Designing the Employee Experience


Designing the employee experience is a critical and growing concept in well-managed organizations. They are realizing that the employee experience eventually makes its way into the customer experience. Millennials are especially interested in their experience with their organizations. Today’s millennials can open a web browser and within seconds know if their salary is competitive, if better opportunities are available, and read reviews of current and past employees. This knowledge gives them enormous leverage as an employee.

An All to Common Employee Experience – Still

However, this has not always been the case. For example, my grandfather was born in 1900. When he married my grandmother in 1919, he had an 8th-grade education. Together, they moved from the farm to the big city of Topeka, Kansas, and started a family. During the grueling days of the depression, he was a taster in the Beatrice Creamery. He worked seven days a week and got paid for six, which was how the company stayed in business. Twice they brought him home on a stretcher. Both times because of heart attacks. After the second one, they said, “thanks, don’t bother coming back.” The company held all the power in the relationship. They did not have to care about the experience of their employees. With national unemployment at 25%, he was lucky even to have a job.

Today’s Millennials

However, today’s workforce is radically different than my grandfather’s generation. Millennials and the generation following behind them represent the smartest and best-educated generation in the history of humanity. According to the PEW Research Center, 67% of today’s millennials have at least some college experience, and 39% have a bachelor’s degree, as the chart illustrates.

Social Factors Influencing Millennials

Furthermore, today’s millennials and the following generations have a strong sense of entitlement. Contrary to prior generations, those entering the workforce today have had very different experiences with older adults. Instead of disciplinarians, adults have reached out to them, been their mentors, and coaches. Adults have encouraged them, and told them ” dream big don’t let anyone stand in your way.”

Consequently, they fully expect their supervisors to give them the same level of respect. They see no need to wait their turn and work their way up the corporate ladder. They don’t have the same attitude to a job as my grandfather. Millennials are more inclined to feel that their employer should be happy they accepted the job. And why not? Most millennials are smarter and better educated than many of their supervisors.

Couple this with a tight job market and the balance of power has shifted to the employee. Today’s employees can leave a job today, and take a month off to travel. When they return, they will have multiple job offers within a few days.

Consequently, forward-thinking employers need to consider the employee experience if they will attract and retain the best talent.

What Kind of Employee Experience Millennials are Seeking

People entering the job market today have very different attitudes towards work than their boomer parents and grandparents. For example,

  1. Millennials take a consumer approach to a job. They treat a job search much like they were buying a new phone. They are looking for an experience. If they don’t have a great experience, they don’t buy (the job).
  2. Young people are looking for meaning, value, and significance from their job. Expecting meaning from their job makes their parents shake their heads in bewilderment. A job for their parents meant a stable income, higher the better, and social status. Today’s millennials do not equate income and social status.
  3. Generations hitting the job market today are the first generation willing to give up salary. Based on a 2016 study completed by Fidelity Investments, Millennials will give up $7,600 per year in compensation to work in a culture that “aligns with their values or passions or improves their work/life balance.”
  4. They are not looking for leadership. However, millennials are passionate about development. They want their organizations to recognize their strengths and develop those strengths.

A True Story of a Designing the Employee Experience

Value of an Engaged Workforce

Jeff had just taken over a small manufacturing company that his father and started. The company had built a reputation for delivering high-value custom made commercial furniture. Not long after, his largest and most prestigious customer came to him and told him to adopt Lean, (or the Toyota Production System). Over the next several years, Jeff and his leadership team traveled to Japan several times to watch how Toyota built cars. They would try to implement what they had learned, but their success with limited. Finally, in 2006 Jeff had seen enough to know that Lean could work. Consequently, they formally adopt Toyota’s Production System (TPS). Over the next several years, quality, production, and customer satisfaction all went up. Conversely, costs went down.

Determining the Employee Experience

During my interview, I asked Jeff what the deciding factor in adopting TPS? He was blunt, “when I finally decided, did I give a shit?” He went on to say, “did I care about the value my customers were receiving when I knew we could do better,” and “did I care about my employees and the value they received by working here?”

By 2012 there were so many requests to see what they were doing so differently that they started giving tours. By the time of my interview in 2018, 40,000 people had taken their tour. Furthermore, they were spinning off a consulting firm to handle the demand for help. In addition, 200 employees initiated over 1,000 kaizens (process improvement initiatives) each year on their own initiative. Each kaizen saves the company an average of $1,000. The total annual savings is the equivalent of 4%-5% of gross sales

How to Design the Employee Experience

In researching my book, Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership, cracking the code of sustainable team performance, I built case studies of high impact organizations. They included such groups as the U.S. Military, healthcare, manufacturing, education, a Ford Dealership, and others such as the New York Mafia, and the Salvation Army. Though the sequences may have been different, I found the same core elements as they approach the design of an employee experience.

  1. Intentionally designing the employee experience to create a competitive advantage

    One of the surprises in my research was how high-impact organizations linked their business strategy directly with the experience and engagement of their employees. However, I would also add that many understood giving their employees a positive and rewarding work experiences a moral decision. Yet it eventually become one of the key drives of business success.

