Rahul is excited about the arrival of his new company-provided Macbook Air. He considers himself an “Apple geek” and likes to post videos of the unboxing of his devices on Apple forums.

On this day, however, Rahul’s IT team literally handed him his new laptop. No package. No unboxing. No filming. “Is this even a new Macbook or a refurbished device from an old employee?” Rahul wondered.

Rahul’s IT team did not consider his experience on a personal level. They didn’t know his desires and had no data on his past hardware experiences nor on other like-minded employees that would fit his persona. They made no considerations for designing a personalized employee experience built through interactions with IT. They just wanted to get this employee his laptop.

Those are the kind of employee experiences IT practitioners like Manish Jha want to improve using the principles of user experience (UX) design perfected by many in the customer experience and design arenas.

“I get all of my inspiration from the customer experience and user experience domain and think about how I can apply this to IT,” Jha said. “How do I apply this in my area? My employees may be feeling disempowered because they feel IT is forcing them to do it a certain way. Empowerment is a very strong emotion. How can I address that in everything that I do? Make them feel empowered at every stage of the interaction. I want them to feel they have a choice.”

Breaking Away from ‘Episodic’ IT

Jha isn’t alone. However, some IT teams still operate in the “send us a ticket and we’ll letcha know” world, something Jha calls "episodic IT." About 61% of employees and HR decision makers don’t feel IT gives them a voice for using digital tools at work, according to a 2019 study by Vanson Bourne and VMware (PDF).

“The IT organization typically, from my experience, doesn’t think of themselves as delivering experience; they still think of themselves as they're delivering services,” Jha said. “They are aligned by functions and they think that their job is to roll out something, and if you don't raise as a ticket, we assume you're doing well. So, this has been very siloed, very reactive and not a connected experience for the employee. It’s very episodic.”

IT by design is perhaps the most effective way to deliver services, if your IT team can figure out how to scale it, according to Dion Hinchcliffe, vice president and principal analyst for the new C-suite, future of work and IoT at Constellation Research. It's a big if, though. This can be done with the widespread advent of low code, microservices, design thinking and some other trends like iPaaS. Organizations need to have the will, Hinchcliffe said.

Related Article: What it Takes to Create Exceptional Employee Experiences

Adapting a New Skillset

What's typically stopping IT from finding that will? For most of the history of IT, it's been easy to declare victory by rolling out a solution or counting logins instead of actual downstream business impact. That is harder and more expensive to capture and thus less likely to happen, according to Hinchcliffe.

“Now that data on effectiveness of IT is getting easier to gather, there is a feedback loop that is closing to make IT aware of its true qualities in terms of usability, productivity and ROI,” Hinchcliffe said. “The key issue is that IT remains a very challenging domain that has traditionally required technical rigor over softer skills like human factors, design or empathy for the user. When in doubt, the former was chosen over the latter in order to cross the finish line.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. And that's what Jha pushes: Take a page out of the customer experience playbook and keep the employee at the heart of each business and technical decision.

We now understand, most directly by watching the successes of consumer technology, Hinchcliffe said, that these skills actually complete a robust and modern IT value chain. Therefore, IT practitioners can and must change their skill mixture, hiring processes and IT worker reward systems to value the full set of skills required to create great IT.

It’s Not All on IT

Stacey Blissett-Saavedra, founder and executive director of Inspirational127 and former CIO of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, said the burden of creating exceptional employee experiences should not entirely be on IT. Too often, she said, IT is put in a corner and told what to do and when.

“When a person is pigeonholed, they lose the inspiration to be thoughtful,” Blissett-Saavedra said. “Organizations that give IT a respected seat at the table enable IT departments to promote an environment of experimentation and collaboration that lead to thoughtful, well-designed solutions.”

Related Article: HR-IT Collaboration Is the Ticket to a Positive Employee Experience

Embed IT Throughout Organization

So where can IT teams start being more like UX designers or CX professionals? Blissett-Saavedra again referred to support on an organizational level. Organizations need to stop seeing technology and IT teams as just a service arm, Blissett-Saavedra said. This type of environment has to be created from the top down.

“The mission of an organization should permeate every department of an organization, especially IT,” she said. “Historically, IT has been treated as a department that is just there to make sure the tech is working and that technicians don’t need to know much about the purpose — the 'why' behind what they are doing.” That needs to change and upper management can set the stage to integrate IT throughout the organization. In turn, IT teams need to follow this lead and become truly interested in the mission rather than just the tech.

“Engage staff with a full understanding and respect for the work they are doing,” she said. “My favorite way to accomplish this is by working with department heads to join their department/team meetings. This experience can be an easy path for IT to learn about the work of a particular team and foster relationships that lead to positive collaboration that will improve employee experiences.”

