Employees gather around a table observing a large chart.
PHOTO: ICMA Photos

Organizations still aren’t meeting basic employee needs, according to a Gallup report published last year. Only one in three employees, in fact, strongly agree that they have the materials and equipment they need to do their work right or that they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day, according to the report, “Designing Your Organization’s Employee Experience.”

If there is not at least that foundational starting point for employee experience, how can organizations even begin to think about personalizing employee experiences for employees? Yet, they should, even if they’re one of the 66% who don’t offer employees basic tools to do their jobs.

Step One: Attitude, Mindset Change

Moving toward truly personalized employee experience is first about a big shift in attitude, or mindset, according to Jon Ingham, human resources and organization development consultant and author of “The Social Organization.” “The key aspect of experience, which makes it a different way of seeing employment, and other forms of working, is that the experience has to be seen from the point of view of the employee or worker,” Ingham said. “It is this perspective that might lead to higher engagement or productivity, ability to improve the work or raise potential opportunities for innovation, or the increased satisfaction of customers.”

That said, it won’t behoove organizations to think of only the digital employee experience. “For most office- and, even more so, operationally-based workers, digital still makes up a relatively small aspect of their overall experience,” Ingham said. “And although this may make up a larger part of remote work, even here the use of digital systems will be contextualized by the organizational or cultural environment someone works within as well.”

Related Article: Guess What? Employees Want Personalization Too

You Have People, Not Employees

Ingham suggested it also makes sense to focus on your people, rather than employees. What he means is that work and life are not that separate for many people. “The experience of a person working as an employee is first of all their experience as a person,” he said. “Their experience of work will therefore be contextualized by everything else that is going on for them in their lives. To truly focus on the employee experience we have to take all of these broader factors into account.”

Segmentation a Good Place to Start

Sharon O’Dea, co-founder of Lithos Partners and digital strategy consultant, said delivering personalized experiences for employees should be easier to provide for employees than customers because we hold so much more data on employees, as well as clear objectives. Yet it’s not something many companies invest in, however.

Personalization by segment is as good a place as any to start, she said. “After all,” O’Dea added, "every one of us crosses multiple segments, such as role, location and seniority, so layering these should improve relevance for employees. A large multinational produces one employee newsletter each week, but with tens of variables, so each employee gets a highly personalized experience based on their location, business unit, length of tenure and even how they have interacted with content previously."

Related Article: Defining a Good — Dare I Say Great? — Digital Employee Experience

Anticipating Needs Through Content, Experience

Personalization is even more powerful when content and experiences are also tailored to anticipate user need, according to O’Dea. She cited the example of offering relevant services based on location where an employee is using their smartphone. “This is the kind of approach commerce sites have nailed,” she said, “and there is a huge amount of value in using these tried-and-tested techniques to help employees get what they need easier and faster, elevating the employee experience.”

Data, Time and Skills Are Challenging

Organizations certainly face a number of challenges making this work, according to O’Dea. You could start with having good quality data, and having time and skills to use this effectively to meet employees’ needs. That is, understanding how personalization can improve the overall experience and selecting the right data to assist with that. “Organizations often struggle to gain real value from employee data,” O’Dea added, “which is often locked in proprietary systems where its full value isn’t realized.”

Personas for Journey Mapping, Strategy Work

But what about a starting point? Is there a place where an organization who may feel like one of those 66% cited in the Gallup report begin to approach better, personalized experiences for employees? Organizations can design for a range of different needs of employees, supported, perhaps, by developing personas for journey mapping or strategy work, according to Ingham. They can also, he said, consider process and other changes in light of their potential impact on different people as well as the overall workforce. “I love developing personas, and I love everything else we can do better when we have personas in the room,” Ingham said. “Their main use is for journey mapping — for mapping out the persona’s experience linked to parts of an employee journey. But they can also be used for developing strategy, designing processes and other aspects of organizational support. Or simply for keeping people and conversations on track, avoiding the common trap of forgetting about the identified needs of the personas once the initial design and development is done.”

Related Article: How Employee Experience Design Improves Engagement

Develop Workforce Personas

Developing personas starts with developing better understanding of the people in a workforce, enabling a tighter focus on sizeable groups of people with similar important and relevant attributes, according to Ingham. “It is then possible,” he said, “to go to and observe and/or talk to a range of people in these groups in order to check and deepen understanding of them. This understanding can be used to draft a persona, which can be reviewed and iteratively improved. The persona can also be given a name, bio and photo. I have also seen them played by actors to help various stakeholders get to know them.”

Don’t give up. Organizations often start the process and give up before the personas are properly established, according to Ingham, or perhaps they will use them to plan a new digital workplace but fail to incorporate them into ongoing practice within IT, HR and other areas.

Diverse Group of People Needed

Invite a broad range of people to attend focus groups or things like usability labs, Ingham said. These people, he said, may include employees, their managers, their internal or external customers, their colleagues. “Experience in design thinking suggests that improvements can often best be identified by the people closest to those doing the work, rather than by those workers themselves,” Ingham said. This means, he said, front line workers may be the best people to suggest potential improvements for customers. The best people to spot opportunities for improving employee experience may therefore be people working in roles such as HR business partner, or possibly IT business relationship manager.

Designing the employee experience also requires the involvement of the major groups which contribute to this, especially HR and IT. But we also need to involve the groups who focus on the outcomes which experience contributes toward, especially HR (again) for organization capabilities, operations for work effectiveness and innovation and marketing/customer services for the customer experience and satisfaction.

Related Article: Why Employee Experience Is the New Customer Experience

Is This Ultimately HR’s Game?

“However, if we need to identify a single accountability, I would suggest HR,” Ingham said. “This is the function which already focuses on people and the organization and ensures that these can act as a critical resource, or the providers of the right capabilities, to drive the business forward.” 

HR may need to be defined more broadly than it is now, to include people and skills from other functions which need to be involved in providing an optimal experience too. “HR, and other parts of the organization, increasingly need to be organized as networks rather than functions, so that they can take advantage of communities and projects representing different skills and approaches and bring these together into integrated approaches,” Ingham said. “Employee experience is one example of an organizational need which would benefit from this approach.” 

AI’s Entry Into Personalization in the Workplace

Of course, it wouldn’t be personalization without citing the potential benefit of Artificial Intelligence (AI). We haven’t touched deeply on technology here, but AI is a natural consideration in the workplace with growing opportunities for using AI to personalize digital tools and other aspects of the workplace, Ingham said. “While concern about AI applications and the way they take decisions is growing, personalization is quite a simple and straightforward opportunity,” Ingham said. “It is likely to work better than just having individuals select their own settings which can only ever be a broad approximation for their true working preferences. People struggle to cope with too many choices and AI offers the potential, at least in some ways, to know us better than we know ourselves.”

Related Article: 7 Ways Artificial Intelligence Is Reinventing Human Resources 

Remember the Fine Line

Organizations also need to keep in mind the things that marketers and customer experience practitioners do — especially the fine line between useful personalization and being a little creepy, according to O’Dea. “Transparency is critical in gaining employee trust and support for data-driven personalization,” she said. “Making a success of this requires inputs from across the business. In particular, you’ll need expertise from HR on employee needs and segmentation, a clear view on related data privacy issues from legal, and a multi-disciplinary digital team who can understand available employee data and translate this into meaningful and useful services.”