How to Thrive in the Age of the Employee

by Nina Pesavento

If we’ve been living in The Age of the Customer for the past decade, we have now entered The Age of the Employee. Employees are empowered with more information about employers, more choice of where to work, and more demands as technology enables greater transparency and user-centric design continues to transform workplace expectations.

At the same time, employees are the lifeblood of businesses. Their skills, knowledge and ideas are companies’ primary arsenal in a daily battle against evolving competitors and growing new entrants. Business success is synonymous with employee success, which is why 80% of today’s executives recognize the importance of employee experience.1 While employee engagement measures a workforce’s happiness and productivity, employee experience considers how interactions between individuals and organizations facilitate desired outcomes.

A well-designed employee experience aligns employees and employers on common goals and supports performance through culture, ways of working and purpose. Yet, between 2016 and 2017, companies’ reported ability to address issues of culture and engagement decreased by 14%.2 Designing an employee experience that empowers people to do their best work is not easy, but it pays for itself exponentially in the long-run.

 

Start by building a cross-disciplinary team of change agents.

No one individual can design lasting organizational change. Begin by bringing together a cross-section of influential employees whose perspectives collectively represent a 360-degree view of the status quo, a group that John Kotter calls the “guiding coalition.” They’re responsible for acknowledging people’s day-to-day realities across the workforce, surfacing gaps in the current state, collaborating towards innovative solutions, and championing new concepts and behaviors. Most importantly, this group is committed to a common cause: improving how their colleagues work in order to improve how the business performs.

People feel connected to what they help create. Too often, employee experience design is isolated to the HR department, or assigned to a marketing team. That narrow lens is a sure path to wasted resources and limited returns. By engaging change agents across disciplines early and often, businesses can design experiences that employees actually want and need, and create an immediate sense of ownership for new ways of working.

 

Clearly link purpose to specific, actionable outcomes.

Businesses across industries have caught on to the bottom-line benefits of defining a strong purpose—so much so that public dialog on “purpose” increased five-fold between 1995 and 2016.3 Enter a swath of homogeneous employee manifestos that mostly boil down to some version of “we exist to make the world a better place.”

Not many businesses can measure “world improvement” as a KPI, and not every business should. Some businesses are born to make designer eyewear at a revolutionary price (Warby Parker), to make home cooking accessible for everyone (Blue Apron), or to make commerce easy (Square). The most effective purposes not only resonate with employees on a personal and professional level, they also guide the direction of people’s work.

A Square employee managing data entry may not know how her number crunching makes the world a better place, but she can understand how her equations improve people’s understanding of transaction fees and help overcome barriers to adoption of Square. She can see how her work contributes to making commerce easier. The stronger connection people feel between their work and their company’s reason for being, the more productive and committed they’re likely to be.

 

Communicate leadership’s vision for the business clearly and often.

High-performing, high-potential employees need to believe in the direction of their company in order to agree to stick around. But few leaders successfully communicate vision: only 22% of US employees believe that their company’s leadership has a clear direction for their organization, according to Gallup’s most recent State of the Workplace study.4

Less foundational than purpose, vision should tell employees what they can expect to help create over the next several years. Leaders can start by articulating an aspirational, yet authentic future state for the business and sharing it in audience-specific forums. Tell employees how the company will grow and differentiate itself, and clarify how individuals’ contributions fit into the bigger picture.

Beyond dialogue, the design of the employee experience itself communicates vision. How teams collaborate and share ideas, what metrics are emphasized and celebrated, how career paths are mapped and managed—every employee touchpoint conveys a message about what matters to a business and where it’s headed. Vision gives intention to interactions, and can make or break the employee experience from hourly to the C-Suite.

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Nina Pesavento leads the Designing Change practice at VSA Partners, a design and creative firm based in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. As a Change Design Strategist, Nina helps Fortune 500 clients navigate complex change management challenges using Design Thinking principles and methodologies. She specializes in user insights, stakeholder facilitation and workshop design, and has designed solutions with leadership teams across IBM, Lowe’s, Alibaba, NVIDIA and more. Get in touch at npesavento@vsapartners.com.

 

1,2 Deloitte Insights. February 2017. The employee experience: Culture, engagement, and beyond.

3 Harvard Business Review. October 2016. The Type of Purpose That Makes Companies More Profitable.

4 Gallup. 2017. The State of the American Workplace.