Ben WhitterBen WhitterMarch 12, 2020


The COVID-19 – or coronavirus – outbreak has been named a ‘pandemic’ by the World Health Organization (WHO).

On making the announcement, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also said that he was “deeply concerned” by “alarming levels of inaction” around the world. However, companies that have embraced Employee Experience (EX) are setting themselves apart from the rest and are at the forefront of the global business recovery.

Naturally, we are assuming the “inaction” that the Director-General refers to does not include parts of the world – including the UK and Australia – where people have been proactively and expertly building stockpiles of toilet roll, pasta, and hand sanitiser!

A compelling survival toolkit, but perhaps an indicator that news can frequently travel too far and too fast in the modern world, creating unnecessary panic.

An inconsistent truth

The focus of global attention has moved on now from China as things begin to escalate in Europe and the US, and there is a perception that significant inconsistencies have emerged in the response to the outbreak. It is always great advice to wash hands and maintain good hygiene levels, but the problem has been here for a while and it is only now that serious dialogue begins about stricter measures such as ‘social distancing’ and the banning of large events.

Right or wrong, the experts have some big calls to make!

As an Englishman, I support the NHS and it appears that the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, does too with his proclamation that the NHS “will get everything it needs” during the crisis. This is reassuring and I am semi-comfortable with the calm response from Sir Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, although things are placed firmly into perspective with the news that he is readying colleagues in the NHS to deal with unfamiliar and very different ways of working to deal with the expected and intense pressures on the health system.

Generally, there is much debate about what measures should be introduced and when in society. Being led by experts is acceptable for politicians, but as they well know, society often runs on emotions, not logic. A lack of action can spark fear and unhelpful behaviours.

I fully expect the remote working practices that many employers have already adopted will scale, and schools and universities will soon follow suit.

On the BBC a few weeks ago, I advocated for a global response and appealed for calm heads to emerge. I like facts and evidence as much as the next person, but humans are emotional powerhouses too.

It’s good to read reassuring quotes, but much better to see decisive actions. That’s why, during that discussion, I also stated clearly that the best place to be at that time was China, despite Wuhan being the epicentre of the crisis.

I felt this way simply because I have experienced living in China for three years. I have countless examples in my memory bank of what happens when China, at a central level, decides to do something. In short, stuff gets done and all necessary actions move forward, usually at lightning pace.

From rapidly building new hospitals to restricting movement, the WHO has praised China’s containment of the outbreak and the evidence appears to support this praise with a dramatic decline in new cases. There were only 15 new cases yesterday (March 11) in mainland China. I’m inclined to believe that decisive and massive action makes a big difference.

In business, there has been a mixed response to the outbreak and companies are getting found out. Indeed, there has been an awful lot of talk about “purpose over profit” in business in recent years, and how organisations now need to stand for something more than just money.

Well, now is the perfect test of that rhetoric. Through this pandemic we are watching something else unfold – we are seeing the true colours of employers of all sizes…

Do they really care about people?

Are the values genuine and authentic?

Can they uphold and live their values in a truly human-centred way through a crisis?

Employers are being tested and assessed by their workforces in real-time every day.

The employer response

Actions, based on evidence and data, are ideal to lead the workforce through a crisis, but time-and-time again as I speak to employers and CEO’s, the justification for action has often not been wholly based on data – it’s been based on doing the right thing.

In some areas there are zero cases, but employers have already embraced remote working, for example. People mean everything. The economics of decisions has been cast aside by the very best employers.

They have been proactive in playing their role in society and the community. Because of this, they will prosper in the long-term.

Starbucks China springs to mind. The response on the customer and employee side was exemplary. I’m glad I chose this company as a case study for my book Employee Experience.

Yet again, they have made business decisions through the lens of taking care of their people and upholding their values. This meant store closures and enhanced support (financial and otherwise) for staff alongside extensive and proactive support for people in society. The company made itself part of the solution.

Belinda Wong, Chairwoman and Chief Executive Officer of Starbucks China, summed up her approach to leading people through crisis, saying: “One of the biggest things I learned was how to handle 58,000 people’s emotions, to really empathise and care for them, and also uplift their spirits in a difficult time.

“It changed how I communicate. I bring them along on every step. If they have a question, I answer it personally, no matter who they are.”

In a more purposeful and experience-driven economy, the race is on. Not to protect the numbers, but to show an extraordinary level of care and concern for people. This is what differentiates and defines high performance in 2020 – the financial and human outcomes, as Wong suggests.

“This whole experience is not a lesson of business disruption, but of leadership and humanity,” she said.

“I’m comforted when I look back and see what we did and know what we mean when we say we are a different kind of company.”

Embracing the ‘experience’ of work

Not every company thinks this way. Unfortunately, this is still not normal.

