fluffy assumptions — they’re backed by cold, hard data.
So, how do we actually create or change an experience?
We begin with the realisation that an experience isn’t some enormous intangible. It’s simply a series of smaller moments — touchpoints between individuals and the organisation.
What are the moments that make up some of the typical aspects of work? How do our people experience a day, a week, a month, a year… a career? What’s the onboarding experience? How do employees experience programs? How do they experience events? How do they experience health and safety? What’s the retirement or resignation experience? All these big events are just moments strung together.
This shift in thinking makes it the process simple. Simpler, anyway. Every interaction, every touchpoint, can be mapped. It can be assessed on whether it’s positive, negative, or somewhere in between. Some touchpoints are shared by everyone, some are specific to segments. These are the details that need to be sweated, and when they’ve been sweated adequately, the result is a journey map — a visual overview of the employee experience.
This is where things get exciting. The journey map reveals the opportunities for change — for improvement. What do we want people to feel at each touchpoint? What do we want them to do? How can we weave them all into a compelling narrative that our people remember fondly?
Of all the moments that make up an experience, not all of them are equal. That’s good news, because trying to make every touchpoint perfect would probably send us mad. Yes — forget that impossibility. Perfection is not our objective, nor is removing every negative moment. It’s simply the overall experience that matters — and specifically, the way in which we remember it.
It would be reasonable to assume we rate an experience based on a tally of all the positive versus negative moments. A pros and cons list of sorts. Reasonable certainly, but also — wrong. Research by psychologist Daniel Kahneman shows that the way we remember an experience is simply an average of the most intense moment (the peak) and the final moment (the end). This discovery came to be known by the very literal, quite memorable, but not very exciting: peak-end rule.
Just because peaks and ends are important, doesn’t make them the only considerations when shaping experiences. Oh no — there’s a lot more to it than that. Let’s hurl headlong and intrepid to examine at each stage of an experience chronologically.
It makes sense to begin at the beginning, but… what happens before an experience begins? While peak and end moments dominate our memory, further studies by Kahneman and a group of happiness researchers (seriously — people actually do this) revealed that in many cases we delight as much — or more — in the anticipation and reflection of the event as we do in the experience itself.
Marketing professor Marsha Richins confirmed this bias in her research on purchasing behaviour. She found that even the most materialistic consumers took more pleasure in the anticipation of a purchase than in the purchase itself. Definitive evidence that we’re still primal beast with a thrill for the chase — dopamine lathering us into jittery anticipation. It’s just as well too. Without the desire for the hunt or harvest, our species probably would’ve starved itself into extinction a long time ago.
So, what does this mean? Well, it means that we should consider how to enhance an experience before the experience typically begins. If our thrills come from the anticipation, how can we use that to our advantage? What additional touchpoints can be added before an event to amplify anticipation? This is the perfect time to build excitement and curiosity, and frame expectations for the experience ahead.
The old adage about first impressions also holds true for experiences. The beginning has a powerful anchoring effect, with the first touchpoints forming our first real connection. It’s an opportunity to establish the tone. A chance to deliver on all the anticipation, curiosity, and the promises teased in the prologue.
The middle of the experience is where the real business happens. Here, we should be removing unnecessary friction and frustrations, and ensuring at least one peak moment.
Time is also an important consideration at this stage. Our days are busier and our attention spans shorter than ever. We should certainly aim for attention and action from our people, but we don’t necessarily need them to be fully immersed. Touchpoints at this stage should allow for different levels of engagement. Ideally — short, impactful moments that reward longer interactions, but don’t rely on them.
These are the moments we remember over all others. It’s the hilarious one-liner in a movie. It’s an unexpected meal in an unfamiliar town. It’s reaching the peak of a mountain in time for sunrise. These are the moments that stay in our minds as all the unenjoyables fade. A weak plot and poorly developed characters. The six laps around the block and argument about where to park. The six hour pre-dawn hike through sleet with a heavy pack to reach the summit.
The thing that most peak moments share is a strong emotional hook. Joy; anticipation; surprise — our memory is biased to remember emotion. Surprise — particularly. Unexpected moments grab our attention, pique our curiosity, motivate us to learn, and make us remember. It’s all in the way we’re wired. Unpredictability actually elicits a physiological response — building new neural pathways, stimulating dopamine, and giving the hippocampus the signal to send those moments straight to long-term memory. These reasons all make surprise an emotion worth employing with reasonable regularity.