  2. Determine what drives the engagement of employees relative to organizational mission.

    While this may sound complicated, from my observation, a lot of it is simply common sense. For example, an elementary school determined that the best path to high academic outcomes for their students was an experience of collaboration for teachers. In the same way, a large industrial giant thought employee safety was the best experience for their employees. When employees are working around 2000 degree molten aluminum and machinery that can kill a worker, safety was the common experience everyone was looking for.

  3. Designing foundational behaviors

    Ultimately, the experience of employees comes down to the way humans interact with one another. Gallup has calculated that 70% of the engagement off employees is directly tied to the relationship of the employee and their manager. One of the surprises in my research was that high impact organizations put as much focus, if not more, on foundational behaviors as they do core values. For example, because an award winning hospital sets a course of respect, they cannot allow physicians to verbally abuse nurses. If it happens, a formal investigation is launch and discipline may be in order.

  4. Developing organizational charters of how workers and leadership will interact.

    Anyone working in an organization learns that having core values listed on a website is very different than modeling them. Developing a charter that links foundational behaviors with actual conduct is mostly the responsibility of leadership. For example, the elementary school principal referenced early, worked with her entire faculty to develop a charter that outlined how the team would work together to create a shared understanding of collaboration. The advantage of this was that if someone chose not to behave according to the charter, they effectively took themselves off the team.

    Captain David Marquet did the same thing when he took command of the USS Sante Fe, a nuclear-powered attack submarine. It was the laughingstock of the fleet. She was the last ship a submariner want to sail on. When he took command he had to design a new system of leadership. One of the components was a list of “Guiding Principles,” which clearly defined behavioral expectations for officers and sailers.

  5. Hire to fit the experience

    A hospital in Seattle, Washington is consistently ranked as one of the safest hospitals in American. Some have even speculated, the world. By rules, leaders and managers are not allowed to be the go-to problem solver, which flips the traditional model of a great manager as great problem solvers. However, they have learned that the best people to solve problems are those doing the work – those closest to the problem. A leader can help frame the problem, but they are not solve it. There are a lot of highly experienced and competent managers who have made their careers on being problem solvers. However, this hospital will never hire them, nor should they.

  6. Change the narrative of errors and mistakes

    Changing the narrative about employee failure and success removes the stigma of failure and the fear it represents. Several years ago, in the hospital referenced above, a much-loved grandmother was being prepped for surgery. However, instead of being injected with a contrast dye for the procedure, she was injected with chlorhexidine, and antiseptic. She died within a few days. However, instead of disciplining the operating room nurse, a review of the process was conducted. The issue was not a sloppy nurse but a sloppy process that was easily fixed.
    In his book, A System of Profound Knowledge, W. Edwards Deming famously said, “I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this, 94% belongs to the system that is the responsibility of management, and 6% to special causes outside the system.”

  7. Develop the whole person – create better human beings

    Few would disagree that no institution in the world does a better job of developing leaders than the military. It is not that they just create better military leaders, they also create better human beings as well. Ask ten veterans and I am confident nine of them will tell you they are the person they are today because of the Army, the Airforce, the Navy, the Marines, etc. They recognized that military success on the the battle field is directly tied to the character of the the individual leader giving orders and executing the battle plan when bullets start flying.

  8. Determine who is responsible for the employee experience

    After twenty-five years as a management consultant and working with hundreds of organizations, the prevailing attitude towards employees is much like it was when my grandfather was working in the creamery. “People should be thankful they have a job.” While the statement may be true, the hard reality is that managers and leaders are responsible for the employee experience.
    The adage is true, “workers don’t leave their company, they leave their manager.”

  9. Measure the employee experience and design the reward system accordingly

    Point eight above states that leadership is most responsible for the experience of the workforce. If so, then the reward systems need to reflect this. As Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University states, ” when leaders’ own jobs and salaries depend on how well they look after others, they will do so.”

Case Study – Designing a Better Workplace Experience

An Everyone Culture

In their book, An Everyone Culture, authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, both of Harvard, profile three elite companies—Bridgewater Associates, The Decurion Corporation, and Next Jump, Inc.

Each of these organizations takes a unique approach to designing the employee experience. For example, Next Jump, a $2 billion (2016) e-commerce company that seeks to revolutionize the workplace

Next Jump has a focus on “self-development above all else.” Self-development includes an emphasis on behavior, character formation, and leadership development. Visit their website, and even though they are a very successful technology firm, the home page has nothing about their technology. It is all about the experience of the workforce. One of their critical messages is this: Better Me + Better You = Better Us. In other words, they have made self-development a critical component of the employee experience. Their feeling is that additional value will eventually find its way into their software by creating a better human being. In doing so, they have created a specific kind of employee experience that is tied to their business strategy of developing great software. Want to work there, you had better value the dynamic of working an environment where personal growth is a priority. If not, do bother applying