This outbreak is showing the huge experience gaps that have opened-up between companies that have and have not focused on their people as a priority. The economic impact cannot be understated. This crisis will create long-term consequences for companies worldwide, and it will also hit the pockets of people working in less secure roles as contractors, hourly workers, and across the gig economy.

Technology companies have been leading the way in differentiating themselves as employers that stand apart from the rest by proactively offering enhanced benefits to their workforces, including full pay protection for hourly workers whose jobs may not be required as remote working practices come into effect.

Notably, Microsoft and Amazon have been at the forefront with this, while many from other sectors have already done the same in supporting their workforces. Others have done the groundwork in balancing technology and people to drive business growth, and are in very strong positions to quickly adapt their business models.

Wiktor Schmidt, Executive Chairman at Netguru, detailed how his company has moved fully to online/virtual working to handle the COVID-19 situation, whilst closing offices and suspending business travel. Working remotely was already a key part of its existing EX.

Within this, a long-planned ‘Ask Me Anything’ session with the whole company changed to an online format. In the past, he said, the company “would run each AMA partially onsite, gathering all available core managers in one place (with employees)”.

“This time, we had to do it 100 percent online, with each of us sitting at home. And it was the best AMA session we’d ever had. Working remote has always been at the very core of our culture. Because of that, we’re fully prepared to work online,” he said, emphasising that this was the case whether there was a virus out there or not.

Holistic & human-centred actions

For employers, it’s ‘all-hands-on deck’ to deal with this crisis, and the very best people professionals will be getting out and working directly with staff.

Colleagues like Lisa Dillon Zwerdling, Chief Employee Experience Officer/VP of Internal Care Coordination at Visiting Nurse Association Health Group, based in New Jersey. Lisa is currently working on the COVID-19 taskforce for her organisation, which includes educating all clinical staff who will have contact with patients in their homes through mandatory training, taking part in office cleaning, provision of protective and hygiene products to staff, and the operation of a reverse 911 notification system to keep everyone well informed and connected.

The taskforce is also rolling out new ways of working, including home-working and acts as the liaison between local, regional, national, and global bodies.

The need for holistic thinking and human-centred leadership is never greater than at times of crisis. Lisa, as an HEX Practitioner, demonstrates this by focusing on supporting people in a variety of strategic and operational ways. Indeed, at times of crisis, HEX Practitioners will be constantly thinking and acting with people in mind:

  • How can we support people more?

  • How can we co-create solutions and proactive actions with our teams?

  • How can we leverage the resources we have (including technology) to maintain a healthy connection with staff?

  • How do we exemplify our values within and outside of our organisations?

Those companies that have already embraced a greater emphasis on the EX will be reaping the rewards. Their HR professionals may right now resemble something more akin to an ‘Experience Architect’.

Those ahead of the curve will benefit from years of wise investment in technology, co-creation, and creating the conditions for people to experience their unique Truth (purpose, mission, and values) every day. This crisis offers an opportunity to enhance and deepen this connection. For others, it will not be as straightforward. Years of under-investment and a lack of focus on the things that really matter in work will be hitting them hard.

There will be some real learning coming down the line from the crisis.

Experience is everything

Employee Experience remains the number one business and HR trend because everything is part of our experience in work, whether it is a positive or negative one.

Employers may well be making decisions based on the numbers rather than the people, and harming the employment relationship in a profound way, as Robert Pender, HEX Practitioner, suggests.

“As an HEX Practitioner, while it is encouraging to see some companies take steps to support their people, it appears many organisations still don’t have a plan in place and seem to be waiting on governments to dictate what the appropriate responses should be,” he said.

“Whilst there are potentially huge financial ramifications for organisations, and aspects of legislation may help align how the business world responds, waiting passively for directives does not represent the behaviour of a human-focused organisation.”

Taking part on a virtual panel this week, the discussion focused on how HR will be fundamental in business recovery following the outbreak. I reinforced what many of us are thinking.

As usual, this crisis is all about people and experiences. It’s about creating and maintaining connections. It’s about caring for and demonstrating a deep commitment to people.

Interestingly, at times of crisis, we see the best and worst of humanity, and the destructive power of fear and selfishness. With many employees sharing their real-time experiences online, the commentary offers ample evidence that things need to change. In this context, it’s a time where the influence and impact of our companies (and ourselves) as a force for good in the world becomes crystal clear.

There remain critical issues in the way that companies develop themselves and their relationship with people. Related to this, there are significant challenges in the way that companies set themselves up; research I summarised from The Economist pointed this out last year – a lack of alignment, accountability, and human-centricity is getting in the way of healthy experiences in work.

The yet-to-unfold effects on business and human outcomes during the outbreak will be hard for some to bare. Employees may not be having the experience that they want or need, and it is a huge failing on the part of employers if that is the case.

Living purpose, mission, and values during a crisis

In the long-run, businesses that uphold their Truth during a crisis will come out stronger, richer, and healthier as a result.