Carry Analysis, Design Across IT

Provided IT has the organizational support and feels truly embedded into the deeper mission and values of the company, they then must take time to deeply understand the primary journeys their workers take through IT, according to Hinchcliffe. This means, he said, gaining insight into key activities like onboarding, team collaboration, sales, operations, project management and R&D.

“These are the highest-value activities in most organizations across IT solutions and worker touchpoints," Hinchcliffe said. "Business processes are becoming ever more sophisticated and complex so if IT can provide designed experiences that are streamlined and low-friction for the core worker journeys, this is perhaps the leading place to start realizing a better digital employee experience.”

Learning Opportunities

Hinchcliffe suggests conducting in-depth joint design-thinking efforts with employee groups across the organization, as well as investigating workplace analytics that identity common hotspots and challenge areas. “Surveys and focus groups are useful as an early starting point,” he said, “but to have impact, analysis and design must be carried out more systematically in the business and across all relevant IT systems.”

Related Article: Empathy Is the Intersection Between User, Customer and Employee Experience

Creating a Feedback Culture

To fully understand the employee’s perspective, organizations need to get frequent and ongoing feedback throughout the employee journey, according to Marty Williams, CIO for Service Management Group.

“As an IT organization we believe that there are no technology decisions, there are only business decisions,” he said. “For us, it’s about more than alignment. It’s ensuring our activities support business goals. It starts with creating a feedback culture. This includes creating an open environment where employees feel safe about providing feedback and sharing opinions.”

Williams’ recommended feedback process includes:

  • Onboarding: Feedback throughout the onboarding process helps employees successfully complete their initial training, acclimate with the team, develop new skills and gain an understanding of their role in making the organization successful.
  • Employee engagement assessment: A periodic engagement survey provides a comprehensive view of the company culture and helps companies understand every aspect of the employee experience, including job satisfaction, discretionary effort and commitment to the company’s success, giving valuable insights to use for action planning and talent acquisition benchmarking.
  • Always on, two-way dialogue: In many cases it takes more than asking questions to truly gather actionable feedback that can improve the employee experience. Gather unsolicited feedback and provide employees with an open, 24/7 platform to share feedback, comments and concerns with leadership.

Related Article: 9 Employee Engagement Survey Questions to Ask

Creating Voice of Employee Programs

But how do large IT teams in massive companies ensure employees are being heard? How do they design experiences for Rahul the Apple geek when he is one employee among thousands? And how can smaller companies with strapped IT teams without the benefits of big budgets do this?

“I find that surprisingly simple voice of the employee approaches often work the best: virtual suggestion boxes, feedback forms at the end of most digital processes, and regular A&B testing of incremental new ways of doing things better,” Hinchcliffe said. “Other new approaches work well, too, but are more complex to realize, such as employee sentiment analysis, workplace analytics to see what workers are actually doing and where they are routinely struggling, as well as programs, outreach efforts and contests to help workers get engaged in future of work visioning efforts.”

These can bring in outside-the-box ideas, according to Hinchcliffe. Surveys and focus groups are useful, too, but have limited scale and repeatability, as most workers in medium to large organizations have long had fatigue with them due to overuse of these methods, he added.

Blissett-Saavedra, recalling her CIO experience, said the market has great tools that can help improve IT service desk and proactive tools that can tell you when a system is having issues before a user even has to report it to the service desk. Service desk apps can significantly reduce the issue to resolution timeline while keeping the employee informed of status. This creates a better experience for the employee.

However, a great tech solution that can proactively find pain points in an employee's daily processes is yet to emerge, Blissett-Saavedra said. “As fast as technology is evolving, we have to remember that it is important to lead first with human interaction," she said. "We have to discern the appropriate time and place for technical solutions.”

Getting Inside the Minds, Hearts of Employees

Back to Rahul, our Apple geek. How can IT teams better understand what he’s thinking, doing and feeling? Those are the questions Jha is constantly thinking of and trying to embed into the fabric of how his technical colleagues think about experience in IT.

“Even if you’re able to remove friction in certain areas, you're not able to create good experiences if you do not understand the emotions and the moment that matters for your personas,” Jha said. “A company like Starbucks is able to deliver a great experience because they have mapped this journey from the time customers think about a coffee. How do I get to Starbucks? What is parking like? How will I enter? Is the menu visible? How does the barista treat me? Am I able to order quickly? Am I getting a discount? Is there WiFi? It’s about the entire experience.”

Jha encourages IT practitioners to look at employee experience from the outside-in perspective. “We have to use a mix of tools, culture and processes,” Jha said. “It has to change at every level — a policy level, a processes level and a procedural level. For you in IT, the project may be over but for the user the journey has just started.”