Written by Henry Poskitt
For more than twenty years Frontend.com have used human-centred and research-driven design to improve consumer products and services. We believe that now is the appropriate time to also apply such proven methods to improve employee experience within corporate workplaces. This article sketches out our initial thinking about where corporations may best benefit from applying user-centred design principles to maximise their investment on one of their principal assets — their employees.
All over the world, the nature of work and of the corporate workplace is changing more rapidly than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. To take some relevant examples: work-from-home schemes are now commonplace and an increasing number of companies are 100% remote with no premises or infrastructure at all. The most traditional measures of work, counting output or time, are becoming less useful in the move towards a knowledge-based service economy. Job security is in severe decline in many previously stable sectors such as retail, food production, and manufacturing, where permanent jobs were the norm in the past.
Efforts to make working more attractive have had mixed results in many corporations. For example, Flexible Working can lead to longer hours and ambiguity as to when the working day is over, resulting in employee fatigue and anxiety. Remote and Decentralised Working may have unintended negative effects on career progression within corporations where the internal culture values Visibility over Productivity. Invariably all novel initiatives do bring some downsides as well as upsides.
The cumulative effect of such accelerating changes to work practices has often been an unhappy experience for too many employees. This is compounded by a thriving jobs market in which many corporations struggle to attract and retain talent because of competitive opportunities. Talent will go wherever they choose and with whichever corporation offers them the best financial and cultural fit.
As both employee wellness and employee retention become greater areas of focus for corporations there is a shift in mindset from treating internal employee-facing systems as a cost overhead to be minimised, towards seeing them as an investment which contributes directly to each corporation’s Employee Value Proposition (EVP). Aon’s 2018 Global Employee Engagement Trends Report found that both Enabling Infrastructure and EVP featured in the top five global factors in employee engagement. Notably, Enabling Infrastructure is the top driver in North America where employees are ‘sending a clear message that they need to be equipped with the tools, technology and processes to handle increasingly complex jobs.’
Unfortunately, Gartner’s 2019 Report on HR Priorities found that half of the corporations surveyed still “struggled to bring their EVP to life in employee’s day to day work” and one quarter “struggled to provide their employees with an experience that helps them do their work”. So there are opportunities for improvement here.
UX Contribution to Employee Experience
To date, the User Experience (UX) Design sector has primarily focussed its activities on the outward-facing expression of an organisation’s products and services. Corporations invest ever-increasing time and effort to optimise and improve their customer’s experiences in every interaction with the organisation. In contrast, human-centred design expertise is far less likely to be applied by those corporations to improving the holistic experience of employees within their workplaces. But working in a corporation is an experience that occupies a significant portion of employee’s lives, and the methods of human-centred design are relevant to delivering optimisations and improvements to all aspects of employee’s activities.
Previously, when Frontend.com has been tasked with reviewing employee-facing systems or services, it has mostly been on behalf of the service vendors rather than the corporations whose employees use those systems. So for that reason, we have had to focus our expertise on the vendor’s specific concerns and their area of business. However, increasingly we have come to realise that the larger picture involves looking at all internal services as one holistic whole, rather than addressing them on a vendor-by-vendor basis. So, in future, we see increased value in delivering our design services directly with the corporations themselves, engaging with their employees and other stakeholders, to humanise the workplace and deliver significant business outcomes.
There are many ways in which UX design can help to make employees more engaged, but the most immediate challenge is to avoid de-motivating employees with thoughtless implementations of any new services and systems. Therefore, this is not an issue of increasing engagement, but rather of reducing dis-engagement. Far too often employees struggle and become frustrated when trying to complete the simplest of day-to-day tasks, like booking time-off or reviewing pension contributions, on their internal systems. While these may seem trivial, an accumulation of such underwhelming self-service experiences can foster a lasting impression of an uncaring and unhelpful employer. This can build a cumulative negative feeling within the greater corporate morale, which ultimately manifests as negative impacts on the experiences of customers.