A caring, decisive, and proactive approach from employers is required. Leading employers may be asking staff to self-isolate as part of the “biggest remote working experiment of all time”, but what they’re really saying is that they care about the health and wellbeing of their workforce. They will be doing whatever is necessary to support their people. This, and actions like it, will be remembered forever.

This is about creating a positive connection for life, not just through a crisis.

This article was originally published on the World Employee Experience Institute website.

Ben WhitterBen WhitterJune 19, 2018


Ben Whitter is known as Mr Employee Experience in business circles, and his role as a global Employee Experience (EX) leader brings him into contact with many companies keen to improve how they accommodate their most important resource – their staff.

He is the CEO and Founder of the World Employee Experience Institute, which partnered the 2018 Employee Experience Awards, and also leads CXM’s Employee Experience Masterclass.

As part of his blog series for Customer Experience Magazine, Ben is touring the headquarters of awards finalists to uncover and highlight what makes them EX pioneers…

The quality of the Employee Experience is fundamental to the client experience.

It is a distinct competitive advantage that provides a massive opportunity in business, and no-one knows this more than the Group CEO of DRP Group, Dale Parmenter.

DRP, a creative agency with 250 employees and a turnover of £27.5 million, is light years ahead of where the company found itself a few years ago. Imagine having 60 percent of your business wiped out almost overnight. Well, that’s exactly what happened to DRP Group following 9/11.

That moment changed everything and the company was on the brink. This was a crisis on a scale that the management team had never faced before. The response was not too dissimilar to any other company in this position – they had to cut costs and find ways to remain in business.

One cost was an employee base that had grown significantly. The proposal that was taken to staff was to scale back employee numbers by nearly half and let people go.

However, at the get together, one employee presented a different idea. They were determined to move ahead and grow the business together. There was clearly a real and deep connection to the company.

This alternative idea was a collective pay cut across the business that would save jobs and ensure the firm weathered this storm. It was a profound moment for the CEO and proved to be a major catalyst that provided the foundation for the multi-award-winning company we see today.

During this crisis, the CEO directly experienced the full power of leading in a human-centred way, and the huge benefits that this unlocks for everyone. Employees became the solution and the business took this to heart. The business made transparency and trust the central pillars of a now award-winning approach that ensures people feel a part of something special every day.

The group, bonded by a renewed sense of togetherness, drew on their collective experiences to create new revenue streams which would bring them back stronger than ever before. Inevitably, with employees now at the centre of the business, morale and business results went through the roof.

It was a very special time at DRP and the CEO determined that they could never go back to the way it was. They absolutely needed to build an employee-centric company to lead, not just for the turnaround, but the future growth of the company.

Fast forward a few years, and I find myself standing in DRP’s reception surrounded by a gazillion industry awards.

The firm recently won Silver in the Learning and Development category of the UK Employee Experience Awards, and it’s easy to see why they have been successful.

What stands out from my visit and several hours talking with Dale is the journey the company went through and how that experience created a successful people-centric organisation.

Experience is woven into everything at DRP, and connecting this is the company’s mantra ‘Anything’s Possible’. This is the way people experience the business every day and through this lens experiences are crafted, created, and delivered for clients.

So much so that just a taste of the Employee Experience and the way this business operates is enough to convert 85 percent of the prospective clients that are invited to tour the company and ask questions directly to employees.

The company is now doing the same within the candidate experience and people who are interested in working for DRP can spend time at the HQ in the Midlands. This type of approach requires a significant level of trust and at DRP it is incredibly high – this may partially explain why there is a 92 percent staff retention rate.

The team is involved in every aspect of the business and this is a genuine example of growth by design. It is conscious, intentional, and aligned to drive business performance.

The sense that the founder sincerely cares about the people within the business is palpable. My high-energy conversation with Dale spilled out of the meeting room and we explored the company in-depth, from values to systems to people. As we walked around the offices and the storage and creation facilities, what became evident was that the CEO was in amongst the detail of the employee and client experience, and I mean details: the history, the background, the changes, the people, the stories, the anecdotes, the developments, and the achievements.

What also became clear was how little HR was involved in this. It may come as a surprise to learn, given the level of employee-centricity, that HR was resisted at every turn. Resisted by the CEO and for a very long-time.

He resisted the need to even form a function around human resources; it just did not sync well with the way they progress the company and community. What’s the point? Aside from compliance, administration, and regulation, why did he need the function? What value did it add?

These are big questions coming from the CEO of a successful company and should serve as a wake-up call to professionals busying themselves with low-value work. But if that is the case, how do they lead EX projects and deliver the work?

Well, that’s simple- as a team and based on an internal client brief. For example, for a senior project, if the CEO is the client then everything within the business is mobilised to deliver it. It is treated like a client engagement, which also serves to sharpen skills, process, and the overall experience, but the high standards delivered on the outside must also be evident on the inside of the business. This, I believe, sets EX organisations apart from the rest.

