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Can You Improve Digital Employee Experience on a Tight Budget?

September 02, 2020 Employee Experience
James Robertson
By James Robertson

Digital employee experience (DEX) is spreading as a strategic concept that shapes enterprise plans and solutions. One of its strengths is how it connects with the priorities and world views of senior leaders, giving them concepts and language to use when setting top-line business strategies. Senior leaders may struggle to care about intranets or Office 365 (sad, but true!), but they can truly engage with DEX.

While it’s exciting to see DEX rise in prominence, the reality is most teams are struggling under tight budget and resource constraints. Day-to-day management of existing platforms, and ongoing business-as-usual responsibilities leave little time for ambitious agendas.

Within these real-world constraints, is it still possible to make meaningful progress on improving digital employee experience? Yes. And we can do it by drawing on the playbook of user experience (UX) and human-centered design (HCD).

Digital Employee Experience: Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Some of the most powerful benefits of digital employee experience come from articulating a top-down DEX vision, indicating the direction an organization wants to take in terms of the digital experience it will provide employees. This can be done in a variety of ways, including day-in-the-life scenarios, journey maps and vision statements.

The common thread through most of these approaches is the use of narrative, whether in words, pictures or videos. A narrative gives senior leadership a message they can embrace and share, and it helps to align activities across businesses towards a common end point.

If this is the strategic view, then there’s also a bottom-up perspective. Decisions are made every day by developers, designers, projects, process owners and system owners about what’s delivered to employees. This may be as simple as where the buttons are placed on a form, or which elements should appear on the intranet homepage.

Decisions will also shape what functionality is provided to staff, such as which of the new collaboration tools should be turned on for employees. All of this determines the day-to-day digital experience that employees work with.

Within this context, a bottom-up approach to digital employee experience can make the most of techniques and concepts from the fields of UX and human-centered design. This provides a toolkit of approaches that can make a real and long-lasting impact on DEX.

Related Article: Employee Experiences That Employees Actually Want

Understand Employee Needs

For 20 years, I’ve advocated for spending time with employees at the outset of a project, particularly those in frontline or operational roles. By conducting field research, teams can quickly gain a holistic understanding of current practices and key pain points.

This research then shapes the myriad of decisions about what functionality to provide employees, and which elements to prioritize. It also provides invaluable context about day-to-day behaviors and broader cultural considerations. These insights underpin the design of change management and adoption activities.

If these are (or should be!) standard practices for all enterprise projects, how do they benefit digital employee experience? The answer is taking a broader view of the research, and in particular, how the insights are communicated.

Teams create personas for use in a wide range of projects. These personas can be very focused on the questions at hand, such as how to deliver internal communications, or how to use mobile devices in the field. With little extra effort, personas can instead be used to communicate the broader context of today’s employee experience.

Sharing these DEX-oriented personas throughout the organization benefits many teams and helps improve many different aspects of employee experience. Personas help business leaders build their understanding of the day-to-day realities for key staff, as well as foster greater empathy for their needs.

Related Article: Does Your Digital Employee Experience Actually Look at the Experience?

Bringing UX to Digital Employee Experience Design

The field of user experience (UX) is several decades old and provides a practical toolkit for designing interfaces that work for users. Techniques including card sorting, tree testing, prototyping and usability testing. More recently, human-centered design (HCD) has built on these core elements to take a more inclusive approach to understanding needs and designing solutions to address them.

One thing I’ve learnt in 20 years of conducting field research is that big problems with employee experience are often the product of many small issues.

The small issues might be that a key step in a common process doesn’t work, thereby requiring daily workarounds to get work done. Systems may be horribly slow, or not work at all for staff in the field. The usability of some systems may be so poor that staff revert to using paper.

Most of these issues can be directly (and easily) addressed using UX and HCD techniques. The challenge is to increase the use of UX and HCD to encompass a wider set of enterprise projects, something UX experts have advocated for for some time. This scaling, which can be done incrementally, can directly address digital employee experience considerations.

Related Article: Planning Your Post-Pandemic Digital Workplace

Sell the Benefits

While a lot of great work gets done as part of every project, many improvements remain hidden to the wider business. Not because there’s a sense of secrecy, but often because project teams never pause long enough to recognize the wider interest and importance of what they’ve done.

Teams must take every opportunity to communicate not just when work is completed, but to clearly show how it’s improving DEX. Communications can come in many forms, including before-and-after testing, employee testimonials, and stories picked up by the internal communications team. Photos and other narrative techniques always help, and even a scrapbook of screenshots can vividly show how employee experience has meaningfully improved over time.

The goal is to demonstrate credibility and build momentum for larger, higher-impact DEX projects. With so many demands on business budgets and available resources, digital employee experience must ‘walk the talk’ if it’s going to receive the degree of support it needs.

From Little Things, Big Things Grow

It’s rarely a good idea to start by pitching the "big idea" to senior leaders. Without a demonstrated track record of success, digital employee experience will struggle to get buy-in.

For this reason, DEX must always be addressed simultaneously from the top down and the bottom up. Using well-understood research and design techniques, a more holistic perspective will easily surface insights relating to employee experience, as well as make a tangible difference to the working day of many staff.

As support for digital employee experience grows across the industry as a whole, new opportunities will emerge to have an even greater positive impact.

About the Author

James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces. He’s the author of the books “Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value” and “Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work.”


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