The Pyramid Of Experiential Maturity
In recent years one driver of poor employee experiences has been a rush to centralise internal functions like finance, payroll, and HR on grounds of cost. This has created a set of unintended consequences. Local staff with specific local knowledge are replaced with digital self-service systems and global services helplines. These systems are typically either provided by an external vendor or are developed by an in-house IT team. User Experience is generally quite low on the list of priorities – if it even appears at all. In terms of the Experiential Maturity model shown above, these internal systems are often barely Usable, let alone Convenient, Pleasurable, or Meaningful.
UX Design Advocacy Role
The idea that any customer-facing product or service would ever be released without UX Design input seems implausible today. Yet that was a regular occurrence up until recent years before UX Design was broadly accepted as a mission-critical skillset. Yet for the majority of employee-facing projects that still remains the prevalent practice. Unfortunately, today the only UX input is still often provided by the vendor; and they are marking their own homework. There is a valuable role for UX expertise in contributing to those conversations. It has become routine for UX Designers to represent the needs of the customers and end-users in corporate meetings and decision-making processes. That same role needs to be transferred into planning employee-facing projects and advising vendor selection for internal systems. This is an area where design research methodologies can add great value both in understanding employee needs and testing propositions prior to finalising solutions.
All corporations now operate within an era of significantly increased user expectations around business software. Progressive companies such as Slack and Hubspot have succeeded by leveraging the ever-growing market for consumer-grade experience in enterprise applications which provide experiences equivalent to those that users have every day on their smartphones. This raises the bar for all future employee-facing systems. The days are numbered for any in-house self-service software delivering a substandard experience characterised by non-intuitive and opaque interactions with high friction for new users.
User-Centred Holistic Deployment
Another set of problems we observe with internal employee-facing systems are those caused by poorly thought out deployment and configuration. Product Managers and UX Designers in the vendor company have worked hard to deliver the best possible solution, but if that it is poorly implemented by the in-house IT team it is destined to fail. The project team needs to concentrate on the details of user experience at every stage, from specifications through to business-as-usual operations. This means repeated review and testing of the end-to-end user experience and continuous iterative improvement throughout the lifespan of the service.
Design Systems and A.P.I.s
Lack of cohesion and consistency are another significant cause of the problems that employees have with internal systems. In a multi-vendor environment, each vendor may do a good job within the bounds of their own product, but inconsistencies across the complete suite of products can still produce an overall poor employee experiences. If you want to deliver a consistent joined-up experience to all of your employees, then you need to have an agreed overarching plan for what ‘Good’ looks like within your particular corporation. From the Product Management team, this has been a Roadmap. More recently, User Experience teams are now creating comprehensive Design Systems that bridge the gap between designers and developers to ensure that all new products look and behave the same and deliver unified experiences.
In the current business environment, it is almost impossible to achieve a consistent joined-up experience on internal systems without restricting yourself to a single vendor – which is not an option for many corporations. All of these services come with their own User Interface and User Interaction models. However, as services are increasingly delivered through systems integration rather than discrete software systems, it may soon be possible to achieve far greater consistency. The future state that we see corporations converging towards is one where the purchasing corporation shall have complete ownership and oversight of the user interface to their internal services with all of the various services then delivered through a suite of APIs. This is already standard in other industry sectors such as airline, car rental, and customer service.
In summary, we believe it is now time that organisations begin applying the techniques and methods they have developed for serving their customers through digital channels to all of the day-to-day service experiences of their own employees. This not only presents significant opportunities both for improved employee retention, with a resulting impact upon the bottom line, and also for higher employee satisfaction which would deliver less quantifiable – but potentially more significant – results over the long-term.
We are keen to work with more corporations on internal employee-facing projects that deliver tangible positive business outcomes. Potential engagements include creating Service Blueprints, designing services, testing services with employees, and creating Design Guides.
If you find the ideas we have explored in this article to be interesting and relevant to your corporation then contact Henry Poskitt, our expert on this topic.