While others are squabbling over internal agendas and resources, organisations like DRP are delivering based on a strong and accountable mandate from the top. I have talked about the CEO as the ‘Chief Experience Officer’ many times before.

In these scenarios, colleagues from the Board are matched with key talent from marketing, internal communications, and other functions to develop, prototype, and bring into operation experiences that add significant value to client and Employee Experience.

Examples of this include the ‘build your own’ performance review experience, HERO awards, and internally designed and produced apps to connect colleagues.

It also includes the drip-feed on TV displays around the firm highlighting key news, progress, and other key experiences; one such experience is the annual Christmas party for employees and families. Harry Potter took over DRP last year in a themed winter wonderland. This £100,000 experience will live long in the memory and affects not just employees, but also families and clients.

This is a team that is together and they are often found working on charity projects and experiences that impact society at large, which is another theme within EX organisations, as companies seek to become more sustainable and environmentally-friendly.

Investment is strong in career development and in the all-staff meetings to maintain and deepen to connection within the company. All staff can attend a two-day event and experience to take a pause in the year.

One evening is a meeting for the leadership community and deals with themes specific for that audience. The main elements of the overall experience include speed-dating with the board, client panels – where staff can ask candid questions to existing clients – four development workshops, and sessions where every board member can be asked any questions about the business…and then it’s party time!

It’s not all work – EX organisations are never afraid to treat people as adults and have fun, so a key element of the event is a staff party.

There is a lot more I could say about my visit to this company, about the specifics within the Employee Experience, and I may follow-up in the future on this, but I think the point of this story has been well and truly made already.

The role of the CEO and top team in creating progressive and employee/client-centric workplaces is critical because the quality of your Employee Experience is a direct reflection of your CEO and, quite frankly, I believe that ‘Anything’s Possible’ with a people-centric CEO.

To join Ben at the CXM Employee Experience Masterclass, click here.

Ben WhitterBen WhitterMay 14, 2018


Ben Whitter is known as Mr Employee Experience in business circles, and his role as a global Employee Experience (EX) leader brings him into contact with many companies keen to improve how they accommodate their most important resource – their staff.

He is the CEO and Founder of the World Employee Experience Institute, which partnered the 2018 Employee Experience Awards, and also leads CXM’s Employee Experience Masterclass.

As part of an exciting new blog series exclusive to Customer Experience Magazine, Ben is touring the headquarters of awards finalists to uncover and highlight what makes them EX pioneers…


The weekend before I visited the IGNIS HQ in Fulham, the whole team were in New York for a team experience – a great example to begin with when describing the exceptional Employee Experience on offer within this ambitious marketing agency.

On arrival, I was offered a personalised welcome, a Virtual Reality presentation of IGNIS staff members’ award-winning work with clients, and popcorn!

IGNIS is an organisation that shares my own philosophy: experience is everything! This shines a bright light through their entire business strategy – from the way they work with clients to the way they intentionally develop the experience of work for their own staff.

Valuing values

As a growing company, the team recognised that a major factor to enable continued success was to double-down on the core values of the business whilst developing aligned experiences for their new and existing staff. It was this fusion of values and experiences that had a profound impact on the business.

Two measures that matter most to companies are profit and earnings. The EX at IGNIS has been cited as the key factor in a 17 percent rise in gross profit in 2017. The organisation has also won a number of prestigious creative and financial awards. EX has delivered incredible results, no question, but what were these experiences and how did IGNIS deliver what I’m calling ‘Growth by Design’?

The ‘IGN-itiative’ platform was developed to enhance and elevate the experience of work at the firm. The kick-off was the ‘Iglympics’, an unashamed “school sports day meets Bake-Off”, which was further developed to include their Ugandan charity partner, EaC, with the ‘Ign-athon’, a 10k annual fundraising run held alongside other cultural events.

The culmination is their bi-annual trip to Uganda to build a cattle-shed and teach in schools. I also enjoyed hearing about their ‘Virtual Fridays’ concept, which actually takes place on Thursday! This is a global digital meeting for colleagues around the world to share, create, and interact. Another example of this bond-building (and one that actually does take place on a Thursday) is their legendary ‘Thirsty Thursdays’ – a regular get-together of the team to have fun in different ways.

These events are consciously and thoughtfully designed to connect people with purpose, and to unlock the power of this community of colleagues and friends. They bring people together to work and learn together in an environment that cultivates trust and positive behaviours whilst amplifying and ensuring values are genuinely lived and breathed within the business.

Investing in ideas

The organisation also invests in ideas and has demonstrated some great examples of things they are taking a punt on by backing staff to create a new product or something of real value to their client base. This is powerful – not just listening to staff, but backing them with funds to get something off the ground. True EX organisations are not walking blindly into the future; they are constantly evolving, innovating, and co-creating with their staff.