It’s surprisingly easy to surprise people. We’re not talking whoopee cushions or hiding in the hallways for a sneaky evening ambush. We can surprise people simply by guiding them to make a discovery. We can take a typical touchpoint and deliver it in a whole new way. But the biggest surprises come from transforming moments that are usually the most mundane. These moments — the ones no one expects to be memorable — have the greatest opportunity to delight.
Peak moments have the power to make otherwise forgettable or flawed experiences wonderful. One emotional high point can be all it takes to elevate our memory of an event. These moments are the difference between an experience that’s pleasant enough but entirely forgettable, and one that’s flawed — but absolutely amazing.
The end, by definition, is the last chance we have to make an impression. It’s also the most recent moment in an experience, which gives it extra weight in our memory. This is why we need to finish strong.
Where our endings vary from customer experiences is that instead of one ending (or several at best), most employee experiences have multiple endings. Every day; week; Christmas party; annual summit — repeated. Each previous ending is replaced, becoming just another moment in the overall experience.
There’s also — obviously — not much good in coming up with an amazing ending if no-one makes it to the end. This is why we need to ensure there’s no friction along the way that might end the experience before intended.
Did we say the end was the last touchpoint with out people? Well, that’s not entirely true.
Peak-end theory shows us that the way we feel in the moment is quite different to how we feel thinking back on the experience later. During an experience, we assess it moment to moment: joy; boredom; fear; frustration. However, when we think back on the experience later, we average only the peak and the end. This means that although we’re designing experiences to be enjoyed at the time, it’s even more important that they’re remembered positively after they end.
As Kahneman and pals discovered, reflection (along with anticipation) often gives us just as much pleasure as the experience itself. So, just like building anticipation before an experience begins, we should also be engineering moments of reflection after it ends. This is particularly valuable in educational or awareness campaigns where we want people to remember content. Even a few simple touchpoints after the ending can ensue an experience is remembered positively, and the learning continues.
This is traditionally the time used to seek feedback. While surveys can certainly help us improve the experience in in the future, they can also impact the experience of the person being surveyed at present. Studies by Iowa State University found that while venting feels great, it rarely provides catharsis — often the opposite. Giving feedback forces us to remember it with a far more critical mindset, and if the experience wasn’t great, the process of venting can heighten the negative emotions.
The best (worst) example is the exit survey. Few things send a clearer message to an ex-employee that you really care about their opinion… now that they’re gone. This process does nothing to improve their memory of the experience, and even less to ensure they speak positively about it to others. All this isn’t to say we shouldn’t seek feedback, but we need to be sensitive around timing, execution, and even incorporating it into a more rounded set of touchpoints designed to leave people with a positive impression.
* THERE’S MAGIC IN THE IN-BETWEENS
Experiences aren’t only about the touchpoints though, they’re also made in the moments in between.
Transitions between touchpoints are the times we can use to pause and reflect, reset, or frame a change in mindset. They’re opportunities to prime people for new experiences, and prevent them dragging undesirable emotions in between.
Performance researcher Dr Adam Fraser calls these in-betweens The Third Space. His study with Deakin University found that carrying mindsets and emotional states between activities can drastically impact happiness and performance. By building transitions into our experiences, we provide an opportunity to reset between moments. We can avoid the risk of carrying negative feelings or disappointment from setbacks into subsequent touchpoints.
Transitions can also be physical. Disneyland incorporates a transition for customers entering the park. They call it a portal — a dark tunnel that promotes a psychological transition between real and magical. Disney view this as one of the most important parts of the experience, allowing people to leave any negative feelings behind, reset, and enter the park with wonder. This same principle can also be used in our workplaces. Are there physical transitions or triggers that allow a change in mindset when moving from one space to the next — home to work, work to home, or office to meeting room?
Just like a tree falling in the woods with no-one to see it, an experience that no-one experiences isn’t really an experience at all. Which is to say: we’re creating experiences specifically for people, so we should begin with understanding them.
The challenge: we’re unique snowflakes composed of 60% water and 40% unfathomable thought processes, unruly behaviours, and unpredictable emotions. We jest — people are wonderful, and not nearly as complex as we might like to imagine ourselves.
To start us thinking about people in detail, we can use an activity like personas. Begin by choosing a segment you’d like to connect with. Frontline; marketing — whatever it is, as long as it’s specific. Then ask yourself hypothetical questions that paint a detailed picture of a typical person in that segment. How old are they, where are they from? What are their beliefs, motivations, aspirations, and preferences? What are their hobbies and habits. How do the like to spend their time? Revel in the details. These are the nuances that help us create experiences that matter to them.
