How a small design team made a big impact on employee experience

A look at their accomplishments after a year

Back in 2017, two design leaders took on a side project that quickly snowballed into a culture shift toward employee centricity, affecting a multi-thousand-person human resources organization.

Design Director Damon Deaner and Design Principal Oen Hammonds spent 3 years recruiting and training a workforce of designers in service of IBM’s reincarnated design program. Their success gained buzz among the company’s HR leadership, which started a conversation of how they could infuse design thinking across the HR organization.

While still busy with their day jobs, Damon and Oen worked with HR’s Careers and Skills team to improve how employees and managers discuss career growth. They completely reimagined the career conversation experience and redesigned it through the lens of user experience and visual design.

“What that showed was the value and the outcomes that having design professionals and design thinking leaders can bring,” Damon said.

From there, HR officially brought them aboard to help reshape how they connect with employees.

Damon Deaner (left) and Oen Hammonds (right)

Over a year later, their Employee Experience Design team acts as an internal consultancy for the HR organization. They train and upskill people in Enterprise Design Thinking, while also leading and supporting various HR teams in the creation of new employee-centric products and services.

To understand how they reached and influenced dozens of teams in a relatively short amount of time, you first need to know a little more about employee experience itself — and why it especially matters now.

What’s employee experience, and why’s it important?

Employee experience is just as broad as it sounds. It’s the first conversation with a recruiter and the last one with a manager. It’s career growth, promotions, compensation, relationships with peers, office space, and everything in between. Most importantly, it’s how all of these individual things blend together — much like they do in the mind of employees.

While that may sound daunting, research suggests it’s worth the investment.

Jacob Morgan, an author and speaker who researches the future of work, analyzed 252 global organizations in his book “The Employee Experience Advantage” and found companies that heavily invest in employee experience bring in more than 4 times the average profit and more than twice the average revenue. They also appear twice as often in the American Customer Satisfaction Index. And as job-hopping rises in favorability, companies face an ever-increasing challenge of retention.

With these kinds of stakes and benefits at their fingertips at the end of 2017, the Employee Experience Design team got to work.

Before they started creating, they researched their employees.

The team knew that since they were entering a new area of the company and serving people they never served before, they had to conduct some original research. User Experience Designer Claire McCloskey said they focused their research on managers within the company because of how deeply they impact overall employee engagement.

“We wanted to understand their key moments, their key pain points, the processes, experiences, and even tools… that encompass their journey,” Claire explained.

She observed managers in their own environment and interviewed them, including people across different parts of the business and the world.

At the end of her research, she learned that HR gave managers useful tools and processes, but they felt disjointed. Some managers found it difficult to seamlessly accomplish essential tasks.

“They were kind of left on their own to navigate through them when they’re looking at accomplishing a specific goal, which we know can lead to some cognitive overload or confusion,” Claire explained.

Natalie Miller was one of the people Claire interviewed. When she first became a manager, she felt like a lot of the tools and portals she needed to access were scattered.

“I had to keep my own spreadsheet and keep a lot of those HR things documented in my own personal files, because there was no one place to see everything at once,” she said.

Claire McCloskey (left) interviewing Natalie Miller (right)

To ground her team in what she learned, Claire made 7 journey maps to articulate the IBM manager experience, which break down steps employees must take to reach a destination, outcome, or goal. In the maps, she noted the key moments that managers face throughout their career, as well as the insights, tools, and emotions attached to them.

The team used these maps and Claire’s findings to think strategically about how they could impact HR.

To make meaningful change, they needed all of HR.

“There’s almost so much of a good thing that we felt that there was a certain degree of noise and confusion for managers and employees,” Visual Designer Ashley Profozich said. “So we realized that we could have impact by coming in and being a unifying force behind all of that, to create a single strategy for the employee experience.”

This vision birthed the IBMer Experience Playbook, a guide for people who work in HR to create cohesive and user-centric employee experiences.

Ashley and the team started by thinking about how they could bring everyone in the HR organization together with a shared strategy for creating experiences that are human, friendly, and meet the needs of real employees. The playbook outlines principles related to design thinking, tone and style, channel strategy, success metrics, and inclusivity. These best practices make it easier for HR practitioners to center employees in everything they do.

As the lead for the project, she built a community around the playbook, holding office hours and answering questions in their dedicated Slack channel. She also runs a Sponsor User Program, which means she actively engages people who use the playbook to learn how to make it better.

Ashley Profozich, project lead for the playbook

“We were super intentional about co-creating the playbook with a wide variety of Sponsor Users to make sure that the guidance wasn’t something that we were imposing upon people but rather something that was born from the people themselves who also saw a need and had a passion for this,” she explained.

Kelly Creary, an on-boarding specialist, sees the playbook community as a chance to connect with people who work outside of her usual scope and create more synchronicity.

“Working with the Employee Experience Design team has completely changed the way that we think and work around style and tone and has brought back a human touch to our communications,” she said.

HR practitioners who followed the playbook saw some stark improvements in their performance metrics. Sarah McNee, an HR communications professional, cited an email campaign in 2018 where her team doubled their click-through rate.

“When an offering is designed well, it helps our employees save time and enjoy the experience,” she explained.

Anshul Sheopuri, VP of Data, AI, and Offering Strategy for HR, saw engagement jump from 4% to 10% on one of his projects after his team identified some experience, analytics, and operational gaps and friction through user research.

“People are beginning to expect the same quality of experiences at work that they might have while at home watching a movie or shopping online,” Anshul said.

In a large company where scaling a good idea is often the biggest hurdle, the playbook’s guidance acts less like a crown jewel and more like a vehicle for HR professionals to chisel their own.

Deep conversations replaced menial tasks.

Until recently, Natalie and Julie Johnson (who’s also a manager) spent a lot of their time answering logistical questions for their direct reports and performing menial tasks.

“Career coaching is time consuming,” Julie said. “Now as a manager, I have time for things like that. There’s more focus on the employees, but it’s at a deeper level. It’s at a more meaningful level”

Julie also mentioned that she sees HR tools become more intuitive all the time, citing the new payroll site as an example.

“When you go to that site now you sit there and say as an employee, ‘Well, I want to know about my paycheck. Or how do I sign up for direct deposit? Or where’s tax information?’ It’s like someone thought through those things, because that’s how it’s organized now,” she explained.

Natalie believes the improvements impact the bottom line in that she and her employees save time, and time is money.

“I’ve probably saved hours just having all these programs interconnected and linked together,” she said. “I spend less time managing this business, and more time driving the business.”

It really, truly does take a village.

Oen, who founded an Enterprise Design Thinking chapter for HR practitioners, saw the most meaningful transformation in the ways people worked together. They’re beginning to bring design thinking into the picture “sooner, rather than later”

When he articulated their team’s 3 ingredients for successful, wide-reaching change, they all came back to people who rally around a shared vision.

“One is having a common language, which is Enterprise Design Thinking,” he explained. “The second thing is executive sponsorship. Not just that, but endorsement. The third thing is a lot of mindset changing among the HR practitioners.”

With all of this under the Employee Experience Design team’s belt, it’s worth asking when they can claim they accomplished their mission.

Damon says it’s in a world where all things employees experience “are so friction-free and and easy to accomplish that they don’t get in their way of being as effective and productive as they can be.”

However, he’s at peace with the fact that they’ll likely never get there, explaining that “there’s always room to improve, there’s always feedback to incorporate, there’s always improvements we can make to experiences, and there are always bigger and better outcomes we can try to achieve.”

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