A big buzzword within Employee Experience these days is alignment. This is something that stood out from the visit. IGNIS work very hard to ensure their experiences, on both the client and employee side, are connected and strongly aligned. This is a critical factor in EX approaches.

IGNIS has consciously cultivated a multi-disciplinary approach to work and a flat structure, which proactively stops a silo mentality from emerging. It is this that enables them to continue to operate with an entrepreneurial and creative flair.

Work hard – play hard

Work hard – play hard is mantra that often presents itself within successful teams, and IGNIS is proud to have built a company based on challenging work while having fun at the same time. In the very fabric of the organisation is a can-do attitude, both in the individual and the organisational sense. This is a team that overcomes challenges together and actively designs experiences to strengthen their bonds.

The company actively encourages a deep connection with the world around each person and encourages colleagues to ‘get out more’. The team is clear that seeing, experiencing, and expanding interactions with the world delivers great work and greater people.

Part of the EX is about reflecting and building on experiences, which is a compelling practice in and of itself, but connecting this to business and individual outcomes is often the part that organisations don’t do. Not IGNIS however – they get that the world, the business, and the employee are connected.

To join Ben at the CXM Employee Experience Masterclass, click here.

Ben WhitterBen WhitterApril 30, 2018


Ben Whitter is known as Mr Employee Experience in business circles, and his role as a global Employee Experience (EX) leader brings him into contact with many companies keen to improve how they accommodate their most important resource – their staff.

He is the CEO and Founder of the World Employee Experience Institute, which partnered the 2018 Employee Experience Awards, and also leads CXM’s Employee Experience Masterclass.

As part of an exciting new blog series exclusive to Customer Experience Magazine, Ben is touring the headquarters of awards finalists to uncover and highlight what makes them EX pioneers…


On my tour of companies which have been shortlisted as finalists in the 2018 UK Employee Experience Awards, my second destination was Startle, an innovative firm that “awakens consumer senses” by helping brands deliver unique experiences in their venues with background music and technology.

I had an inkling I would be very impressed from the get-go; the firm, with its 16 employees, enjoys a 100 percent staff retention rate. Startle is in the business of creating memorable consumer experiences, so it stood to reason that if I was to find a memorable employee experience anywhere, this would be it.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Employees taking ownership

Startle has thrown out the tatty old rule book on building a great company and the experience it should provide for employees. They have created their own rules through experience and innovation.

At the centre of this business model are the employees – or as Startle calls them, ‘owners’. Unlike other organisations which claim they want staff to feel like owners while giving them zero ownership, Startle, from the beginning, has operated a share ownership model. This means that the employees have a genuine stake in the business.

Startle is already committed to giving away 10 percent of the company in the next five years to its staff – that 100 percent employee retention figure might make more sense now, but everything else Startle does is equally as impressive. Given the fact that all employees are owners, there is total transparency with information. Every colleague receives a full data set on performance, including the financial side of things.

This is delivered in real-time performance updates and around a solid set of guarantees to their customer base. Everything is shared so that employees and team leaders can act on the data through candid and focused performance conversations.

A rewarding experience

Meanwhile, you won’t find a typical performance management process here – there is none! There are no formal reviews, as contribution is measured by peers.

Reward is determined by peers. Recognition is delivered by peers.

This is conducted through an anonymous and live voting experience. As all the targets are discussed and shared amongst the team, accountability for results is high. There is no hiding, but there is also no lack of support as the team pulls together to solve problems and develop even better experiences for their customers.

How could it be any other way when Startle’s big promise to its customers is the company’s much heralded Relentless Support™ 24/7?

The company is crystal clear on what matters most within the Customer Experience, and this filters through everything within the Employee Experience. Startle stands firm on three performance metrics: response time, satisfaction, and cost/efficiency.

Key objectives are agreed based on the metrics, and alignment is established with each team member. Alignment is key within the Employee Experience; many companies create some good things but fail to connect and align them to what matters most within the business. I get the impression this would never occur at Startle as the entire business model is dependent on it and every employee is invested in it.

These metrics are the point of focus for the only corporate-style meeting the business has. This is a 90-minute meeting every week to cover issues, metrics, and progress. The meeting always starts and ends on time. The rest of the time the company operates in an informal way.

The business has grown by drawing on past experiences, learning lessons fast, strengthening accountability, and harnessing the full potential of the team by creating a happy and fulfilling workplace. If people are not happy, then collectively they fix it, which is a great lesson for any employer.

Awards achievers

Startle is also no stranger to winning awards – it picked up several UK Business Awards in 2017. Operating on employee-first principles, the company has cited its Employee Experience as the reason for its success.

Being a virtual company, the potential for digital communication channels is maximised, but they also get the whole team – which is dispersed around the world – together for special gatherings. For example, the whole team flew into Germany at Christmas for a shared experience. These elements are proving hugely beneficial in ensuring the connection between people at Startle remains strong and that trust in the team and each other is high.