Once we understand the people we’re building the experience for, then we bring in the brand. Why branding? Because while there are universal factors that contribute to a great experience, where we can create truly meaningful and relevant employee experiences is by connecting them to the brand. This is the good stuff — the things that make our organisation great: purpose, promises, vision, values, and personality. Businesses have often treated these things in two separate ways: branding for the consumer, and culture for the employee. Why the difference, we wonder? Why shouldn’t employees experience the brand in exactly the same way as the customer? How can we take the brand and deliver them to our people at every touchpoint?
At this point, it’s worth noting that there are two types of comms departments in this world. There’s the kind who see branding as more than a set of strict visual guidelines to enforce with ruthless zeal. And then there’s the ones who don’t. To any of you unfortunate enough to work with the latter, feel justified in telling them that the exact point size type used in the headline of an internal poster makes the proverbial rodent’s hindquarters of difference to the employee experience. Zip. Zero. Zilch.
Fortunately for a pioneering leader like you, the days of centrally controlled brands are ending. Yes, it’s a glorious new age, where a brand is forged by experiences, not dictatorial communications departments. These are the experiences you create. While People & Culture and Comms are in the position to drive this new approach, shaping cohesive employee experiences across an organisation needs to be unhindered by traditional silos. It should be woven into the fabric of the business. Everyone from front line workers, to receptionists, to Health & Safety leaders, to the CEO influences experiences.
When we think about experiences, it’s impossible not to think of the mediums or channels in which all the touchpoints play out. Yet while touchpoint and medium may seem like peas and carrots, here’s a potentially shocking truth: the medium doesn’t really matter. Wait, that’s not entirely true. What we mean to say is — the medium should never come first.
It’s easy to get caught up in the the medium, the channel, the platform, the technology, the execution, or the delivery. These are the tangibles. It’s the tried; the tested. The visibility of the lunch-room poster. The ease of the email blast. It’s the new; the shiny. When every company was working on an app, we all wanted one — even if we didn’t know what we needed one for. History is set to repeat with virtual reality too. Despite the ridiculousness of wagging a gloved finger at something that isn’t there, while wearing a pair of goggles straight out of an 80’s Sci-Fi movie, we’re all going to want one of those within the next few years as well.
It’s not what the medium is though — it’s why it’s being used. How is the medium facilitating what we want people to feel? Is it practical? Is it engaging? Is it effective? Is it cohesive? Is it scalable? Is it working?
Not, “we need an app.”
But, “what’s the best medium to achieve what we want at that particular moment.”
Always, “how does it enhance the experience?”
Too many times digital is used as the easy option. There’s the allure of automation, and the thrill of the now. Yet physical interactions still elicit a richness and connection that’s tough to replicate using technology. Similarly, the tried and tested is safe, but where’s the surprise? Would changing the medium provide an opportunity to delight?
While we can build processes using lists, great experiences aren’t wrought from logic alone. We need emotion, and by far the best way evoke real feels is through storytelling.
But, how do we get from journey map to narrative? Well, that leap is less than you might imagine. Look at any experience, and we see a series of things happening. This sequence is structured with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And if that sounds familiar — it should.
It’s a story.
We all write stories every day. It’s not something we consciously do, we’re hard-wired to weave moments, memories, and events into a continuous narrative that makes sense to us. Our lives — a tale. Heroes journey, rom-com, or tragedy?
And when we think about experiences as narratives — everything changes. By turning a journey map into a storyboard, we see each touchpoint as a scene. Who are the characters? What’s the dialogue? What emotions are people feeling? What’s the heroes quest? What’s the conflict? What’s the climax? Is there a happy ending? What genre of story have we been telling: mystery, action, comedy, or… horror?
To tie it all together, students at Tufts University stole a little of the Disney’s pixie dust by discovering that it’s possible to map almost every one of their movies to peak-end theory. Think back to the last one you watched… the story starts strong, things happen, it builds to a climax (peak), before wrapping up with a happy ending.‡
What story do we want to write for our people?
Let’s finish high with a quick skip through several examples of how experiences can improve performance and engagement in various areas.
We’re big fans of the Airbnb brand, but what really thrills us isn’t the experience they facilitate for their customers, but the ones they design for their people.
Rated by Forbes and Glassdoor as the top company to work for in 2016, and a CEO approval rating of 97%; engagement surveys with 90% recommending it as a great place to work; a job offer acceptance rate of around 80% for engineers, and over 90% in other departments… these are the figures most companies harbour fantasies about.
Then, there’s the employee reviews: “This company is mission driven with an incredible culture and one where you are encouraged to be yourself.” “Airbnb creates meaningful experiences, whether it is the candidate experience, travel experience or website experience.” And, “I am in my 50’s and I work for Airbnb. And this is by far the best job I have ever had. Airbnb is creating something that touches people: experience memories, relationships, who else does that?”