One experience that emphasised team building was the staff kayaking the River Thames over five days – and 500 miles – to raise money for the British Heart Foundation.

As for work/life balance – forget it! I have always thought there was something misleading and sad about that concept. Companies like Startle and other progressive organisations are thinking much more in ‘life/life’ terms. We are much better off when we build around the ‘whole person’. This is evident at Startle, where colleagues have young families, so working flexibly, with real clarity and autonomy, are just a way of life.

If colleagues want to access training and development, and it is aligned to the growth of the company and individual, Startle will be in ‘yes’ mode. Any employee can raise a case for development. One colleague I spoke to did just that and Startle paid for a degree programme as an investment in the business and the individual.

A history of beards…

Startle uses apps to take the pulse of progress and enable employee input into key decisions at all levels. Informal one-on-ones are still available to provide feedback, coaching, and support. Usually occurring every two weeks, these sessions are also listening points to spot any themes or patterns, and to take action to respond to issues.

Every week there is the practice of a 10-minute talk. Employees take turns to talk about anything they wish to share with the team. Recent editions including big picture thinking, staying calm, and even a history of beards! The latter would have been my favourite!

With the backing of the CEO and top team for an employee and customer-centric business model, this is an example of growth by design. This team has purpose, momentum, and energy behind it.

From what I now know about Startle, I suspect that they will not only achieve their collective mission in the time they have set to achieve it, but they will also create a lot memorable experiences in the process, for employees and customers.

To join Ben at the CXM Employee Experience Masterclass, click here.

Ben WhitterBen WhitterApril 23, 2018


Ben Whitter is known as Mr Employee Experience in business circles, and his role as a global Employee Experience (EX) leader brings him into contact with many companies keen to improve how they accommodate their most important resource – their staff.

He is the CEO and Founder of the World Employee Experience Institute, which partnered the 2018 Employee Experience Awards, and also leads CXM’s Employee Experience Masterclass.

As part of an exciting new blog series exclusive to Customer Experience Magazine, Ben is touring the headquarters of awards finalists to uncover and highlight what makes them EX pioneers. For his first blog, Ben paid a visit to the London base of high street fashion stalwarts River Island…

As ‘Mr Employee Experience’, I’m keen to get to know the EX practices of some of the best-known names in UK business today, and so I am undertaking visits to various HQs to get a feel for their methods.

‘Joy’ division

First on my hit-list was clothing giant River Island, which is this year celebrating its 30th anniversary of dressing the nation in the finest of fashion garb. Their mantra is “Spreading the Joy of Fashion”, and their success is evident – to be as stable as they are in today’s challenging retail sector is quite an achievement.

The company has ambitions to become a digital leader and has embarked on a digital transformation programme, investing heavily in the realm of online shopping. They have tripled the number of IT and digital roles and doubled the size of their innovation hub to attract the best talent. Meanwhile, the shifts within Customer Experience at River Island are now being mirrored in Employee Experience.

The company has over 12,500 employees and annual sales of over £930 million. It has reported an employee gender split of around 70:30 female, with 40 percent females in senior management roles, and a gender pay gap of 4.7 percent. In terms of perks, staff enjoy up to 50 percent off clothes, a subsidised on-site gym with various fitness classes, masseuse, restaurant, and celebrations at various points across the year.

River Island was listed among the Sunday Times Best Big Companies to Work For 2018, so it’s clear their EX approach is yielding remarkable results and recognition. A catalyst for this employee-centric focus was a change to the performance review process three years ago.

Fashionable feedback

The company binned the tired old annual performance review model and switched to regular feedback-based conversations to grow, develop, and support highly engaged performances from staff. No more tedious ratings and rankings!

Whilst having a framework, they don’t dictate when or how managers and their teams meet. Strategies such as this led them to consider the holistic ‘experience’ of work across the board. The wheels were set in motion to become an EX organisation, and that journey is continuing and evolving today.

The move to scrap performance reviews instilled a readiness to challenge the status quo and question other practices and long-held beliefs about how work should be. It was therefore no surprise when I learned that River Island is discussing a move to change the name of their HR department to ‘People Experience’. Human Resources is simply no longer a relevant term to describe what the team at River Island does.

The company as a whole has realised that long-gone are the days when the emphasis was on transactions alone. Like many other enlightened firms around the world, River Island is challenging what a HR department does, and how its members think and behave to enable success.

Welcome to the family!

Meanwhile, during my time at River Island HQ, it became clear that the firm is a ‘family’ business. As a privately-owned business, the Lewis family, of which there are three members on the board, including the CEO, Ben Lewis, have built one of the UK’s most successful high street brands.

The notion of family cropped up repeatedly during my conversations with staff. The company will experiment with ideas, hone them, and test them thoroughly before making any changes that affect the River Island family. The concept of family as a way to view and experience the workplace does not work for all organisations, but for some, it is the most effective way to develop and grow.

Keeping Employees App-y

Not for River Island knee-jerk reactions based on the latest fad or gimmick! Every move matters. Yes, there are times where disrupting practices will be necessary, but even then, employees are helping to lead the way. Co-creation internally has emerged as the primary approach to developing new experiences, and methods of doing this include use of the firm’s internal app, RIVA (River Island Virtual Academy. Internally designed and produced, one new feature within the app enables colleagues across to the business to share knowledge and skills with each other on any topic or theme. Developing internal digital capability is a trend within EX-savvy firms – companies are building from within and cementing relationships within their business.

As my visit continued, I was shown ever-more impressive attitudes to EX. A small but significant example was the team organising an ice cream van to visit in the warmer summer months. It’s a simple move, but the positive impact this will have will be dramatic.

Bigger initiatives include River Island investing in programmes that provide targeted support to staff both inside and outside of the workplace. A fine example is workshops designed on a range of wellbeing topics alongside digital content.

Community caring

This year, River Island has been added to the Government’s apprenticeship training provider register. As experts in retail, the company felt it was best placed to develop this programme – including all of its learning modules – in-house. As part of the experience, apprentices will also be able to use their new skills to support one of River Island’s charity partners, The British Red Cross, through placements at the charity’s shops. This is indicative of an EX organisation – creating experiences that relate to the brand’s identity and purpose, whilst also unlocking positive outcomes for the wider community.

Another trend in EX-focussed organisations is the development of a ‘mentoring and coaching’ community. Managers are developing the skills of coaches, which can then be utilised to full effect in performance conversations. River Island has seen an uplift in scores from their employee engagement survey (up to seven percent across several metrics) based on the quality of managers in this regard and the quality of the performance and feedback conversations that have taken place.

PRIDE in their work

Finally, I must applaud the firm on their very own PRIDE (People at River Island Delivering Excellence) Awards! Colleagues can recognise each other at any point for making a difference and delivering excellence within their work. This fantastic scheme has sent a real buzz through the business as they celebrate together.

All-in-all, it’s clear that River Island is at the vanguard of EX, just as it leads the way in high street style each and every season.

To join Ben at the CXM Employee Experience Masterclass, click here.

Ben WhitterBen WhitterApril 4, 2018

How can HR professionals lead through Employee Experience? What difference does it make in practice?

With demand for exceptional employees at an all-time high, especially those with unique skill sets, talent is controlling the market in 2018, not companies. Walk into most progressive human-centred workplaces and you will find an array of eye-watering benefits, perks, and experiences that are designed to attract and retain the best team possible. Why? Because it makes absolute sense to do so and accelerates progress, growth, and business outcomes.

With Employee Experience now being recognised as a competitive advantage, employers are now working hard to clearly differentiate their experience from companies competing for the same talented people. Questioning and challenging the status-quo in a way they haven’t done before, businesses and CEOs have never been as open to new approaches as they are right now. Attracting talent is at the forefront of their mind, and for real success, businesses worldwide are going deeper – much deeper – into the experience of work.

Why? Because Employee Experience is not about simply introducing new high-value benefits programmes and best-in-class technology, it goes before and beyond that.

Before we embark on defining, designing and delivering new experiences, we must understand the core purpose of the business. Behind every experience, our purpose will be seen, heard, and felt every day. It will be aligned, clear, and – increasingly – positioned in a way that connects the employee community to the outside world.

Experiences that have societal impact: they make a difference to the human experience as well as the Employee Experience. When companies do this, and everything lines up in such a way, it is inspiring to see, and even more inspiring to be a part of.

In this sense, every process, procedure, or policy can be viewed as an experience. It is this truth, when acted upon, that sets the great HR functions apart from the good or average ones. They deeply understand that anything they interact with affects the quality of the Employee Experience, and in turn, performance and business outcomes.

The very best spot the connections that every department has on Employee Experience and work to ensure that each touchpoint is taken care of and is considered thoughtfully. Even the most routine and basic policies come into play when Employee Experience as an approach is in full flow.

A compelling example, and a beat that we can all dance to, comes from Spotify, a company leading the music streaming industry with 70 million subscribers, and 140 million active users. Leading the market is one thing, but staying ahead is an entirely different proposition when faced with competitors like Amazon and Apple. To stay out in front, businesses need to consistently innovate, and not just maintain but strengthen the connection with staff, and to do this there is no better way than focusing on the Employee Experience.

I’m sure that every colleague can relate to the bank/public holiday policy, which is usually placed on the corporate intranet, contract, or in the onboarding pack without a second thought. A couple of A4 pages and job done. Nothing ground-breaking here.

Inspired by the work of Swedish Telco 3, Spotify HR, namely Katarina Berg and Alexander Westerdahl, took this very ordinary HR policy and turned it into something that was extraordinarily impactful and celebrated by people and their employees worldwide.