No coincidence these same themes repeating: culture; engagement — experiences.
The emphasis Airbnb places on experiences is evident in a recent transition from a Human Resources to Employee Experience department. It’s a hybrid that blurs the lines between traditional Marketing, Communications, Real Estate, Social Responsibility, and People & Culture departments.
But it’s the connection between experiences and the brand that’s where Airbnb really inspires: “Everything at Airbnb is a continuation of what it’s like to be a guest in somebody’s house.” No difference in delivery of the values between customers and employees. The experience is exactly the same.
In line with this ethos, Airbnb shifted from the default open space plan used by most tech start-ups to a ‘belong anywhere working environment’. This gives employees the flexibility to work from several spaces, including ‘the kitchen counter’, the ‘dining room table’, or the ‘living room’. These spaces allow individuals to work alone or in groups. It heightens productivity while fostering a strong sense of belonging that stays true to the brand.
Safety is often treated as a self-conscious add-on to the onboarding process. Working with Luke Byrnes, Justin Pratt, and the team at Nestlé SHE, we flipped the paradigm and turned safety into a talking point.
Focusing specifically on the prologue and beginning phases of the induction experience, together we took the mandatory induction kit containing the uniform, mobile phone, and safety manual, and redesigned it to evoke curiosity, surprise, and delight.
By putting safety front and centre, and communicating it in a completely unexpected way, we sought to change the way safety is typically experienced. The aim: increase safety skills and awareness of key risks to change behaviour, keeping Field Sales employees safer, and decreasing the overall rate of incidents.
The concept hinged on the idea that Field Sales employees are generally out on the road; in the wilds (metaphorically), and (literally) — out in the field. We extended this into a narrative that positioned Field Sales folk as brave, rugged, woodsy types surviving in hostile urban environments.
The theme continued through the induction kit and collateral. The manual referenced a field guide — traditionally an illustrated manual used to help teach essential survival skills in the wilderness. The handbook used illustration to visualise and simplify content, but not in the typical way. The unexpected humour captured people’s attention, and the increased engagement with the content and improve learning as a result. The handbook was also structured as a planner, encouraging people to carry it with them daily.
Mindfulness was also woven throughout the content as a means to change behaviour — encouraging Field Sales employees to stay in the moment, stay aware, and stay safer as a result.
A recent study revealed that around 60% of job applicants have had a poor candidate experience, and 72% air their feelings on employer review sites like Glassdoor.
While the impact of negative reviews on recruiting great people can be tough to quantify, Virgin discovered that their poor candidate experience had a definite dollar value. Out of the thousands of job applicants who weren’t hired, not only were many leaving poor reviews, but many candidates who were also existing customers were cancelling their contracts. They calculated this loss in revenue to be around seven million dollars annually. Not ideal.
By redesigning their candidate experience, Virgin ensured that even unsuccessful applicants were left with a positive memory of the experience, and were less likely to cancel their contracts spitefully as a result.
Working with Jasmine Omar, Heather Rude, and the PepsiCo Global EHS team, we worked to take an event that was already an annual highlight and push it into a truly memorable experience.
We began by mapping a typical conference experience. Then we took several of the particularly boring touchpoints and turned them on their head.
To build anticipation and curiosity during the prologue phase, we created a series of short teaser videos with a random fact about the location (Cork, Ireland), each tied loosely to one of the four conference themes. These videos framed the event as different from the beginning, and built excitement around travelling to Cork.
Travelling to an unfamiliar city or country can be disorientating. We worked with Cork-based PepsiCo representatives to share a local perspective — a shortlist of favourite restaurants, shopping, and sightseeing locations. These curated recommendations were included in the summit handbook to create highlights peripheral to the summit, but inherently linked to it when attendees remembered the event.
Another challenge, especially for introverts, is the inevitable social component. We took a little of the awkwardness out of networking… by making it more awkward. Every attendee had their face integrated into local banknotes, creating networking money. Surprisingly, what was initially intended to remove friction from a necessary touchpoint turned into an unexpected peak moment for attendees.
As always, our shtick isn’t to spruik only-ways or speak in over-certains. There’s certainly more than one approach to the challenges of shifting culture and increasing engagement, but where this method delights is in its simplicity, its tangibility — its achievability.
I’d really hoped to pen a far more rousing summary, but the doorbell chirps insistent. Cousin-in-law Jon’s Christmas Licky Brush must’ve finally arrived…