Celebrate your own beat

“Every Spotifier has the opportunity to take the holidays that matter to them. They can choose to work on a day that is a public holiday in the country they work in and swap it for another workday instead. This means they can be off work on a day that fits their observations or beliefs better.”

Promoting inclusion, flexibility, and autonomy, this purposeful ‘experience’ quickly captured the attention of a global audience (resulting in major brand outcomes) and shows what can be achieved when we apply the lens of ‘experience’ to HR work. Not only did this work transcend the business, it brought to life a HR policy that has never really fulfilled its potential before. If you look at the HR function, I imagine there are many other areas where a shift in thinking will help integrate purpose, people, and profit.

It is also worth noting that Spotify acknowledged they had built this new approach on the experience of others, which is why I am so pleased the UK Employee Experience Awards 2018 is in place, so we can rightly learn from, and build on, our collective experiences of work in the UK.

With more organisations embracing Employee Experience, we will really start to see some stunning outcomes across the economy, and celebrate them with our own authentic, and uniquely British, beat!

Ben WhitterBen WhitterMarch 19, 2018


There is one stand-out mistake we see more consistently than any other within employee engagement approaches.

It is a mistake so bad that it completely ruins organisations, plunges them into deep crisis, and ensures a significant lack of ‘buy-in’ into any employee engagement initiative. Yet it is something so easy to avoid we can be forgiven for wondering why companies continue to fall into its trap.

Most often found residing in those old-fashioned top-down approaches to management and engagement, it is the failure to co-create with staff. The idea that engagement and business outcomes can be developed in isolation at the corporate HQ is a losing philosophy.

Typically, colleagues get together, think up some new programmes and engagement initiatives, do some light consultation with stakeholders, present to the board, take feedback from senior directors, and then go to full top-down implementation across the organisation starting with a surprise announcement to the workforce. This practice in 2018 is just awful and is the stuff of nightmares.

Nightmare case in point – step-up United Airlines.

Falling into the trap in the past week, United has learned another valuable lesson in Employee Experience on its journey to fulfill the company’s stated mission: becoming the world’s best airline. This objective, for any company, is an ambitious target, but it is especially ambitious for United, a firm famous for creating a seemingly constant flow of negative news based on some of its practices across both Employee and Customer Experience.

“Our mission is very clear — to be the best employer, have the best customer service and become the best airline in the world,” United CEO Oscar Munoz said in 2017.

Fast-forward to 2018 and United continues to attract negative headlines for the way in which it interacts with customers and employees. It has now widened its scope to include animals too. The airline was slammed recently for the way it treats pets travelling on their planes.

On the Employee Experience side of things, a storm erupted with the announcement that the airline would be replacing the quarterly performance bonus programme, which all employees are eligible for, with a random lottery benefiting the few rather than the many. This company-wide raffle includes prizes ranging from cars to holidays to a jackpot $100,000 prize for the lucky winners. This is separate to the profit-sharing programme already in place with staff.

In our work at the World Employee Experience Institute (WEEI), we encourage and support organisations to define, design, and deliver experiences that connect people to a compelling purpose and the internal and external community, but one of the most important factors within our approach is co-creation, and the example provided by United provides more tangible reasons why it is such a fundamental building block for great organisations.

All of United’s good work improving the workplace came undone because the airline didn’t co-create this specific iteration of their reward programme with employees. This was certainly very top-down – an approach increasingly being resisted in workplaces around the world. United employees took to social media to voice their opposition and the internal communication platforms were jammed with comments from shocked and unhappy employees.

One comment out of hundreds of complaints from employees revealed the progress United had been making to improve morale and stabilize the company, yet also indicated the clear lack of empathy for employees in designing the new lottery system.

“It felt like we had just gotten to a place where employee morale was up. It took so many years for people to feel good about what was happening. In one fell swoop, it is crushed again…please rethink this decision.”

Within a few days, the introduction of a lottery had been ‘paused’. United President, Scott Kirby, gave us more evidence to suggest that co-creation is key within Employee Experience approaches and could have potentially saved United from this challenging situation within and outside of the company.

“Since announcing our planned changes to the quarterly operations incentive program, we have listened carefully to the feedback and concerns you’ve expressed. Our intention was to introduce a better, more exciting program, but we misjudged how these changes would be received by many of you.”

Whilst many are condemning the airline, I sense a great opportunity here. Employee sentiment has showed what is best about any organisation. We are better when we stand together, united. Employees have clearly demonstrated that they would rather walk forward as one to achieve United’s stated mission than the alternative being presented by management.

So perhaps co-creation has taken place after all, albeit in a very public and brand damaging manner. Employees have spoken. Co-creation is the key to successful outcomes within Employee Experience, and if this is a strong part of the business strategy, companies won’t need to play the lottery to deliver sustainable business success.

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Customer Experience Magazine is the online magazine packed full of industry news, blogs, features, reports, case studies, video bites and international stories all focusing on customer experience.



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